This Week in Geopolitics

A Short History of the Islamic State

February 12, 2018

In June 2014, a man named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, dressed entirely in black, stood at the pulpit in the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in the Iraqi city of Mosul. The mosque he chose was deliberate: It was built in the 12th century by a Turkic ruler famous for fighting Christian crusaders. The name he chose was deliberate: It was a nod to Abu Bakr, the first caliph, or religious and civil leader of the Muslim world. The garb he chose was deliberate: It harkened back to the caliphs of yore and thus to the Prophet Muhammad himself. The words he chose were deliberate: Failure to re-establish the caliphate, he said, was nothing less than apostasy.

And so it was, with reverence and humility, that this shadowy figure, having declared an end to Islam’s humiliation and disgrace, resurrected an Islamic state, known now as the Islamic State. In al-Baghdadi’s own words, the “sun of jihad” had risen again.

The Islamic State can be traced back to a single individual, a Jordanian man known to history as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who became radicalized sometime in the mid-1980s. After a few unsuccessful attempts to wage jihad abroad and a stint in a Jordanian prison, al-Zarqawi hooked up with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. The two men would have a tenuous relationship, even after al-Zarqawi formed al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) to fight the United States in 2004. His tactics became too brutal even for bin Laden.

When al-Zarqawi was killed in 2006, a man named Abu Ayyub al-Masri took his place. AQI was still alive, but only just. Sunni Iraqis who had initially embraced AQI chafed under its brutality. Wise to the growing hostility, al-Masri changed the group’s name twice, first to Majlis Shura al-Mujahidin, a purported Iraqi jihadist coalition, and when that collapsed after a few months, to the Islamic State of Iraq.

The cosmetic changes didn’t work. By September 2006, ISI had so angered the Iraqi Sunni population that 30 Sunni tribes joined forces to defeat them. This was known as the Anbar Awakening, a loose tribal alliance backed by the United States that sought to expel ISI from Iraq.

For the next five years, ISI barely avoided destruction. It lost contact with the core al-Qaida organization. It was weak and isolated.

Taking Advantage of Chaos

Such was the organization Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi inherited when he rose to power in April 2010. His primary goal was for the group to survive. But the troubled political environment of the Middle East enabled him to not only survive but to thrive. The Sunnis were denied a chance to form a governing coalition despite winning more seats than any other party in that year’s parliamentary elections. Iraq was frothing with sectarian violence. Meanwhile, the first demonstration in what would later come to be known as the Arab Spring took place in Tunisia and quickly spread to Iraq and Syria, where an all-out civil war eventually broke out.

Source: Geopolitical Futures

ISI relocated to Syria to take advantage of the chaos, renaming itself the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS. It entered a power struggle (which it would eventually win) with al-Qaida’s Syria franchise, Jabhat al-Nusra. While ISIS was getting settled in Syria, though, it was busy recuperating in Iraq, where it would soon begin to stage new attacks.

ISIS then did something unexpected: It began to hold territory, first in the border area with Syria and then the area around Iraq’s third-largest city, Mosul. ISIS famously took the city in just six days, after which al-Baghdadi declared the establishment of a new caliphate and renamed his group the Islamic State.

After al-Baghdadi declared the formation of the caliphate, his group undertook an offensive it had actually been planning for more than a year. IS fighters in Syria fought their way up the Euphrates River, all the way to the Turkish border, and solidified control over the areas south of Raqqa. This created a highly defensible core territory from which IS would not be easily driven.

In Iraq, IS cemented control over a number of Sunni areas on the border with Syria so that it controlled a large swath of the Syrian-Iraqi border. This allowed IS to move fighters and material back and forth across the border at will. And it conquered additional territory around Mosul to strengthen its position there.

Source: Geopolitical Futures (Click to enlarge)

In other words, the Islamic State was in a great position. By September 2014, IS was in control of a territory roughly the size of Great Britain. Various open-source estimates of Islamic State financial resources ranged between $2 billion and $3 billion. And IS controlled oil fields that could bring in an additional $1 million–$2 million daily.

The Islamic State started to resemble an actual state. It levied taxes, managed social services, hired police forces, and established schools. It held territory not for strategic advantage but for direct administration.

Down but Not Out

But the Islamic State’s fall would prove to be as quick as its rise. Savvy though it may have been, it would not have been able to accomplish what it had were it not for the relative indifference of countries such as the United States, Russia, Turkey, and Iran, which had not considered the group much of a threat. But now that IS held real territory, the Islamic State was a real threat to their interests, and soon these larger powers would conspire, if not outright ally, to bring the group down.

The group is down but not out. It has conceded much of its territory, including its capital of Raqqa. But it has not conceded defeat.

That’s not to say IS intends to abandon the territorial gains it has made in Iraq and Syria. It would not have endeavored to claim them if they were unimportant to its goals. But territory is a luxury, not a necessity. The restoration of the caliphate was, in effect, a restoration of Muslim dignity.

All of this hints at what the Islamic State’s next target may be: Saudi Arabia, the steward of Islam’s holiest sites. The country is religious; women must be accompanied by men in public and must cover their faces, and punishments for crimes are derived from Islamic law. But if you’re a fundamentalist, it’s hard not to question Saudi piety. The royals who govern the country live lives of opulence. They drive expensive cars and host debauched parties, rife with alcohol and attended by prostitutes. The Islamic State looks at Saudi Arabia and sees a bunch of hypocrites.

In this hypocrisy the Islamic State sees opportunity. Saudi Arabia is weak and troubled, but more important are the regional dynamics in play. Now that the Islamic State is in retreat, Iran, the de facto leader of the Shiites, is expanding its influence. Saudi Arabia, the de facto leader of the Sunnis, has framed itself as the dam that will stop the rising tide of Iran. The Islamic State has frequently and effectively used sectarian rivalries to its advantage, and there is no bigger sectarian rivalry in the region than the one between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The Islamic State may be quiet, but there’s no reason to believe it’ll be quiet for long.

Editor’s note: Today’s This Week in Geopolitics is taken from an e-book published by Geopolitical Futures titled “The Rise and Fall of the Islamic State.” The e-book is free for paid subscribers and available for purchase for free subscribers. Please click here to download the report.

George Friedman
George Friedman

Discuss This

We welcome your comments. Please comply with our Community Rules.


There are no comments at this time.

Use of this content, the Mauldin Economics website, and related sites and applications is provided under the Mauldin Economics Terms & Conditions of Use.

Unauthorized Disclosure Prohibited

The information provided in this publication is private, privileged, and confidential information, licensed for your sole individual use as a subscriber. Mauldin Economics reserves all rights to the content of this publication and related materials. Forwarding, copying, disseminating, or distributing this report in whole or in part, including substantial quotation of any portion the publication or any release of specific investment recommendations, is strictly prohibited.
Participation in such activity is grounds for immediate termination of all subscriptions of registered subscribers deemed to be involved at Mauldin Economics’ sole discretion, may violate the copyright laws of the United States, and may subject the violator to legal prosecution. Mauldin Economics reserves the right to monitor the use of this publication without disclosure by any electronic means it deems necessary and may change those means without notice at any time. If you have received this publication and are not the intended subscriber, please contact


The Mauldin Economics website, Thoughts from the Frontline, The Weekly Profit, The 10th Man, Connecting the Dots, Transformational Technology Digest, Over My Shoulder, Yield Shark, Transformational Technology Alert, Rational Bear, Street Freak, ETF 20/20, In the Money, and Mauldin Economics VIP are published by Mauldin Economics, LLC Information contained in such publications is obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but its accuracy cannot be guaranteed. The information contained in such publications is not intended to constitute individual investment advice and is not designed to meet your personal financial situation. The opinions expressed in such publications are those of the publisher and are subject to change without notice. The information in such publications may become outdated and there is no obligation to update any such information. You are advised to discuss with your financial advisers your investment options and whether any investment is suitable for your specific needs prior to making any investments.
John Mauldin, Mauldin Economics, LLC and other entities in which he has an interest, employees, officers, family, and associates may from time to time have positions in the securities or commodities covered in these publications or web site. Corporate policies are in effect that attempt to avoid potential conflicts of interest and resolve conflicts of interest that do arise in a timely fashion.
Mauldin Economics, LLC reserves the right to cancel any subscription at any time, and if it does so it will promptly refund to the subscriber the amount of the subscription payment previously received relating to the remaining subscription period. Cancellation of a subscription may result from any unauthorized use or reproduction or rebroadcast of any Mauldin Economics publication or website, any infringement or misappropriation of Mauldin Economics, LLC’s proprietary rights, or any other reason determined in the sole discretion of Mauldin Economics, LLC.

Affiliate Notice

Mauldin Economics has affiliate agreements in place that may include fee sharing. If you have a website or newsletter and would like to be considered for inclusion in the Mauldin Economics affiliate program, please go to Likewise, from time to time Mauldin Economics may engage in affiliate programs offered by other companies, though corporate policy firmly dictates that such agreements will have no influence on any product or service recommendations, nor alter the pricing that would otherwise be available in absence of such an agreement. As always, it is important that you do your own due diligence before transacting any business with any firm, for any product or service.

© Copyright 2018 Mauldin Economics