To many who have witnessed its brutal tactics and religious extremism, the Islamic State, or ISIS, seems uniquely baffling and unusually dangerous. According to its leaders’ own statements, the group wants to eliminate infidels, impose sharia worldwide, and hasten the arrival of the Mahdi. ISIS' foot soldiers have pursued these goals with astonishing cruelty. Yet unlike the original al Qaeda, which showed little interest in controlling territory, ISIS has also sought to build the rudiments of a genuine state in the territory it controls. It has established clear lines of authority, tax and educational systems, and a sophisticated propaganda operation. It may call itself a “caliphate” and reject the current state-based international system, but a territorial state is what its leaders are running. As Jürgen Todenhöfer, a German journalist who visited territory in Iraq and Syria controlled by ISIS, said in 2014, “We have to understand that ISIS is a country now.”
Yet ISIS is hardly the first extremist movement to combine violent tendencies, grandiose ambitions, and territorial control. Its religious dimension notwithstanding, the group is just the latest in a long line of state-building revolutionaries, strikingly similar in many ways to the regimes that emerged during the French, Russian, Chinese, Cuban, Cambodian, and Iranian revolutions. These movements were as hostile to prevailing international norms as ISIS is, and they also used ruthless violence to eliminate or intimidate rivals and demonstrate their power to a wider world.
The earlier episodes are reassuring when contemplating ISIS today. They show that revolutions pose serious dangers only when they involve great powers, since only great powers have proved capable of spreading their revolutionary principles. ISIS will never come close to being a great power, and although it has attracted some sympathizers abroad, just as earlier revolutions did, its ideology is too parochial and its power too limited to spark similar takeovers outside Iraq and Syria.
History also teaches that outside efforts to topple a revolutionary state often backfire, by strengthening hard-liners and providing
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