In This Review

The Islamic State: A Brief Introduction
The Islamic State: A Brief Introduction
By Charles R. Lister
Brookings Institution Press, 2015, 110 pp.
The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution
The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution
By Patrick Cockburn
Verso, 2015, 192 pp.

Both Lister and Cockburn agree that the Islamic State, or ISIS, is a powerful, agile, and innovative organization. Neither author foresees its collapse anytime soon, or even in the medium term. Lister mines ISIS’ social media and secondary sources, whereas Cockburn relies on his own firsthand reporting as a correspondent for the Financial Times and The Independent. Lister’s treatment is more satisfying, since he furnishes more empirical evidence, whereas Cockburn engages more in assessment and interpretation. But both books should be taken seriously.

Lister reports that by early 2015, ISIS might have had 30,000 armed members, of whom 15,000 were “foreign”—meaning not Iraqi or Syrian. The group probably has about $2 billion in assets and enjoys an annual income of $200 million to $300 million. Its membership includes around a thousand former officers in Saddam Hussein’s armed forces, some of whom occupy key command positions. ISIS is clearly tightly structured, although neither author tells readers anything about ISIS’ decision-making process. Cockburn asserts that the United States has yet to take on what should be the real targets of its war on ISIS and jihadists more generally: Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. He accuses both countries of providing financial and logistical support to ISIS and other extremist groups, including ISIS’ rival in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra. Since maintaining good relations with the Pakistanis and the Saudis is critical to U.S. strategic interests, Cockburn argues, Washington does not want to confront them over their support for such groups, even though the growing strength of extremist forms of Sunni Islam “is one of the most dangerous developments of our era.” 

Both books suggest that the divisions among al Qaeda, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other violent Islamist groups are rooted not in doctrinal differences but in more prosaic struggles over turf and influence. It is a delusion to think that one group is more dangerous than any of the others. And widespread fear among Sunni Muslims of Shiite dominance (and thus Iranian influence) in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen guarantees that Sunnis of all stripes will tolerate ISIS as the lesser of two evils. What ordinary people and even governments know about jihadist organizations is pitifully small; it takes a jihadist to really get close to the animal. But these two overviews suggest that ISIS, with its claim to have reestablished the caliphate, must expand its control of territory and increase the size of its ranks, or it risks withering away or imploding.