Why does anyone support ISIS? In the West, this is a question that intrigues average citizens and political science analysts alike. The reasons why people sympathize with the group or join it are complex, ranging from a sense of religious obligation to financial necessity to a desire for belonging. However, the most important factor in ISIS’ recruitment success is Sunni disenfranchisement.
The immediate origins of Sunni disenfranchisement in Iraq begin with the 2003 Iraq War. Following the American invasion, U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer became chief executive of Iraq’s occupation government, giving him authoritative control over the country. Upon assuming this position, he issued two sweeping decrees, both of which have had damaging long-term consequences for Iraq’s stability.
Bremer’s first decree was the de-Ba’athification of Iraq, which outlawed Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated Ba’ath Party. This decree eventually dismissed between 85,000-100,000 Ba’ath Party members, many of whom were members only because it had been a requirement for public service jobs. The policy was implemented against the advice of many in the CIA and consultants in the U.S. military.
De-Ba’athification destabilized Iraq, sending Ba’athist leaders underground. By removing thousands of trained government officials, state-run institutions crumbled without leadership or employees with technical know-how. One-third of Iraq’s health ministry was removed, much of Iraq’s transportation and electrical sectors were purged, and 40,000 school teachers lost their jobs, all of which made the task of running an occupation government especially difficult. American administrators in post-war Germany faced the same problem of running an understaffed government, which ultimately prompted them to abolish denazification measures.
The effects of this policy hit Sunnis the hardest, as they had dominated the political sphere under Hussein’s brutal regime. By barring thousands of Sunni politicians from government, de-Ba’athification left them underrepresented and alienated from the country’s political process.
Bremer’s second provisional order was even more damaging. In a controversial decision made against the counsel of top CIA officials, Bremer disbanded the Iraqi army and intelligence service. This left approximately 700,000 Iraqi soldiers, police, and intelligence officers without jobs and unable to provide for their families. Like the Ba’ath Party, Saddam’s security forces were also Sunni-dominated. Disbanding these units created a pool of angry, unemployed, and armed Sunnis desperate for work and hostile towards their American occupiers.
The dissolution of the military was an insurgent’s dream. Without any form of income, former soldiers desperate to make ends meet were easily recruited by groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), who promised them a pay cheque and a chance to fight their occupiers.
AQI, which was relatively small when the war began, exploited this enormous recruitment potential to become one of the country’s deadliest insurgent groups. Under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, AQI embraced Takfiri ideology, a heavily sectarian belief that fueled violent attacks against Iraq’s Shiites. The sectarian violence that unfolded in the early years of the U.S. occupation has contributed immensely to Iraq’s current sectarian divisions.
Following several leadership and organizational changes, AQI transformed into ISIS, but the destructive effects of de-Ba’athifcation did not disappear: former Ba’athists comprise the majority of the Islamic State’s command structure.
Yet before the rise of ISIS, Iraq experienced a period of relative stability when the insurgency waned in 2008. This stability was the result of two main policies: the surge of U.S. troops ordered by the administration of George W. Bush and the simultaneous “Sunni Awakening.”
The surge brought American troop levels to a peak of 165,000, which gave them the manpower and presence required to provide necessary security and conduct more effective counterterrorism operations.
In addition, coalition forces formed alliances with Sunni tribal leaders. The resultant “Awakening” denotes a group of roughly 30 Sunni tribes that launched a counterinsurgency campaign against AQI, a previous ally. Repelled by AQI’s violence, Awakening forces were able to nearly eliminate the terrorist group. By 2008, insurgent attacks had dropped by over 80 percent.
Iraq’s relative stability was dramatically shaken by the arrival of ISIS, but the groundwork for another Sunni insurgency had already been laid, not just by the departure of U.S. combat forces by the end of 2011, but by the sectarian policies of Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
Maliki, who developed strong ties in Iran during his exile there in the 1980s, promoted a sectarian agenda to garner support from his Shiite base and eliminate his political opposition. Following a close parliamentary election in 2010, he retained power mostly by virtue of American, Iranian, and Hezbollah’s support.
To consolidate his power, Maliki drew on the de-Ba’athification provisions that remained in Iraq’s constitution to ban political rivals from government and brought up others on shaky terrorism charges. Hundreds of potential candidates, including several prominent Sunni leaders, were barred from government office, which led to riots in Iraq’s Sunni regions. Rather than addressing the grievances voiced by thousands of protesters, Maliki resorted to repressive measures to quell dissent, thereby fueling Sunni alienation from Shiite-led Baghdad. Maliki’s ties to Iran and use of Iranian-backed Shiite militias also angered Sunnis. These militias were accused of extrajudicial killings, sectarian reprisals, and mass rape.
Maliki’s divisive policies and close relationship with Iran tore the stitches out of Iraq’s unhealed sectarian wounds. Years of systemic political disenfranchisement, economic crises, and widespread insecurity caused many Sunnis to lose faith in Baghdad and search for alternative governance. For many, ISIS was that alternative.
Constant fear of sectarian reprisals and feelings of alienation have made many Sunnis tolerant of ISIS’ excesses, out of a longing for order and security. Many analysts and politicians, including current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, see a Sunni “Re-Awakening” as a necessary counter-response to ISIS. Yet a laundry list of outstanding grievances stemming from the Maliki era poses a substantial barrier to such a movement.