Jozef Kosc – Charting Evil: The Legal-Institutional Roots of the Rise of ISIS (2003 – 2012)

Note: This post is based on a lecture that was given as part of OxERN’s Hilary Term Seminar Series on Tuesday, February 16th at 2pm at the Oxford Internet Institute. To watch the Video of the talk see here.

The world has stood in shock at horrors perpetrated by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in its quest to establish a Sunni caliphate. While journalists report the onset of “ethnic cleansing on a historic scale,” and government analysts scramble to understand its geopolitical implications, social scientists have largely failed to adequately tackle the subject. This, despite our wealth of historical knowledge about the Middle East, and established theories on the origins and patterns of sectarian violence in post-transition regimes.
While no single existing theory can hope to explain the sudden emergence of the ISIS threat, the phenomenon is unlikely a basket case without analytical comparisons. My research therefore seeks to ask: what can existing social science models reveal about the rise of ISIS? And in turn, what can the rise of ISIS tell us about the accuracy of existing theories?



Source: The Guardian, Oct. 13, 2014.

We know that from the establishment of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) government in April 2003 until the formation of the nascent Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in October 2006, rising sectarian violence provided a perfect teething ground for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The foreign-directed insurgency group grew rapidly from a small cell of radicalized militiamen, into a broad coalition of six Sunni Anbar tribes, ex-Ba’athist militiamen and anti-government officials. We also know that, between the start of the US-led “surge” campaign in January 2007, and the July 2012 reclamation of recently-liberated territories by a new wave of militias, ISI gained popular legitimacy and geopolitical prominence.
We can therefore specify our broad questions about the rise of ISIS, and distinguish between two separate time periods. Firstly, how and why did sectarian conflict emerge in the post-transition environment (between 2003 and 2006)? And how did sectarian conflict fuel the rise of AQI and its transformation into ISI? Secondly, between 2007 and 2012, how did ISI (and later ISIS) establish itself as a quasi-legitimate entity with the trappings of a parallel state? How did the group achieve these goals, despite the temporary successes of the US and Iraqi Security Forces counter-insurgency?

From al-Qaeda to ISI (2003 – 2006)
Traditional explanations of post-regime change violence focus on the role of disagreement and power struggles (either at the elite or public level) over new institutional designs. Other explanations point to correlations between perceptions of state weakness and political opportunity structures for violent extremist groups.1 Yet what if opportunities for conflict existed within weakly designed institutions themselves? Perhaps the budding Iraqi state had within its very constitutional fabric the seeds of its own destruction.
In my upcoming seminar discussion, I propose a comparison between the “most different” cases of the 1989 Ta’if Accord and the 2005 US-imposed Iraqi Constitution. The externally-imposed Ta’if Accord famously divided the “spoils of public office, privileges and resources”2 in an attempt to enforce peace between various confessional factions, yet in the process of institutionalizing cleavages, inadvertently created chaos and intra-governmental competition.


Through historical process tracing and textual analysis, I will suggest a similar story for Iraq. The hastily-produced 2003 Transitional Administrative Law for Iraq, as well as the permanent constitution, cultivated an environment of strong regionalism intended to counter the threat of a Ba’athist federal resurgence. Yet in doing so, the documents gave legal credence to centuries-old Sunni and Shiite divisions, and fueled the propaganda efforts of AQI among Sunni populations.

The Growth of ISI (2007 – 2012)
In discussing this time period, I will again veer from conventional explanations and dig into social scientific theories. Philippe Le Billon offers a theory of natural resource type and allocation, and their impact on trajectories in civil conflict.3 I will use this analytical framework to trace the movement of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) from the resource-rich al-Anbar province, into Salahuddin and Diyala provinces, in an effort to encircle Baghdad through the piecemeal takeover of regions. I will suggest that access to wealth through a “war economy” of looting oil and gas reserves gave militants the ability to offer protection and provide basic services.


By the time US Forces had pushed back militants from al-Anbar province, ISI had institutionalized itself in the northern and eastern peripheral territories, filling a legitimacy gap left by an increasingly inward-looking state. Militants had only to wait for coalition troops to depart before re-appearing from new enclaves.

Jozef A. Kosc has participated in briefings on the Allied withdrawal from Afghanistan at NATO HQ, and contributed to the 2015 UK National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) on policies of engaging the ISIS threat. He is reading the MSc in Global Governance & Diplomacy at the Oxford Department of International Development.

[1] Kristian Skrede Gleditsch and Andrea Ruggeri, “Political opportunity structures, democracy, and civil war,” Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 47, No. 3, Special Issue on State Capacity and Civil War (May 2010): 300 – 303.
[2] Reinoud Leenders, Spoils of Truce: Corruption and State-building in Postwar Lebanon (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012). p. 140.
[3] Le Billon, “Fueling War: Natural Resources and Armed conflicts,” 38 – 39.