The Islamic State: Origins and Future

March 9, 2017

Kamran Bokhari and Jacob L. Shapiro discuss where IS came from, the history and politics of radical Islam, and what happens if IS is defeated in Raqqa.


JS: Hello, my name is Jacob Shapiro, I’m broadcasting today from Avignon, in the south of France. I’m joined by Kamran Bokhari, who I believe is in Washington, D.C. Is that right Kamran?

KB: Yes I am.

JS: I’m joined by Kamran Bokhari who is our senior analyst and who focuses on the Middle East, and we’re going to be talking a little bit about ISIS. Thanks for joining us Kamran.

KB: Pleasure to be here.

JS: So, Kamran, I thought instead of talking about every single battle and every single report that seems to indicate ISIS is imminently falling, we might take a broader look at the subject for our listeners. So, how about we just start with a rather broad question – tell me about how ISIS started. How did ISIS come to be in the middle of Syria and Iraq?

KB: Well if you recall, Jacob, this happened in the wake of regime change, or regime collapse, in Iraq, when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, toppled the Saddam government and has since been unable to form a viable state. And it was not just the lack of a state, but it also brought to the fore forces that were until then very much contained under the autocratic leadership of the Baathist regime.

And so what we had was the disenfranchisement of the Sunnis, the rise of the Shiites and of course the rise of the Kurds, in the form of regional autonomy. ISIS did not exist, in fact, there were hardly any Islamist groups of any shade in Iraq, but in war, especially when you have the sectarian problem in the Middle East where the Sunnis and the Shia are struggling with one another – yes, the Sunni government came down, but it’s not like the Shiites were able to establish their own government.

There was a window of opportunity in which the founders of ISIS, particularly Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who founded what used to be called al-Qaida in Iraq, laid the foundation for ISIS. And as the years rolled on, ISIS continued to gain strength from the conflict that was brewing. It was a complex conflict. There were Shiites fighting Shiites, Shiites fighting Sunnis, Sunnis fighting Kurds and Sunnis fighting the United States. So in that complex warlike scenario, that’s where we find the birth of ISIS.

JS: Yes, well, as usual in the Middle East, everybody is fighting everybody and it’s all complicated. But so there’s a lot there to unpack. So how about we start with this: You mentioned that the original name of ISIS was al-Qaida in Iraq and you also said that ISIS began, or really, its generation point came in 2003 after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. How about we go back a little step further, and can you talk about the relationship between al-Qaida and between ISIS and what the relationship was and how it’s developed?

KB: If we go back to the aftermath of 9/11 and after the United States invaded Afghanistan and destroyed the infrastructure of al-Qaida, disrupted its operations, forcing al-Qaida, the original organization, to disperse and relocate largely in northwestern Pakistan. Al-Qaida had basically very little power projection capability at that point. I’m talking between 2001 and 2003. And at that point in time, it seemed like al-Qaida’s purpose for staging the 9/11 attacks, which was to bait the United States into militarily acting in a very large way in the Middle East, in the heart of the Muslim world, that didn’t succeed.

The United States sent in a small force, largely special operations forces and intelligence operatives and later NATO forces came in, but originally it was Afghan forces on the ground who toppled the Taliban regime. That didn’t produce the kind of effect that al-Qaida was hoping for. But then when the United States invaded Iraq, that was an opportunity. But al-Qaida didn’t have any horses in this race. Al-Qaida could not reach Iraq. But Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who ran his own jihadist training camp in Afghanistan pre-9/11, was able to make his way from Afghanistan between 2001, and by the time the United States invaded Iraq in the spring of 2003, he had set up his shop in the Sunni areas in northern Iraq. And he was able to take advantage of that vacuum that was created with the fall of the Saddam regime and he began an insurgency.

But at that point in time his group used to be called something like Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad and it wasn’t even called al-Qaida. But this individual and this outfit were on the ground, al-Qaida was at a distance. Both needed each other.

Zarqawi’s outfit was not getting the kind of coverage or the kind of support, financially or otherwise, because it was an unknown quantity. Al-Qaida was a brand at the time and therefore it was a marriage of convenience. Bin Laden and Zawahiri and al-Qaida, the original organization, or what was left of it, did not have the ability to act in Iraq. These guys were acting, so they formed an alliance and Zarqawi became the leader of what became the al-Qaida branch in Iraq. And that’s sort of where these guys started to work together.

Operationally, Zarqawi was his own guy, he didn’t have to report on a daily basis, he did what he thought was right and he was essentially following strategic guidance from Bin Laden and the top leadership, to the extent that he cared to do that. But it was an arrangement that worked for a while. But effectively, Zarqawi became more and more powerful and at one point, he didn’t really need to report back. He never rebelled, in his lifetime, he was killed in 2006, and by that time his group was institutionalized to the point where his successors were able to take the group to the next level. And as the years rolled on, until the United States in 2007-2008 were able to get the Sunnis to turn against Zarqawi and his al-Qaida in Iraq, these guys had put down quite a bit of roots inside the country. And therefore, I think that’s where the foundation was laid. Now, everything that’s happened since is sort of building upon this foundation.

JS: Well if I can – I’ll stop you there and I’ll just say, one of the interesting things that you’re saying is that Zarqawi wasn’t in Iraq. But you also said that one of al-Qaida’s original goals was to draw the United States into the Middle East. Another of al-Qaida’s goals was to try and demonstrate to much of the Islamic world, especially the Arab world, that all of these secular dictatorships, or dictatorships that had been propped up by the West, had no legitimacy.

They thought if they could bring the United States in and if they could show the people of the Middle East that their regimes had no legitimacy that there would be some kind of popular revolt. So they didn’t – they weren’t able to bring the United States into the Middle East right away, but the fact that Zarqawi was able to get himself to Iraq and found there a very fertile ground for recruits indicates that perhaps Bin Laden, and al-Qaida in general, had a much better assessment of the level of discontent in that part of the world than anybody else. Would you agree with that characterization?

KB: I would, but I would also say that this wasn’t sort of – this was one of those things that they, al-Qaida, the original organization led by Bin Laden, intended to do, but had it not been for Zarqawi and his efforts and his ability to implant himself in Iraq at a time when the United States was going to war in that country, I don’t think we would’ve come this far.

So there’s a bit of luck if you think from al-Qaida’s point of view. Now obviously, ever since, al-Qaida has taken sort of the backseat, and now ISIS as we know it, or the Islamic State, it’s essentially a different organization. It has its roots in al-Qaida, in many ways it took al-Qaida’s original view and ideas and really operationalized them in a way that al-Qaida could not because of the lack of capability and the fact that Bin Laden and his top associates traded away day-to-day operational control for physical security of the leadership of the movement, they thought if the leadership was killed then al-Qaida would collapse, and therefore, the price was that you allow these groups to operate on their own. Now they didn’t think that al-Qaida in Iraq would become not just an independent organization but one that would eclipse al-Qaida itself.

JS: That’s true, too, but you made another interesting point that I want to take you back to, which is that you mentioned that Zarqawi was the right man in the right place at the right time. That’s an important point because when we’re dealing with geopolitics and especially when we’re dealing with state actors, the role of the individual, generally speaking, is not that important. We put less emphasis on the individual. Maybe with a sub-state actor it has a little bit of difference. But I guess the question I would pose to you then, is, was it really Zarqawi that was that special or was there going to be a Zarqawi anyway? And was the situation going to mushroom into that anyway, or did it really require someone who had that connection to al-Qaida, who had that experience, who had that training, who had that world view, who knew how to operationalize it, who knew how to put it together, to go to Iraq and to take advantage of the situation?

Or would it have been, when the United States went in and when things started going wrong in Iraq, that this kind of movement would’ve sort of organically sprouted up anyway?

KB: I think that this was bound to happen. If it was not Zarqawi it could’ve been someone else, because in reality, Zarqawi the personality could only do so much unless the ground realities allowed for it, and there were enabling factors, the disenfranchisement of the Sunnis, created a lot of leaders.

Back in the day, I’m talking 2003 to 2005-6 I remember that Zarqawi was just one of many militia leaders, one of many factions. At the time, the group had yet to distinguish itself. So there were no shortage of outfits and organizations. I think probably what did make a bit of a difference was the fact that this individual had experience in running training camps, in running an organization going back to the late ’90s and I think that experience came in handy. But it’s not that Zarqawi was so important to all of this.

Now, the insurgency may have taken a different route, but the fact that there is a Shiite-Sunni struggle going on at the time, that didn’t require Zarqawi. That was going on independent of any personality per se. And so I think that the ground was fertile. It required an individual and an outfit that had the experience.

If you fast-forward just a little bit to 2012, and when the Syrian uprising morphed into a full-scale civil war, again it was Zarqawi’s outfit – because of its experience – that was able to take advantage of the vacuum that was created in eastern Syria and was able to take over places like Raqqa and Deir el-Zour and the oil fields. And it became the biggest militia and really eclipsed the rebels who started the war.

So I think there’s something to be said about institutionalization. I’m not a big fan of personalities, I think that there were many others, and the fact that Zarqawi only lived for three years as the leader and we are now in year 14 of this entity, says a lot. I mean, there are a lot of leaders who had come by and taken over the same group and really moved on, so you know, there’s institutionalization and there are ground realities that sustain these type of entities.

JS: I want to talk about the sectarian part of all this and I also want to fast forward to the present day, but before we do that I want to ask you one more question that goes back a little bit and sets the stage, which is that, so we have now identified that there was a fertile ground there for recruitment for Zarqawi and for these other heads of militias to recruit for al-Qaida, to recruit for the general mission and this may be an impossible question for you to answer, but we specialize in impossible questions, so when do you think this moment in the Muslim world started happening? When did the discontent get to such an extent that people were so upset that they would be open to this kind of ideology?

When did it start to move away from secular nationalism or any of the other things that were peoples’ identifying political ideology, particularly Arab nationalism too – when did it go from that to Islam being one of the major things, and this radical version of Islam being something that could be used as a tool to create these organizations?

KB: I think if I had to put my finger on a date, I would say right after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, in which Egypt, Syria and Jordan suffered a major defeat at the hands of Israel. And I think that was sort of the turning point. But having said that, I will also point out that these are not, sort of, on-and-off switches. Things are taking shape in parallel. So a new movement is operating parallel to an older movement and at some point the new movement overtakes the pre-existing movement, in terms of its popular appeal.

I think that the crisis essentially allowed, the devastating defeat of the Arab states really allowed for the Islamists to come out and say, what have the secularists given to this region, to the people of this region, to the Arabs, to the Muslims? And they were able to really craft a narrative, or take an existing narrative to the next level and say, it is because we have left the ideas that made us great in the past. We have abandoned that, that has led us to this kind of lull, and if we were to go back to Islam, then this region can regain its lost glory.

I think that’s the really turning point, but groups, if you were to measure Islamism in the form of groups, I would say that by the mid-’70s, these groups had started to come out, and I think by the end of the 1970s, Islamism had exploded onto the scene.

We had the revolution in Iran, albeit a Shiite Islamist regime took over from the monarchy of the shah, but nonetheless, it had a real impact, a psychological impact on the majority Sunni Islamists. There was also the taking over of the Kaaba in 1979 in November by radical Salafis trying to overthrow the Saudi regime, and then I think that really the incubator that really took Islamism to the next level, was the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan that allowed for different Islamists from different parts of the Arab Muslim world to come together and have a shared experience for a decade and really become battle hardened and not just ideologically advance themselves, but acquire capabilities that make political change a bit more, if you will, realizable.

JS: Would you say that though – I mean, yes, so Afghanistan was that ground where they all met, but I’m struck by the fact that most of the examples you use are Arab. Would you describe radical Islam and this particular strain of jihadism as an Arab phenomenon or a Muslim phenomenon?

KB: I would say it’s an Arab phenomenon. One of the things to note is that Egypt is the cradle of all ideologies that have spread across the Arab Muslim world. Secularism in the Arab world began in Egypt. Islamism, in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, began in Egypt. Jihadism, what later was made transnational by al-Qaida and more recently by ISIS, has its roots in Egypt. So definitely it is – and then of course the Salafism of Saudi Arabia and its input into the making of this broader phenomenon. So yes, there is no doubt that it is an Arab ideology at its core, at its root. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take other shapes, though the Chechens have Islamism in a different direction and have emerged as leaders, for lack of a better term, in the Caucasus region. We have Central Asian jihadists, Southeast Asia has their own jihadists. But really, jihadism and the entire Islamist project is very much Arab at its core.

JS: It also seems to be very Sunni. So you brought up Iran a little earlier, but I guess we could talk about Hezbollah and I guess we could talk about some of these groups, but how do you account for the fact that the majority of these groups are Sunni? Is there something within Sunni Islam or within their particular interpretation of Sunni Islam that leads to this kind of ideology?

Is it really just that the political and geographic circumstances in countries that were Sunni and were Arab were bad enough and were the right mix of things that it really wasn’t anything embedded within Sunni Islam itself? It was just that there was a situation in those countries and Sunni Islam was the religion that they practiced and therefore that was how it got manifested? So how do you – and I know we’re going to talk about sectarianism a little more because it’s so important, especially for the rise of ISIS, particularly in Iraq, but how do you account for the fact that most of these groups when we talk about them are all Sunni?

KB: So I think that the easy way to understand this is simply that Sunnis have always been the majority sect in Islam. And the overwhelming majority. Even today, there aren’t real good, if you will, we don’t have a reliable census that we can say – OK, you know what, this is how many percentage of Shiites and Sunnis per country. But it’s fair to say, I would say, that a good 80 percent of the Arab Muslim world is Sunni.

Therefore, you know, the ideology of jihadism or any other ideology that came before, has always been dominated by the Sunnis. And so it’s demography, it’s sectarian demography, but it’s also geography. If you look at the history of the expansion of Islam, and how over time, it gets factionalized and geography imposes its limits, and creates problems and leads to the rise of new regimes and new ideas, it becomes very clear that it’s not something inherent in Sunni Islam, necessarily.
Yes, there is this crisis of what does it mean to be a Muslim in the here and now in a collective sense. And the Muslim world has not seen, has not really come far beyond the old imperial age, that for the rest of the world, is now a good – you know it’s in its second century, that was 200 years ago that the rest of the world, or the Western world in particular, really left the imperial form of governance for a modern nation-state based on a secular order and a commitment to self-determination and democracy. I think that evolution has not occurred in the Muslim world and therefore there is this crisis. But I don’t think it’s necessarily something in Sunni Islam. If Shiites had been the majority, in a counterfactual reality, I think we’d be facing the same problems.

JS: I think I agree with you, but I’ll play devil’s advocate for a second, which is to say that I think you’re right generally and this is not so much a Muslim issue especially in the Middle East, but it goes beyond the Middle East. But Iran is the Islamic Republic, right? You talked about the Iranian Revolution and Iran is really the center of Shiite Islam in the world. And we could say that there is a much more mature political, or at least a much more mature idea, about what the relationship is supposed to be between politics and between religion in Iran. It’s not necessarily all settled.

There are obviously large disagreements within Iran itself, but we might say that Turkey is another example that is fighting through this right now. It’s not stable, but there’s a much, much more mature sense of what that relationship is between politics and religion. So how do you account for a country like Iran, which went through its own turmoil and it has its own pressure, or a country like Turkey, which is currently doing it right now, how do you account for those countries developing the way they’re developing versus the Arab world, which is essentially cannibalizing itself right now?

KB: So there are a number of factors with it. The first one is that Sunni Islam has been preoccupied for, you know, over a millennia with orthodoxy. Orthodoxy has been its obsession. What are the boundaries of justifiable behavior and thought? That’s what Sunni Islam – and I think that there is a certain logic here, that if you are the majority, you’re not worried about existential issues. You’re worried about the, you know, legitimacy, authenticity in terms of religious ideas. And so I think that is something that the Sunnis have been preoccupied for a very long time.

And, therefore, they were not open to experimentation, for a lack of a better term, or to, you know, what the noted Iranian philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush will call “extra-religious ideas,” in other words moving beyond the religious text and borrowing from other civilizations. Not to say that that did not happen, but I think that by and large, that kind of borrowing or attempt to borrow from other civilizations and advance your social and political discourse, that’s something that the Shiites were much more open to from the very beginning. I mean, for them, it wasn’t the orthodoxy. It was much more about the sect itself.

Being a minority, you know, issues of survival, that force you to innovate and force you to look beyond, if you will, your own belief. And so I think that the Shiites have had a head start in social, political and economic development. And keep in mind, it’s not just Shiites. It’s the idea that, we have to keep in mind that there is Iran. Persian nationalism is also at play here. So it’s the interplay between the Persian ethno-linguistic civilization that flourished for a very long time, predating Islam.

So, I think that when we look at Iran, its Islamism – the Islamic Republic – is a blend of a lot of ideas that are not necessarily Islamic in origin. So I think that’s why you have Iran looking very different and far more healthy than the Arab world.

And jumping over to Turkey, I think Turkey – although a Sunni power – does not come from the orthodox core, i.e. Arab core of Islam. I mean, the Turks came from Central Asia. And they went from Central Asia to Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) and they set up shop over there. And before they did that, I’d like to add, they were in Europe (in Eastern Europe) and they were a European power well before they became a Middle Eastern power. And the Islam that is practiced over in Turkey is very different, or at least was very different. There has been a lot of blending and spillover of Salafism and these jihadi ideas and Islamic ideas, even in Turkey. But by and large, Turkey has had a different trajectory.

And then, of course, secularism. And here I don’t mean just Atatürk – Mustafa Kemal – the founder of the modern Republic. He didn’t come out of nowhere. What he instituted, the Westernization of Turkey, the Europeanization of the Ottoman Empire and the building of the Turkish Republic along European lines, that didn’t happen all of a sudden. It was built on the reforms that Sultan Mahmud II, (the Ottoman Emperor in the early 19th century), something he began and borrowed from Europe.

So, you have very different trajectories here. And, of course, the geography of this region – I mean anybody who controls the Anatolian plateau, and anybody who is headquartered in Persia, is very secure. It’s a strategic location from which you can build civilizations.

The Arab world, if you go back to history, the Arabs really lost power and leadership of Islam, I would say, by the late 800s, mid-800s. They had lost the leadership of Islam because Turkic and Persianate dominions began to emerge and challenge the Arabs for leadership over Islam. And I’m not talking Shiite Islam, I’m talking Sunni Islam.

JS: This is all interesting, and we’re going a little bit over time, but I think it’s worth it because this is an interesting conversation. I’d also just like to point out to our listeners that we didn’t exactly plan this little divergence in the conversation. You can already see one of the reasons we appreciate Kamran, because he’s a veritable encyclopedia for everything that has happened in the Muslim world ever.

But one thing I want to ask you that is based on that, I want to take it a little away from what we were talking about before and then come back to ISIS to finish it of, is that I’m currently in southern France for some meetings, and for some conferences and for some other things, and obviously one of the main issues here and throughout most of Europe is the migration issue.

You have, I wouldn’t say a large number, it’s a large enough number that the European Union is not able to organize itself to bring them in, in absolute terms it’s not a huge number. But there are Muslim immigrants to Europe who are looking to find a place to live and to start a new life. And one of the concerns, especially here, especially in other places in Europe, is that they won’t be able to assimilate, that they’ll want to have their own culture, their own sense of law, and what is right and wrong, and that this presents a major challenge for the nation-states of Europe. Because how do they integrate them in? They don’t want to just turn them away, but they don’t want to lose the basic facts of their national identity.

So you’re talking about especially Sunni Islam and about the concern with orthodoxy and all these other things. I know that for instance in Jewish religion there is a rule in the religious text that is the law of the land is the law. It’s supposed to supersede religious law.

So, I’ve thrown a bunch of different issues at you off the cuff when I bring all those things up, what do you think about the migration crisis in general, and what do the things that we’ve talked about relating to Islam here say about the ability of Muslims who are coming to Europe or who are coming to the United States to assimilate? Do you think that Islam presents a major optical for them, or do you view those Muslims as any other group that has emigrated from one place to another and has to go through certain growing pains but will eventually assimilate?

KB: I think it’s a bit of the latter. But there are concerns, and I do have concerns that there are issues. And it’s not because of Islam. Islam is what you make of it, if we are to borrow from Reza Aslan, the prominent author of the book on Jesus recently, and he now has a show on CNN.

But really, I do think that Islam inherently is not something that prevents assimilation. I mean, we’ve seen this before, and I’ve just talked about how Persians and Turkic peoples and others, Chechens, took Islam in their own direction. I think that that’s very much possible. But the question is, what is the geopolitics that we’re dealing with when we talk about migration from the Middle East, particularly Syria, to Europe?

In places like France, particularly, where there is sort of this if you will pre-existing strong, secular tendency and this desire by French people to have those who come to their country embrace that secularism with the same fervor. I think that’s going to create some problems, and then of course, economic issues. So, there will be a lot of Syrian refugees for whom these issues are not really important. Because for them the first thing is, how do I get my family to safety? How can I escape war, get to a place where we’re not going to be killed, and then of course, we have opportunities of livelihood.

But I think that while they do that, a good chunk of them are still concerned about losing their religion in the process. And when that happens, and then you have this overarching, if you will, dynamic of ISIS and political Islam that these people can’t ignore, then you’re looking at a real recipe for conflict in these countries. And therefore, I think that the European states are justified in their fear.

I don’t buy the idea that this has something to do with religion, but I think that it’s the geopolitical expression of religion that is the problem, and how immigrants are going to be welcomed or not, and how they see secularism. We say that there has to be moderation on the part of those who come from these areas, there has to be Islamist moderation. But I think at the same time that that’s only possible if the European states also have a role to play in this. If they expect that these people will just say, oh you know what, I’m French now, and that’s the way to go, I don’t think that’s going to happen.

So there has to be a bit of give and take on both sides. And that give and take in the current geopolitical climate is really not possible where you’re having terrorist attacks, there’s the ISIS threat that’s not going away, and economies are not doing well, there’s not enough money to go around, and people are worried about losing their jobs to immigrants. And so in this atmosphere I think we’re looking more at conflict rather than the ability to assimilate.

JS: I’m afraid I agree with all of that. But to get us out of here, the question, and I’ll take us back, we started all of this by talking about ISIS, and we sort of wandered around the Islamic world, even stepped our foot a little bit into Europe.

I think one of the points we wanted to make in this podcast was that there’s a lot of talk about the Islamic State is about to collapse. People have been saying the Islamic State is about to collapse for well over a year, a year and a half now. It’s true that the Islamic State is facing a lot of pressure, a lot more pressure than it has previously on a lot of its borders. But I think the issue that you’re really driving at here is that this isn’t about one group, and it isn’t just about a group in a particular state. It’s really about a broader phenomenon, and it’s a game of Whack-a-Mole.

Sure, you might be able to hit the Islamic State and you might even be able to dislodge them out of Raqqa. It’ll take a lot of casualties, but maybe you’ll be able to get rid of the caliphate in that way. But the general ground, the fertile ground that Zarqawi came to after 2001 and was able to build this group into what it is today, I think what you’re saying is that the ground is still fertile. The basic problems that we’re talking about have not been resolved and perhaps have even been exacerbated because there’s even less opportunity than there was before. Is that an accurate characterization of what you think?

KB: Absolutely. I totally agree with you Jacob. I think that what we have to keep in mind is that we’ve been here before. So the predecessor organizations of ISIS, or IS, they were defeated at one point in time. But then they came back. And I’ll give you a very clear example.

In 2008, a large segment of Iraqi Sunnis had turned their guns away from fighting U.S. soldiers to fighting al-Qaida in Iraq, the predecessor to ISIS. And that group had been weakened. It wasn’t completely uprooted, but it had been sufficiently weakened, and we saw respite. If you go back to between 2008 and 2011, the frequency of bombings had dropped, and things were looking better. But this group came out of the woodwork in 2011 when the United States left Iraq and the Shiite-dominated government basically double-crossed the Sunnis.

They did not want to share power with the Sunnis fearing that the Sunnis had decades of experience, and if we let our guard down, it’ll only be a matter of time before this Shiite-dominated republic falls, even before it’s taking root. And so, that allowed for ISIS to come out. And then, on top of that, you had the Syrian civil war emerge and that created far more time and space for ISIS.

And so, I think moving forward, if ISIS at the time, the predecessor of ISIS, which was muck weaker, much smaller, was able to revive itself in very difficult circumstances, I think that now they have far more opportunity to revive themselves, because that war that was confined to Iraq is now expanded. It’s in Yemen, it’s spilling over into Turkey, we see it playing out in Egypt and North Africa, and Syria is a mess.

So, I think that maybe ISIS will be decimated as we know it today. Maybe the remnants of ISIS will form a new group that will eclipse ISIS of today, some other organization. We mustn’t forget that al-Qaida is still there in Syria. And it’s changed a few names, it used to be Jabhat al-Nusra, then Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, and now they have a new coalition in Idlib. There are plenty of forces to take this caliphate project and take it to the next level, because the underlying political problems are still there, Shiite-Sunni conflict is still there, both in Syria and Iraq and the wider region, Iran and Saudi Arabia are at each other’s throats, and there is no viable political-economic model that we’re seeing in the Arab world.

So, this hollowing out of the Arab world that you’ve written about, I mean that is not going away. And I suspect that the problem that we’re dealing with, which we today call ISIS, will be with us, but with a different name in the years to come.

JS: Well, thanks Kamran, and thanks for staying overtime a little bit with us to talk about this issue. I know it’s a complicated one, and it’s a really important one. So, I’m glad we were able to talk about it in some depth.

Once again, I’m Jacob Shapiro, I’m the director of analysis for Geopolitical Futures. I was just talking with Kamran Bokhari, he is a senior analyst at Geopolitical Futures. We’ll be doing another podcast next week. Please feel free to send us feedback on these podcasts by emailing us at, and for analysis on how ISIS is going to develop, and how all the things we have talked about are going to develop over time, you can check out our analysis in Thanks.

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