Hassan Presents on Iraqi State Failure and Root Causes of ISIS

News | December 11, 2020

On November 13, EWI's Vice President of the Middle East and North Africa Program, and Director Brussels Office, Kawa Hassan, gave an online guest lecture to the Theory and Politics of Terrorism class at George Mason University entitled "Iraq: Root Causes of State Failure & ISIS Terrorism." 

Read Hassan's remarks from the lecture, below.

Today, I will talk about the root causes that produced ISIS and other terrorist organizations in post-2003 Iraq and the outlook ahead.

I would like to begin my lecture with a very basic but nonetheless crucial question: how could a brutal, apocalyptical menace like ISIS succeed in occupying large swaths of Syria and Iraq during its heyday (from 2014 to 2017), impose its will on millions of people and make sextual slavery the norm in the twenty-first century?

The answer or answers are not as straightforward and simple as the question itself. Too many structural reasons—internal and external—could be identified for the rise and surge of ISIS:

  • On a macro-political level, the post-colonial state in Iraq—and as a matter of fact, in Syria and other countries in the Middle East—dismally failed to produce a polity that is inclusive and respects basic human rights. The barbarism of ISIS leader and henchman, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, does not originate within a vacuum: it builds on and is the logical conclusion of decades of unimaginable brutality and human rights violations committed by Saddam Hussein, Hafez and Bashar al-Assad, Gaddafi and other dictators. ISIS is an authoritarian byproduct—a consequence, not a cause of the current catastrophe in the Middle East. The violent political culture in these states and prisons were, and still are, top universities for the graduation of the leaders and the rank and file of ISIS and other extremist groups. The only difference between ISIS and dictators is that ISIS meticulously documents and broadcasts its barbarism with pride;
  • Sectarian, political and economic exclusion and marginalization of Sunnis by the post-Saddam political order;
  • Systemic corruption of the post-Saddam ruling kleptocracy and the subsequent lack of good governance, rule of law, transparency and accountability;
  • Intolerant and exclusivist educational curriculum pre- and post-2003;
  • Political and military miscalculations and overreach by the U.S in the early years of the occupation; and
  • Geopolitical jockeying by regional and international powers for influence that exploited the political vacuum and state failure after 2003.

With massive military, political and financial support from the global coalition against ISIS, the Iraqis managed to liberate Mosul and other areas previously occupied by ISIS. Militarily, ISIS has been significantly weakened, but not completely defeated. ISIS ideology is still very much alive and kicking.

The reconstruction of ISIS liberated areas and return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) pose daunting challenges. Recently, the Iraqi Ministry of Migration and Displacement announced that all IDP camps will be closed and their residents relocated by the beginning of 2021. Aid agencies warn that hasty closure of the camps will render 100,000 people homeless. 400,000 “ISIS families” face the danger of exclusion from reintegration efforts, and hence, stigmatization for the rest of their life. To date, there are no serious indications how Iraqi authorities will deal with 50,000 undocumented “ISIS children.” Lack of strategic, long-term and coordinated reconstruction planning hampers the return and reintegration of IDPs. All in all, these problems, in particular, the lack of policy for dealing with “ISIS families and children,” create a ticking time bomb scenario for Iraq and the international community.      

The hard-won “post-ISIS” stability and reconstruction opportunities in Iraq have been systematically undermined by the ubiquitous and endemic corruption of the post-2003 ruling elites. Iraq’s real problem is not ISIS, nor is it the Iran-U.S. regional rivalry and proxy conflict. Iraq’s key challenge is internal—the politically sanctioned corruption of the post-2003 ruling elites has whittled away the state from within to the extent that it is poised to crumble. The October Uprising of 2019 shook the system to its core. The youth-led protest movement has shown resilience in the face of brute violence by government and paramilitaries, but it also faces daunting internal and external challenges to change the system.