After the prolonged débâcle following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, events in the Middle East in late 2010 and early 2011 seemed to be taking a turn for the better. The ‘Arab street’ had found its voice and democracy, we were led to believe, was on the march. Despite the setbacks that followed 9/11, perhaps Francis Fukuyama’s optimistic liberal triumphalism concerning the ‘end of history’ had been right all along?
By 2013 the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Da’esh) had put the final nail in the coffin of liberal triumphalism and stunned the world with its military successes. From relative obscurity, it had taken over leadership of the global jihadist movement from Al Qaeda, as well as controlling large tracts of territory in Iraq and Syria, an area roughly the size of the United Kingdom. All of this it had achieved with an army estimated to number no more than 30,000 combatants. What explains the emergence of ISIS, and how has it managed to position itself so effectively at the forefront of the global jihadist movement?