Event Summary: The Past, Present and Future of ISIS

Rachel Abrams • December 6, 2016 • Boston, Event Summary

Event summary written by Elizabeth Santiago.

On November 30th, the Civic Series welcomed Professor Peter Krause, an assistant professor of political science at Boston College, to talk about ISIS, an organization that not only uses terrorism but is also embedded in politics. During his presentation, Professor Krause discussed the makeup of ISIS, how it operates, and how different U.S. administrations might respond.


Professor Krause started by explaining difference between four Muslim sects: Muslims, Islamists, Salafis, and Jihadis. Muslims, being the largest group with 1.72 billion identifiers, practice the religion of Islam in their personal life, believing in one god and praying five times each day. Islamists believe their religion should influence personal and political life, affecting secular procedures such as money lending. Salafis believe Islam should be practiced as it was in the 7th century. This group can be compared to the Quakers in the U.S. as they practice the religion in its purest form. Jihadis, the smallest sect, believes violence can be used in an offensive way to spread the religion.

ISIS, or “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” is an unrecognized state and jihadi group that was formerly part of al Qaeda in Iraq, but split in February of 2014 when they declared a (re)founding of the caliphate under its self-declared calif, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It is part of a broader network of Jihadi groups which share the same gods but differ in their priorities. ISIS wants to eliminate infidels, build a genuine state within the territory it controls, and impose Islamic religious law worldwide. It is made up of approximately 30,000 fighters and extends its reach not only through battlefield tactics, but also online magazines and social media. While it’s a common misconception that the poor and uneducated join ISIS, 69% of recruits report at least secondary education completion. ISIS operates similar to a business with its own annual report; funding sources include taxes and fees in the areas under their control.

ISIS creates and thrives on sectarianism. Professor Krause showed a neighborhood map of Baghdad in 2003, illustrating that a majority of neighborhoods were populated by a mix of Sunni and Shi’a, the two denominations of Islam. In 2009, and again in 2015, the maps showed an increase in polarization with a majority of neighborhoods having a Shi’a majority and a decrease in integration. ISIS capitalizes on these divides and taps into religious concepts to recruit members and justify acts of terrorism. There is a logic and rationale behind their activities; for example, destroying a mosque is justified as purifying the religion.

What should the U.S. do? Professor Krause asserted that this is the hardest problem we’ve faced and in order to act we must define a means to an end. Humanitarian intervention is a possible route, but a United Nations sanctioned intervention would not be possible as China and Russia would veto. Counterterrorism is an option but defeating ISIS is costly, and many Americans do not want to see more boots on the ground. Many favor staying out and avoiding a quagmire, especially after previously unsuccessful interventions in Iraq, Libya, and Syria.

About the speaker:

Professor Peter Krause is an assistant professor of political science at Boston College and a Research Affiliate with the MIT Security Studies Program. His research and writing focuses on Middle East politics, political violence, and national movements. He has two forthcoming books: Rebel Power: Why National Movements Compete, Fight, and Win, and a co-edited volume entitled, The Power to Hurt: Coercion in Theory and Practice.


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