Having laid claim to a vast portion of Syria and Iraq, the militant Islamist group ISIS (known alternatively as ISIL or DAESH) has eclipsed al Qaeda to become one of the West’s most worrisome enemies. Even now, the sect’s black-clad warriors are holding an entire population at gunpoint, while continuing to expand the borders of its self-described caliphate.
Where did ISIS come from? What do they want? Why do they do what they do? Here are nine of the best books on ISIS so far to answer these questions and more. (And if you’re looking for even further reading, The Washington Post has a great list of books on ISIS as well.)
The Rise of ISIS
Joby Warrick’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS is a novel-like narrative of the ascension of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: the one-time street thug turned co-architect of the Islamic State. Warrick’s focus on the people who have fought for and against ISIS, rather than the intricacies of international politics, makes Black Flags a surprisingly addictive and fast-moving read. Drawing on interviews conducted with key players in the war against ISIS, Black Flags gives readers a fly-on-the-wall perspective hard to find anywhere else.
The director of the Brookings Institution’s Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and a former senior advisor on violent extremism to the U.S. State Department, McCants is one of America’s preeminent experts on militant Islamists and their beliefs. McCants works with leaked emails, interviews, and his own translations of influential religious texts to present a thorough explanation of the Islamic States’ twisted theology and its vision for the world at large. ISIS fighters may die, but as long as the world fails to understand and counter their ideology, there will always be more recruits to replace them.
Fawaz A. Gerges
Readers with an interest in the roots of Middle Eastern violence may already be familiar with Fawaz A. Gerges’s books Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy and The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global, two very well-received books that explored the making of a world-wide phenomenon. Now, in ISIS: A History, Gerges looks at a new kind of jihadism: one intent on immediate and bloody change in its own backyard. Whereas Black Flags puts people like al-Zarqawi in the spotlight and The ISIS Apocalypse looks at the Islamic State’s theology, ISIS: A History analyzes the historical events and cultural upheavals that paved the way for ISIS and its apocalyptic vision for the future.
Abdel Bari Atwan
One of the things that is so often overlooked when we talk about ISIS is its presence in the digital world. The internet has been as important a part of the group’s arsenal as its knives and ubiquitous AK-47s. ISIS operatives create propaganda videos for dissemination on YouTube, recruit new fighters via Twitter, and search for funding in the shadowy corridors of the dark web. Palestinian journalist and new media entrepreneur Abdel Bari Atwan goes in search of the people behind the cameras and on the other side of the computer screens, and comes back with a story few others have bothered to tell.
Islamic State and the Great War for the Middle East
How, and when, did ISIS become a major player in the Middle East? Some point to the chaos of the Arab Spring of 2011. Author Patrick Cockburn disagrees, suggesting instead that the gestation of the movement began years prior in the chaos of the Iraq War. In Age of Jihad, Cockburn looks at the theological conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam, and American involvement in the Middle East as crucial elements in the rise of the Islamic State.
The Middle East we know today was created in the aftermath of World War I. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, victorious Western powers carved the region into pieces with little thought given to its native people. Eugene Rogan’s The Fall of the Ottomans details how and why these decisions made nearly a century ago led to the chaos and instability of the present.
ISIS is a media savvy organization that realized the value of social media long ago. Twitter, Facebook, and other internet communication platforms have been important tools in not only disseminating their message, but also recruiting new followers to their cause. Anna Grelle’s In the Skin of a Jihadist is an account of her undercover investigation of the terrorist group’s online seduction of young girls.
The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam
There are those in the Western world who would lay the blame for Islamist violence on the religion its perpetrators claim to follow: the millions of peaceful muslims around the world would suggest otherwise. Gaining a better understanding of Islam is the best way to understand how twisted ISIS’ version of the religion really is. Scholar Reza Aslan’s No god but God is an approachable history of this influential faith suitable for the casual reader and armchair historian alike.
From al-Qaeda to the Islamic State
Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower, returns to the topic of Islamist violence with The Terror Years: a collection of ten pieces he originally wrote for The New Yorker. Together, these articles present the history of a conflict, its major players, and how we went from fighting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan to ISIS in the Levant.