The rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) – now grandiosely renamed simply the Islamic State and declared a "caliphate" – raises a series of the most perplexing questions to have emerged in the Middle East in recent decades. At least as extreme as the most radical incarnations of Al Qaeda, this Salafist-jihadist group now controls a swath of territory approximately the size of Belgium across northeastern Syria and western Iraq. In the process, they have gained control of several key oil installations and major cities, including Mosul. Worse, their expansion appears virtually unchecked, and every setback they suffer seems offset by a new advance.
But who, exactly, are they? It's not a question of identifying the individual local and foreign fighters who have been drawn into their midst. The real question that is so pressing, yet few are asking, and even fewer trying to answer, is: who is backing this group? It's true that ISIS has effectively functioned as a well-oiled crime syndicate for many years. But it's hard to imagine that foreign backing – private if not governmental – hasn't been a key factor in their ascendance.
It might be argued that at this stage ISIS has achieved financial independence, given the resources they have commandeered, especially in petroleum. But it doesn't explain how they got to this stage in the first place, and who helped them do that and why. Anyone who believes that backing ISIS was a radical but either necessary or clever idea is bound to rue the day, if they haven't yet.
In Syria, they charged, in effect, to the rescue of the dictator Bashar al-Assad, and are one of the most important factors keeping him in power in those parts of the country he most values. After all, if the choice is between the rule of a monstrous gang of lunatics who smash Sunni mosques and shrines, as well as those of other faiths and denominations and ancient artifacts; chase religious minorities out of the areas under their control; impose the most misogynistic and draconian restrictions against women; and enforce barbaric systems of "justice," on the one hand, versus a vicious but well-understood mafia regime, the latter suddenly looks less intolerable.
In Iraq, anyone who thought using the black banner of ISIS to terrify Shiites and others was a brilliant strategy to get rid of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and reassert Sunni prerogatives in their own areas made a criminal mistake. Maliki will probably go, but given the behavior of ISIS in Mosul and elsewhere, two key illusions must have been shattered: first, that they are simply a front for many other groups who will dispose of them when they have achieved their aims, and second that their presence is an overall benefit for the Sunni cause in Iraq. In fact, they are quite out of control and are a catastrophe, as all the people under their rule are quickly discovering.
The landscape of history is littered with monsters whose creators hoped they would do some small service and go away, but who ultimately proved more dangerous to their authors than anyone else. Who those authors are, precisely, isn't clear. Syria and Iran have clearly benefited from ISIS's rise, but in the long run the group does pose a major threat to them. As for most of the Arab states and the state system, ISIS is a terminal cancer. It is starting to intrude into Lebanon and possibly Jordan. It lurks on the borders of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
As Arab state disintegration and systemic failure continues to metastasize, ISIS and similar groups are a mortal peril. They not only bring death and destruction, mayhem and chaos, and the worst kind of vicious obscurantist rule imaginable, they threaten to replace the existing state system with substate actors that are autonomous criminal gangs ruling over little fiefdoms – the Hezbollah and Hamas model writ large and spreading fast, but in a much more savage and extreme form. The Arab world has entered into a growing phase of terrorist warlordism. It's a calamity hitherto unimaginable.
And, of course, it's a major threat to countries beyond the region, as well. ISIS has attracted countless foreign fighters, fanatical Muslims or converts from around the world, who have gathered in Syria and Iraq only to become even further radicalized, and worse, battle-trained and hardened. They can easily return to their home countries primed for mayhem, even though ISIS shows no interest at present in international terrorism. Instead, they have decided to seize and control territory and create their own de facto state. If anything, that's even more terrifying. And, in time and if they can consolidate their rule in those areas, international terrorism is potentially a logical move for them. Even if it isn't, there's nothing to prevent their protégés from turning to it.
So the deepest question is: why isn't anybody doing anything serious about this mind-boggling peril? At present only Kurdish fighters, with some Iraqi government support, are really taking on ISIS on the ground. They don't appear to be receiving much international or regional support. The Arab states purport to be alarmed, but in practice their response to the creation of the ISIS mini-, petro- and terrorist-state in their midst has been a shrug of the shoulders. If that's unfair, it is at least undeniable they haven't mobilized quickly to take action.
The latest ISIS advance apparently left them in control of Iraq's largest dam, with the ability to flood major cities, potentially including Baghdad. Meanwhile Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities flee for their lives. Tsk, tsk. Ho-hum. Oh well.
The international community appears equally inexplicably sanguine. The latest American response to ISIS is to order American air carriers to fly over 30,000 feet if they're crossing Iraqi airspace. That'll learn 'em! ISIS's successes are completely disproportionate to their size: an estimated 8,000-20,000 fighters in Iraq, as opposed to at least 30,000 other Iraqi Sunni insurgents, not to mention the Iraqi army (such as it is) or Kurdish guerrillas. This is simply not an overwhelming force. It may be driven, fanatical and well-organized, as well as well-funded whether from crime or foreign backers, but if it were confronted by a serious armed response it could certainly be broken.
The biggest question now, therefore, is: why is no one, either regionally or internationally, moving to do that? Is everyone – or anyone, for that matter – content with the growing power of ISIS? Do governments really believe there is nothing to be done? Don't they understand that they could be next, in one way or another? Perhaps even more mysterious than the genesis and support-base of ISIS is the lackadaisical response to it. It's as if no one is really all that bothered by it in practice, no matter what they say. And that might be the scariest thing of all. Will a small but determined and well-organized band of crazed terrorists really be allowed to reshape the Arab world largely unopposed? Because that's exactly what's happening now.