The Islamic State’s Origins in Iraq

The United States’ and Britain’s bipolar policies in Iraq directly contributed to the rise of the Islamic State.


| November 2015


Based on extensive field research and exclusive interviews with IS insiders, Islamic State (The University of California Press, 2015) by Abdel Bari Atwan outlines the group's leadership structure, as well as its strategies, tactics, and diverse methods of recruitment. Atwan explores the roots of the Islamic State with Western destabilization efforts in the Middle East and the Islamic State’s ideological foundation in Wahhabism – an ideology shared by Western-backed Saudi Arabia. Atwan demonstrates that shadowy figures within the Saudi government such as former head of General Intelligence Prince Bandar bin Sultan proved to be one of the greatest sources of early financing for the Islamic State.

The following excerpt from Chapter 2, “The Origins – Part One: Iraq,” focuses on the United States Government’s longtime support and then betrayal of Saddam Hussein, leading to the power vacuum that helped set the stage for the rise of the Islamic State.

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In April 2003, the newspaper I was editing, al-Quds al-Arabi, received a fax from Saddam Hussein, who was then in hiding. The United States believed that the Second Gulf War was over. Saddam knew that the real war would be one of insurgency, and that it was about to begin. He urged the Iraqi people to rise up against the American occupiers. But something else struck me as very significant at the time—this faxed message (and others we received until the beginning of June) was full of Qur’anic quotations and references, as well as jihadist rhetoric. Saddam’s intuition had told him that political, radical Islam would provide the cohesion necessary for the insurgency to be effective.

At this moment the seed that would eventually produce Islamic State was planted. Its germination, however, had begun years before.