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Coming Soon: 5 Ways to Understand ISIS

Despite all the coverage of the crisis with the Islamic State, the organization is still poorly understood.
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Despite all the coverage of the crisis with the Islamic State, the organization is still poorly understood. Here, five studies on international relations help illuminate why, for instance, independent funding can allow the Islamic State to be brutal to the locals they live with.

Jordan Olmstead's Pacific Standard story will be made available to subscribers—in print or digital formats—soon, and will be posted online in full on Monday, December 29. Until then, an excerpt:

One of the many surprising things about the dramatic rise of the Islamic State, the terrorist organization formerly known as ISIS, is how completely it took the world by surprise. After a decade of watching Islamist insurgencies run amok in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere, you would think we’d have had some idea of what was brewing. And yet even the president admits that the U.S. defense and intelligence establishment “underestimated” the threat posed by the group until it started to seize large swaths of Syria and Iraq.

Even today, despite the media floodlight and intense scrutiny by governments around the world, the organization is still poorly understood, and efforts to combat it have met with mixed results. The group has shocked the world with its proclivity for beheadings, massacres, forced marriages, and rape. And it has confounded the world by, at the same time, providing the communities it governs with a variety of public goods and services, including water, electricity, fuel, consumer-protection bureaus, courts, and welfare benefits for widows and the poor.

The Islamic State does, to an extent, represent a new kind of animal. But it also shares attributes with many organizations that have preceded it. In fact, there’s a body of empirical research on terror groups, insurgencies, and civil wars that can help us understand what the world is up against in the Islamic State, and the challenges the international community will likely face in its effort to “degrade and destroy” the organization.

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