The militant group ISIS, also known as Islamic State, controls vast swathes of Iraq and Syria, an area which it has declared as a new caliphate. After a series of beheadings of American and British hostages, western powers have stepped up their bombing campaign against the group. On Tuesday 23 September, the US struck ISIS bases in Syria for the first time. Here, extremism expert Peter Neumann explains the origins of the group, its ideology, and whether US military strategy will be effective.

How did ISIS originate?

The group came into existence in early 2013 but it had predecessors. It started about the time of the invasion of Iraq, when Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi – a prominent jihadist – was setting up a group in Iraq. That turned into Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which then, via various mutations, called itself the Islamic State of Iraq. That group was almost defeated by 2010. But then the Syria conflict started, and a lot of the fighters associated with Islamic State went over the border into Syria. That became ISIS, or the Islamic State, as they call themselves now. The group only technically came into existence last year, but they basically started in the early 2000s in Iraq.

What are ISIS’s aims?

It wants to establish the state and expand its territory as much as it can. Al-Zarqawi was Jordanian and didn’t care much about Iraq. But Iraq was where the confrontation with America was taking place so he saw the potential for support. His aim was to capture Iraq, capture neighbouring countries, capture Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and through that pincer movement, in the end capture Jerusalem and destroy Israel. His long-term ambition was a caliphate that was spread across the core areas of the Middle East and would include Jerusalem.

The group has split from Al-Qaeda. Is it ideologically different?

The ideology is the same – the jihadi ideology, which includes the idea of establishing a caliphate, and of implementing a programme of governance that is very puritanical in the sense that it says, let’s go back to what we believe Islam was like at the time of the Prophet Muhammad. A lot of their prescriptions for how society should be run are basically taken from how society was run in the 7th century. It literally is a medieval ideology. The difference is that Al-Qaeda has recently been much more pragmatic and flexible in implementing this ideology, whereas ISIS has not. To give you a couple of examples, Jabhat Al-Nusra, which is now the official Al-Qaeda wing in Syria, will not do beheadings – not because they disapprove ideologically, but because they think they are going to be badly received. In terms of the war that ISIS has been waging against Shi’ites, Al-Qaeda technically agrees that Shi’ites are claiming to be Muslims but in reality they are heretics. But, Al-Qaeda has said, quite pragmatically, that for now we shouldn’t seek to have this kind of civil war within the Islamic world: it’s not fruitful. The ideology is the same but Al-Qaeda taken into account how these actions would be received by external audiences, including their own supporters, and ISIS doesn’t care.

Hasn’t ISIS has been quite pragmatic in terms of building its proto-state?

That’s a strategic difference. Al-Qaeda is very much focused on overthrowing governments and confronting the west. That is their recipe: that’s what 9/11 was about, that’s what their local insurgencies are about. They wanted to overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Whereas ISIS said, we don’t care so much about Assad – our priority is to establish a state. Even if that state is very small, it is a good base from which we can capture more. That ultimately has been the reason for their success so far, because if you hold territory you can implement your programme of government, recruit people into a more conventional army, seize military equipment and money, and generate taxes.

You said Al-Qaeda is focused on confronting the west. Is ISIS more concerned with its regional aims?

A result of this more state-building focused strategy is that you are dealing with your direct enemies on the territory which you’re fighting. And so because there haven’t been American forces in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has been more preoccupied with its direct enemies; the Kurds, the Iraqi government, the Syrian government, and other Sunni rebels like the Free Syrian Army. ISIS still hates America but it just wasn’t very relevant up until this point.

We are now getting back to a more classical confrontation as America gets more deeply involved and becomes the enemy again. To some extent, even ISIS is aching for that fight because confronting the west is popular with some people in the Muslim world. The Sunni-Shia confrontation is important in Iraq and Syria, but in a lot of the countries where foreign fighters come from, it’s not. Tunisia is one of the main providers of foreign fighters to ISIS, but there are hardly any Shi’ites there, so confrontation with the west is a more powerful recruitment tool.

How effective do you think the western campaigns will be?

The approach, in principle, is the right one. Let’s take partners like the Kurds, the Iraqi government, and maybe the Turks. Let’s work with them; arm them, train them, support them from the air and provide them with the intelligence they need.

To some extent that’s already been successful in containing ISIS. Since America started bombing in that particular region, ISIS haven’t taken a lot more territory. In fact the Kurds, who were losing to ISIS six weeks ago, are now winning battles, because they are supported in the air. That is certainly very good but it also has limitations. The idea that you can retake the entire territory, I think, is not likely. The Kurds are never going to take territories that are 100 per cent Sunni because they are unpopular there. The military strategy as it is being implemented now is not necessarily going to be the key to “destroying” ISIS as President Obama said. Clearly, what he has proposed so far is simply going to contain ISIS.

In order for ISIS to be destroyed, the people and territories that it holds must get so fed up that they rise up and withdraw their tacit support. Certainly in places like Raqqa in Syria, there is no indication that people are fed up with ISIS, although there are some indications on the Iraqi side that people are not happy.

What will cause that to happen?

Wherever extreme jihadi factions have held territory in the past, typically they are quite popular at first because they ride a sectarian wave like ISIS, or bring a very harsh form of security and stability like in Somalia. People are happy about that. And we shouldn’t be under any illusion that some of these executions are actually quite popular with some of the local population because they often hit people that in their eyes deserve it – it’s rough justice. What is unpopular in the long term is implementing their social programme. ISIS are telling people not to smoke, not to listen to music, not to watch films, not to play soccer – because that didn’t exist at the time of the Prophet Muhammad. Once jihadists start implementing these very harsh social norms, people get very upset, and that is their downfall. That takes time and we need to be patient. If and once that happens, the west and other countries need to support that. In the long-term, that will be the key to defeating ISIS. If you think that by a military intervention you can quickly fix this, there’s a danger you’re going to overdo it and produce exactly the kind of confrontation between the west and Islam that is motivating a lot of people to support ISIS.

How useful is the term “Islamism”? It covers a huge range of groups.

Islamists are people who want the state to be governed by rules based on the scripture. They can come in many different forms. Being an Islamist doesn’t mean you’re in favour of violence: there is a distinction between Islamists and jihadists. There are two things that distinguish jihadists from other Islamists. The first is the emphasis on jihad as armed force. Most Islamists and most Muslims would say that jihad can mean many different things. It literally translates as struggle, and it can be a struggle within yourself, a struggle to reform society from within, to create social movement. Jihadists say it means one thing, and that is fighting, which is an obligation for every able-bodied Muslim male. The second is a very extreme Salafist Wahhabi social programme. It’s not only about the fighting required to establish it, it is also about the very particular form of governance they want to implement, which goes back to the 7th century.

That makes them very different from Muslim Brotherhood types, who are also Islamists, and who are sometimes violent but not always. The Muslim Brotherhood says that if the conditions allow us to participate in elections, let’s take the opportunity, because it doesn’t matter how we transform society, we are just choosing the best given option. They say maybe in some circumstances violence is an option, but in most circumstances it’s not necessary. The jihadists would reject that. For them any form of democracy, man-made law, is completely against what they believe. And Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood are much more pragmatic in implementing rules. They don’t necessarily want to go back to the 7th century. They are happy with protecting the rights of minorities as long as the rules for society are Islamic. If you’re a Christian, you still have to obey Islamic rules but they’re not going to force you to convert or kill you. So they are really quite different from jihadists, even though they are all Islamists in the sense that they want the state to be governed by scriptural rules.