The Historical and Political Roots of ISIS: A Failure of American Leadership

Benjamin R. Pontz, Gettysburg College

Integrative Experience Component of Gettysburg College Course Cluster (IDS 90). Written as a synthesis of POL 103: Intro International Relations and HIST 208: Islamic History 600-1500.


The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has captivated the world’s attention with its brutal tactics of beheadings and burnings and its alternative Quranic teachings. Despite fixation on these tactics by the global community and repudiation of their methodology by global Islamic leaders, limited inquiry into the historical and ideological underpinnings of the group has occurred at an intergovernmental level, which has hamstrung the global response. In addition to analyzing the limited primary sources that constitute ISIS’s propaganda, this paper discusses the failure of state building after the United States’ initial invasion of Iraq, which directly fomented the rise of an insurgent group like ISIS, as well as the initial failure of the global community to understand the nature of the enemy it fought. Finally, it suggests principles for the United States to follow in future foreign engagements, particularly when fighting ideologies as insidious as that of ISIS.