The Origins of ISIS under Political Opportunity Structures


ISLAMIC STATE OF IRAQ and Syria (ISIS) did not emerge overnight like many other movements around the world. The group’s political claims, structure, sectarian motives and ideology knitted together to form the extremist group we know. To better understand ISIS’s origins and formation, Social Movement Theory (SMT) and one of its components, political opportunity structures, opens the door to comprehend the development of ISIS. In light of SMT, the dominant framework that has emerged incorporates multiple dimensions of collective action, including responses to structural strains, mobilizing structures and resources, responses to opportunities and constraints and framing processes (McAdam, McCarthy, & Zald, 1996). The emergence of ISIS will be examined through political opportunity theory rather than via all the SMT as a whole. Though there are some niches to be found within SMT, political opportunity structure will strongly conceptualize the relationship of the organization (ISIS) and political context within the organization’s motives and goals. The political background of Iraq and Syria regimes and their policies have allowed ISIS to earn legitimacy and provided a sense of collective action through their violence and exclusivist activities. On the other hand, when deeply scrutinized, is the question is whether SMT through the approach of POT (Political Opportunity Theory) can be used to justify and explain the religious and ideological features of ISIS. To conceptualize this theory, the implementation of the current Iraqi and Syrian regimes strengthened ISIS’s hand by using Shi’a hatred, the notion of a caliphate and jihad strategy.

This essay will focus on ISIS’s proliferation in Iraq and Syria on the basis of sectarian elements, which will be examined under the SMT component political opportunity structure. Although SMT broadly explains the movement’s roots, in the case of ISIS, the development of the movement is further investigated within the context of sects, regime policies, and religious motives. Case material in this essay emphasizes the political opportunity factor and conceptualizes the emergence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria under the sectarian clashes. The use of POT will endeavor to bring comprehensibility to Iraq and Syria’s sectarian complexities and emphasize that, without denying the role of ideology and religion, political opportunity is the first and foremost triggering point to proliferating the movement’s roots into ISIS.

Throughout history, othering rhetoric has expanded beyond theology to become a decisive part of political and sectarian reality, spreading hatred at the societal level and producing potential new recruits for jihadi groups (Ghabadzeh & Akbarzadeh, 2015). Thus, ISIS’s emergence cannot be considered to be apart from the region’s regimes and their power policies. Within this conceptualization, the essay will focus on the political and sectarian roots of ISIS, and bring different points of view in relation to SMT and the political opportunity component in the frame of the regime’s particularistic, accusative and power-based actions against their citizens.

Origins of ISIS in Iraq

ISIS’s emergence was not just an Islamist rebellion, reformist movement, or a reaction to western policies. It had its own political justifications based on the group’s claim that their first aim was to have a state under Sharia Law with Sunni/Salafi elements. While by no means new – ISIS was established in 2006 – the Islamic State seemed to suddenly appear in 2013-2014. In April 2013, the Islamic State of Iraq, as it was officially known, drew international attention and then announced its expansion to Syria. Subsequently, the Islamic State of Iraq rechristened itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and so re-introduced itself to the world in this guise (Bunzel, 2015). In particular, they declared war on apostate regimes, claimed geographical borders and aimed to break the Shiite effect in the region by acquiring support both regionally and globally. The question arises of what had ISIS seen as a chance to take power and what was their strategy in Iraq? SMT brings explanations and fleshes out the story from a theoretical perspective. Social movements and uprisings are moulded by a broader set of political imperatives and opportunities unique to the national context in which they are embedded (McAdam, McCarthy, & Zald, 1996). In the case of Iraq, they benefited from the regime’s weaknesses and particularistic sectarian politics by rallying people behind them who also had strong motives to gain from ISIS’s aims.

As seen in Iraq, politically vulnerable regimes can cause turmoil, provoke excluded groups and create opportunities for insurgency. For Iraq’s majority Shi’a population in particular, an end to minority Sunni rule represented an unprecedented political opportunity in the post-2003 war era.

Maliki’s government used ‘de-Baathification’ laws, originally introduced to keep members of Saddam Hussein’s regime out of government, to target his opponents (Al-Ali, 2014). As the security situation remained fundamentally unstable, however, and with foreign militant Islamists fanning the flames of sectarian dissent (Mandaville, 2014). The Sunni-Shi’a conflict benefitted militants and gave ISIS a seemingly legitimate ground. Based on political opportunity structures, Iraq’s regime conditions created an avenue for ISIS. However, at some point, to extend political opportunity and tie people to the ISIS flag, collective action was needed to help the organization spread through the region. Thus, drawing on the political opportunity concept, sectarian conflict in Iraq can be linked with ISIS’s emergence.

On the other side of equation, Marxist theory suggests that the cleavages of society come from the clash of different social classes. Yet, political opportunity theory brings a broader approach to thinking on insurgents in the system, which enables a greater understanding of the societal reasons behind the emergence of ISIS. According to early researches most militants had high levels of education. Their reaction to the regime stemmed from alienation policies conducted by the Maliki Regime. Moreover, sectarianism became a way of silencing and criminalizing the legitimate critique of the opposition (Alnasseri, 2017). When Iraqi people criticized the Shiite bloc in the streets of Bagdad in 2001, the latter publicly accused the former of being sectarian and contributing to disunity among the people. De-Baathification consequently may have helped the Shi’a clergy and religious parties establish almost full control over the Shi’a community in the first years following the US-led invasion (Ibid, 2017). As a result of inter-sectarian conflict in Iraq society, ISIS found available ground to utilize for initiating collective action, firstly in Iraq before spreading to Syria.

The link between political opportunity and supporters’ collective behaviour is clear. The shared ideas it helps to emerge can be seen as the root cause of social movements. The political process model stresses the crucial importance of expanding political opportunities as the ultimate spur to collective action (McAdam, McCarthy, & Zald, 1996). When considered with sectarian conflict within the concept of political opportunity, Hurd states that sectarianism, at that point, is a specific political discourse and task that effectively changes the complexities and contingencies of human affiliation into a singular clarification of political results: ‘religion (or sect) made them do it’ (Hurd, 2015, p 63).

Taking Hurd’s claim into consideration, sects are used as a tool to mobilize people, from the beginning of the insurgency to the framing phase, to achieve the goals of the organization at the hands of extremist groups like ISIS. Within sectarianism, ISIS’s structure is built on using Sunni-Shiite division from the Iraqi regime’s exacerbating policies. Finally, mediating between the structural requirements of opportunity and the organization are the emergent meanings and definitions shared by the followers of the burgeoning movement (McAdam, McCarthy, & Zald, 2005).

Furthermore, ISIS’s emergence might be seen as a response to cultural imperialism. Snow and Marshall argue that Islamism is a reaction to a perceived assault on local cultural identity and the self-esteem of the challenged population (Wiktorowicz, 2003). However, ISIS distinguishes itself with their targeting of apostate regimes rather than fighting the United States. For instance, while ISIS is compared with Al Qaeda, ISIS directly and strictly aims to eradicate Shi’a influence in the region first and foremost; their initial problem was not with western culture. In contrast to ISIS, Al Qaeda targets western countries and does not have any aim to establish a state by using jihad like ISIS. ISIS’s goals are not just limited to behaviorist approaches as Snow and Marshall emphasized. Social movement theory, instead of focusing on cultural concepts, explains how a movement emerges within opportunities created by being opposed to regimes, just as ISIS did in Iraq against non-Sunni actors. As McAdam  (1996) stated too, movements are not just psychological coping mechanisms; they are frequently explicitly focused and coordinated toward the political field.

As a prerequisite to action, political opportunity is the primordial condition to mobilize the movement with collectivizing instigated through several elements. Explanations for the emergence of Islamism (or a smaller scale, ISIS) no longer narrowly center on a single category of strains or contaminants’ discontent (political, socio-economic, or cultural) but instead combine these factors into a single explanatory framework that includes extensive lists of precipitating causes (Wiktorowicz, 2003). This great accumulation of problems made insurgency inevitable in Iraq as the regime approached people as if they were terrorists and identified them as Ba’ath party supporters. Politically excluded groups tended to join alternatives like ISIS. For many of the Sunnis, who embraced the Salafi-Jihadi identity of the Islamic State in Iraq, the sectarian war was a legitimate response to the trauma of dislocation, disorientation and dispossession that they felt during a period of political transition from Sunni to Shia domination (Rabi and Freidman, 2017). Having analyzed the sectarian policies of Iraq in the light of political opportunity structures in the emergence of ISIS, the next section will focus on how ISIS transferred to Syria and expanded their so-called borders and under what circumstances.

ISIS Sliding to Syria

Although McAdam, McCarthy and Zald  (2005) ground SMT on a combination of three elements (political opportunity, mobilizing structures, and collective action frames), they stress the central importance of political opportunities to an understanding of movement dynamics and emergence. In Syria’s case, the proliferation of ISIS had quite similar features to Iraq, yet different actors. ISIS spreading into Syria was not a surprise due to the minority-Alawite regime of Assad, the Arab uprising, and external affects such as Iran and Russia, which exacerbated the crisis, providing a convenient environment for ISIS.

Syria used Iraq’s regime change for their own benefit and strengthened ties with the new Shi’a regime which would go on to division between Sunni-Shi’a (Alawite) societies within Syria. After the dismantling of the Ba’thi regime in Iraq in 2003-04, Syria’s position in regional affairs quickly deteriorated. Iraq’s overall weakness made it feasible for Syria to develop a loose coalition consisting of Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iran to off-set the rival Israel-Turkey axis (Lawson, 2014). This polarization caused sectarian divergence and produced sharp policies in the Shi’a axis in Syria.

In the wake of these developments, the Syria regime triggered Sunni anger with its sectarian oriented internal policies against its people in 2010 with the coming of the Arab Spring. On March 6, 2011, a group of fifteen schoolboys in Daraa were arrested for spray-painting the slogan ‘the people want to topple the regime’.

Although the boys were released after several days, demonstrations did not cease and the Sunni-populated town, Daraa, became the symbol of this war not only for the demonstrations but also for future extremist groups’ reasoning. Wiktorowicz (2003) suggests that since political movements are banned under most authoritarian regimes, Islamic activism becomes a natural vehicle for political discontent. Likewise, he adds that rooted in established social sites of religious practice and broadly acknowledged values, Islamism represents one of the few remaining effective options for confronting a sense of political exclusion (Ibid, 2003). With this analysis, Syria’s Islamist awakening and following extremist insurgency can be conceptualized with the Assad regime’s disproportionate force against Sunnis.

In the years since the Arab Spring, the crisis escalated and ISIS used the turmoil to their benefit finding support from Sunni/Salafi groups to implement their political agenda within its so-called borders. Dekmejian drawing on modernist SMT thoughts, asserts that the precise concept of Islamic activism is directly correlated with the intensity of the crisis (Dekmejian, 1995). With this argument, Dekmejian critiques early social movements’ socio-psychological approaches. Systems are not originally balanced, but rather consistently dynamic as they experience the pressures and strains of societal changes, events and interactions. When considered in relationship to ISIS’s emergence and spread, the organization does not just consist of grievances. It is a violent reaction to the Assad regime’s policies while simultaneously arming Sunni elements against non-Sunnis. The questions raised by Wiktorowicz in his paper is important, ‘Why do some groups use violence while others adamantly eschew violent contention? And why did aggrieved individuals turn to Islamism rather than liberal democracy, nationalism, socialism, or other “isms”?’ (Wiktorowicz, 2003, p. 195). Birke and Harling summarize Syria’s capacity and propensity for repression that appeared during civil war as ‘the codification of religion-as-difference,’ contributing to the disfiguration of heterogeneous polities and societies (Birke & Harling, 2013).

The Assad regime’s growing isolation in Syrian society, the divide and rule policy, and the threat that ‘you will be crushed by the Islamist Sunni majority if it comes to power’, worsened Syria’s case. Even though ISIS shifted to a defensive position in 2016, thousands of lives have changed and there is no hope for amelioration in society. Sectarian clashes led by extremist groups, in particular ISIS, broke apart another country after Iraq. Assad, for his part, cultivated a sectarian showdown throughout the civil war. From the beginning, he defined the opposition as ‘jihadists’ linked to Al Qaeda. With the help of his neighbors, Assad succeeded in releasing the ancient virus of sectarian (religious) hatred among his people (Diehl, 2012). A hatred ISIS used very well in the sectarian concept as McAdam, McCarthy, & Zald (1996, p. 3) emphasized, ‘those collective vehicles, informal as well as formal, through which people mobilize to engage in collective action’.

On the other hand, external sectarian figures galvanized the civil war and gave more legitimacy to ISIS as it rose with the contribution of external factors. For instance, Iran’s political influence and aims cannot be neglected when it is considered that since ISIS’s emergence, one of their ambitions has been to break the non-Sunni impact in the region and especially the Shiite influence. Many Arab regimes were nourished not only by Iranian power but also by Iranian influence and advocacy. Syria is one of those countries and ISIS mobilized movements against the Assad regime in a brutal way. Arab conflicts from Iraq to Lebanon were viewed increasingly in both power politics and sectarian terms, as proxy battles between Saudi and Iranian-led blocs in the regional balance of power and also as struggles between Sunni and Shiite alliances in the greater Middle East (Ryan, 2012). Thus, Iran’s Shi’a goals clashed with ISIS’s goals. Therefore, ISIS found another enemy figure and the political motivation element led them to arise in the field.

Political Opportunity’s Pros and Cons on Ideology, Sectarianism, and ISIS

Giving central importance to the political opportunity element, SMT’s ideological structure might raise some questions on the micro level. In both Iraq and Syria, tangible weaknesses were related to sectarian politics with regimes fueled, and society divided by the political atmosphere. Yet the impact of ideology on the dynamics and patterns of activism has received little treatment in the dominant social movement theory (Wiktorowicz, 2003). Returning to the case of ISIS, the group expanded in the region by deploying Sunni/Salafi ideology. They achieved ground remarkably quickly by exploiting the turmoil in Syria and the failures of sectarian governance in Iraq as well as the jihadist need for wider support and the notion of unity among jihadists as a way to attract followers. Furthermore, ISIS understood the importance of conveying a consistent message to potential militants (Holbrook, 2015). ISIS’s ideology is known as Salafism, a fundamentally religious movement in Sunni Islam concerned with purifying faith. Salafism centers on eliminating idolatry (shirk) and affirming God’s Oneness (tawhid) (Bunzel, 2015). ISIS coded themselves as the only true Muslims, considering those who practice so-called ‘major idolatry’ to be outside the bounds of the Islamic faith. With this approach, they targeted Shiite from a concrete Salafi ideological base.

However, ISIS’s aims are not just concerned with religion, the organization also has a substantial political agenda and territorial aims. ISIS’s narrative of the Safawi risk is thus primarily about building a platform of political support from a wide range of tribal, religious and Ba’athist associations (Jakoby, 2017). Albeit, religious and specifically sectarian cleavages play a significant role in the ISIS case, their aim is gaining political power in the region. If the region was not run by weak regimes and their exclusivist policies, this extremist group would have been unable to proliferate. Ideology might have fueled the context that extremist thought exists in but it did not initiate the opportunities ISIS uses to grow.

Another direct critique of SMT is its broad approach to movements. Tarrow (1996) supports the premise of SMT that individuals join social movements in response to political opportunities and then, through collective action, create new ones. In response to Tarrow’s claim, Gamson and Meyer (1996, p. 275) found the political opportunity component to be an extremely broad element; ‘the concept of political opportunity is in trouble, in danger of becoming a sponge that soaks up virtually every aspect of the social movement, it threatens to become an all-encompassing fudge factor for all the conditions and circumstances that form the context for collective action, it may ultimately explain nothing at all’. Another criticism of political opportunity is its limited definition by McAdam. McAdam’s political opportunity dimensions face some difficulties in explaining specifically Islamist movements:

  1. The relative openness or closure of the institutionalized political system,
  2. The stability or instability of that broad set of elite alignments that typically undergird a polity,
  3. The presence or absence of elite allies,
  4. The state’s capacity and propensity for repression. (McAdam, 1996, p.10)

According to Goodwin and Jasper (1999), these elements cannot by themselves explain the rise of Islamist movements – nor could any other specification of political opportunity that is this narrow. With this limitation, from the perspective of Goodwin and Jasper, the Islamist movement emergency cannot be neatly defined.

Despite these critiques, SMT and its main component of political opportunity is a starting point to understanding social movements in their emergence phase. Like other social theories, SMT cannot be quantitatively tested. However, its contribution to literature is revolutionary instead of simply narrowing the movements into class conflicts or a behaviorist approach. Political opportunity explicates the relationship between opposition and regimes that some theories neglect, such as Marxism and Behaviorism. In the case of ISIS, the political opportunity element is the starting point to understanding the dynamics of the conflict. With sectarianism, ISIS’s relations with Iraqi and Syrian regimes become concrete. They use ideology, Shiite hatred and the western enemy figure. However, mobilization and collective action’s starting point was initially created by the political situation and decaying regimes’ weaknesses, which ISIS turned to its benefit. Effectively governed states do not become havens for transnational terrorist groups and extremist Islamist movements like ISIS (Gause, 2014). Rather, governments’ aggressive and marginalized policies build a fragile platform for terrorist groups such as ISIS. Thus, mobilization of either sect reinforces mobilization of the other in a never-ending lethal escalation (Al Ibrahim, 2015).


It is the evident that the Iraqi and Syrian regimes’ deficiency and deterioration, use of sects and alienation of the other groups, induced extremist groups to emerge and in particular, directly contributed to the rise of ISIS. The purpose of this paper was to analyze the proliferation of ISIS under political conditions that created a viable environment for this extremist group. The analysis was conducted using Social Movement Theory and one of its main theoretical components – political opportunity structures. Although political opportunities have received some criticism within the scope of SMT, it provides a way of understanding the emergence of the social movement in the political frame in the region of Middle East. It is the primary element to link sectarian politics of regimes and the first appearance of extremist groups.


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Şevin Bozkur is currently working on her postgraduate degree on Middle East in Global Politics: Islam, Conflict, and Development in University of London as a Chevening scholar. She is highly motivated professional with over five years of experience working in the international development field focusing on the Syrian conflict. She worked on a cross-border civil society development project funded by the US State Department’s Near East Affairs  Bureau. Prior to this, she spent three years on another cross-border development Project funded by USAID. Once she completes her academic adventure in London, she will resume to her work in the Middle East with more hope and determination. Bozkur’s guiding principle in pursuing peace and development in region is “One small step for Middle East’s future, a giant leap for a woman.”

This article is part of the Balangiga Press Manila inaugural folio on Populism, Imperialism, and Nationalism in Southeast Asia. We encouraged our readers to respond to this article for a broader discussion and debate on the themes we would like to explore for our inaugural issue. Submission guidelines is here.















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