In The Master Plan, Brian Fishman traces the history of Islamic State (IS) from its origins as al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch through to the present. In many ways, Fishman argues, IS has remained loyal to a seven-stage plan drawn up by one of Osama bin Laden’s deputies shortly after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Kyle Orton writes in his review:
Al-Qaeda held that while the “near enemy” (local Arab regimes) had the support of the “far enemy” (the West, led by the U.S.), it could not be toppled. The master plan identified two exceptions—Iraq and Syria—where the regimes could be brought down without a need to sever them from the West first. Indeed, at the time the plan was being written, Saddam Hussein was clearly on borrowed time, courtesy of the [imminent] U.S. invasion. . . .
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi [the founder of IS] was in Baghdad by May 2002 and found throughout Iraq large, powerful Salafist networks that allowed the IS movement to find a foothold quickly. The regime had allowed [these] networks to grow, partly due to Hussein’s increasing Islamization of the country, but also because a mortally weakened regime was unable to restrain them. . . .
Fishman’s book punctures a number of myths about the history of IS. It is often said that IS turned to international attacks when its “caliphate” started to contract. [But] IS was always focused on the West; it just had the West on its doorstep between 2003 and 2011 [in the form of American and allied forces in Iraq]. . . .
While Gulf donors and the Saudi government are [frequently accused of] assisting IS, the reality is that, to the extent states have assisted the rise of IS, the real villains are Iran, [which sheltered important figures during the movement’s formative years], and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Assad provided IS a hinterland that helped it ride out defeat in Iraq and facilitated its recruitment of foreign fighters during the entire period of the U.S. military presence in Iraq. Once this terrorist network turned on his regime, the support did not end.