The rapid rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2013-14 has attracted the attention of a large number of researchers and has already led to many books on the story of the organization and its significance. Gerges of the London School of Economics and Political Science does an admirable job of locating ISIS within broader contexts of both Middle East societal realities and of prevalent political ideas within the Arab world. The book, nevertheless, suffers from the major drawback of similar books: the impossibility of knowing the trajectory of events after the time of writing resulting in the potential, rapid obsolescence of the work.
Thus, ISIS: A History is most interesting in its earlier chapters, in which the author traces the organization's emergence and trajectory. Gerges correctly notes that "ISIS is a symptom of the broken politics of the Middle East, of the fraying and delegitimization of state institutions." The author focuses correctly on ISIS as a phenomenon that emerged from local conditions, in particular the divisions among Iraq's Sunni Arab population regarding the best way to organize and exercise influence in the context of a post-Saddam, Shiite-dominated Iraq.
The book is similarly useful in questioning the exaggerated claims of those seeking to portray ISIS as a bogus organization, ostensibly jihadist but actually controlled by nationalist, former officers of Saddam Hussein's regime. Undoubtedly, there are a number of such individuals in the organization, but Gerges demonstrates that their role is mainly technocratic; they are, by no means, the secret controllers of the organization. He also correctly locates their presence as a function of the broader sectarian dynamic of Syria and Iraq.
In its latter sections, the book suffers as a result of the rapid movement of events since its composition. Gerges overestimates the weakness of "al-Qaeda Central," given the strength of organizations emerging from al-Qaeda such as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham in Syria. He also underestimates the progress made in the military campaign against ISIS, for example, the newly evident decline in foreign volunteers.
Thus ISIS: A History has many useful parts but suffers from the attempt to write a "first draft" of history at a time when the events with which it deals are still in motion.