What Is ISIS?

Protests against ISIS in London, England. Editorial credit: 1000 Words / Shutterstock.com.
Protests against ISIS in London, England. Editorial credit: 1000 Words / Shutterstock.com.

ISIS: Who, What, & Where?

Colin Powell told the U.N. Security Council in 2003 that a little known terrorist by the name Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi was the link between Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime and Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda. This was to prove that Iraq had terrorist connections, which called for preemptive strikes. Though this was later disproven, Powell’s erroneous testimony would prove to be darkly prophetic. Global attention brought into the limelight a man who had previously been dismissed as a petty thug, and who soon became the leading coordinator of terror networks in the Iraqi insurgency from between 2003 and 2006. This same man would in these three years sow the seeds for what would become the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). In this context, "al-Sham" refers to the historic region of Syria and the Levant.

Formation of ISIS

Zarqawi had already formed links with Al-Qaeda when he was active in Afghanistan in the 1990s. He deplored Al-Qaeda’s obsession with Westerners as the chief enemy, and considered the rulers of the Islamic world as the ‘near enemy’ who should be dealt with first. He then founded a jihadist group called Tawhid wal-Jihad in Iraq, which unleashed a reign of carnage and mayhem that escalated after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Despite their differences, the group formally became the Iraqi wing of Al-Qaeda. It was a marriage of convenience, in that Zarqawi’s wal-Jihad received access to the resources of a formidable jihadist organization, while Al-Qaeda gained a foothold in Iraq, which was by now a global center for terrorsism.

The stated policy of Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was to rally the Sunni majority into jihadist groups and target the Shia minority, a tactic ISIS employs to this very day. This gained criticism from Al-Qaeda’s leaders, who feared that the indiscriminate terror tactics would alienate their supporters. However, Zarqawi continued his tactics until he was killed in an airstrike in 2006. In late 2006, AQI and eight other Islamist insurgency groups formed the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) without consulting Al-Qaeda. In so doing, ISI’s ambitions were clear. It was no longer a jihadist group subordinate to Al-Qaeda, but an embryonic caliphate, governed by Sharia (Islamic) law, to which all Muslims in their territory owed obedience.

Beliefs & Objectives

ISIS is technically a Salafi jihadist militant group, which seeks to become a theocracy. It follows the Wahhabi doctrine, an Islamic fundamentalist creed of Sunni Islam. It promotes violence against Muslims who do not abide by their own strict interpretations of the faith. ISIS’s flag is a variant of the Black Standard, the legendary battle flag of the Prophet Mohammad. This is evidence of ISIS’s belief that it represents the restoration of the caliphates of early Islam, along with their political and religious traditions. ISIS believes that it is the only legitimate leader of jihad (holy war), and considers the Sunni Hamas as apostates. They consider fighting Hamas as one of the first steps in confrontation with Israel. Confrontation with non-Muslim countries, another ISIS mission, will wait until these "apostates" and "heretics" within their own faith are dealt with.

When the U.S. heightening its anti-insurgency operations in the region in 2007, this coincided with the so-called ‘Anbar Awakening’, the organization of Sunni tribes in Anbar to fight against the jihadists. This diminished the support base of ISI, whose claims to territory and political validity were spurious to begin with. After incurring repeated losses in the following years, Abu-Bakr-al Baghdadi emerged as the new leader (a so-called Islamic Caliph) of the ISI in 2010. When the U.S. withdrew its forces from Iraq in 2011, the formal integration of the Anbar militias into the armed forces was abandoned, and such actions removed a substantial force from fighting against the ISI.

Role in the Syrian Civil War

The Syrian Civil War soon followed the U.S. withdrawal from the region, and gave the Islamic State a new cause and fertile grounds for recruitment. In 2011, Baghdadi created a Syrian subsidiary called Jabhat-al-Nusra (JN) to gain a foothold into the civil war. When JN started showing signs of independence from ISI in 2013, it was absorbed into the now expanded Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. This enabled ISIS to become a formidable armed force, with which it embarked upon its ever more ambitious campaigns of terror and territory acquisitions. The alliance between ISIS and al-Qaeda had long been strained and, after being called ‘sinful’ by ISIS, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri broke all ties with the Islamic State. The leader of JN was also declared a traitor by ISIS.

Territorial Extent

Much of ISIS’s armed conflicts in Syria have been waged against rebel groups, including JN and other terrorist and jihadist groups. There is speculation about a tacit understanding between formal Syrian President Assad’s regime and ISIS, with each engaged in fighting anti-government forces for land acquisition and control, concurrent fights which effectively enabled ISIS to gain large amounts of territory of their own. After conquering Raqqa in 2014, ISIS has used it as a base to launch successful attacks in Syria and Iraq. It soon thereafter captured the Iraqi city of Fallujah from the floundering Iraqi military. ISIS also controls the transport corridors in much of the region, which allowed them to move swiftly and launch the type of surprise attacks with which they captured the Iraqi city of Mosul soon afterwards.

Human Rights Abuses Of ISIS

ISIS has acquired the capability to administer the territories they hold and its populations. Within these areas, ISIS has established or co-opted institutions of governance, reaching into judiciary, police, education, healthcare, and infrastructure systems alike. ISIS imposes dhimmi pacts on minorities, which officially relegates them to second-class citizen status along with a protection tax. Minorities, including Shias, have undergone some of the most severe human rights abuses under the rule of ISIS, which have included massacres, rapes, and forced religious conversions. Their atrocities on minorities in northern Iraq have been particularly merciless. ISIS has also been reviled for cruelly executing foreign journalists, aid workers, and captured enemy combatants. Their 2006 paper blatantly declared that improving people’s religion was more important than improving their lives, no matter the cost.

ISIS Recruitment & Propaganda

The appeal of ISIS has grown well beyond Iraq and Syria. Baghdadi calls himself Caliph Ibrahim, and his titles include ‘Commander of the Faithful’, laying a claim to the highest political and religious status in early years of Islam. Insurgents fighting the unpopular Assad in Syria draw inspiration from the carefully structured propaganda of ISIS, which is also attracting young Islamists from all around the world. ISIS has become adept at the use of social media to send out cleverly designed messages to augment its messianic credentials. Its monthly magazine, Dabiq, is a no-holds-barred medium with which to emphasize the supposedly significant historical roots of ISIS in the Islamic world.

Baghdadi, not content with recruiting individuals, has recently called upon other jihadist groups to dissolve and fight under his own banner, a call which many insurgent groups have positively responded to. In 2015, ISIS claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks and the downing of a Russian plane in Egypt. These claims were designed to give the impression that ISIS is now turning its attention from the ‘near enemy’ and broadening its operational horizons by targeting Western interests. ISIS also claimed to have carried out the Paris attacks, which brought France directly into the Syrian conflict.

Allied Counteroffensive

The Obama administration ordered airstrikes against ISIS targets in September of 2014 with the support of many European and Arab states alike. U.S. airstrikes also supported Kurdish operations and Iraqi ground troops in making significant inroads into former ISIS territories. The Peshmerga dislodged the Islamic State from strategic areas around Mount Sinjar in December of 2014. In January of 2015, there was a pitched four-month battle between the Kurds and ISIS for the city of Kobane, on the border between Syria and Turkey. Though Kobane passed into the hands of the Kurds, ISIS maintained a nearby presence. In March of 2015, Iraqi security forces, allied with Shia militias and supported by Iran, began the first major government offensive in Tikrit since June of 2014.

Conflicting Priorities In The Fight Against ISIS

Turkey shares a 500-mile border with Syria, through which many foreign fighters have entered and exited in support of ISIS from all around the globe. Turkey kept its borders open because it seeks the overthrow of Assad. However, as the Islamic state came up to the border, Turkey was forced to seal it off and, in July of 2015, it joined the 60-country strong, U.S.-led coalition against ISIS. However, many coalition members have given little more than spiritual support. After U.S. forces pulled out of Iraq, Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki excluded Sunni rivals from top posts in favor of Shias. This disillusioned many Sunnis, who tended to gravitate towards the Islamic State.

Regional geopolitics has been the main impediment to concerted campaigns against the Islamic State. The YPG, the Syrian Kurdish militia, which had proven to be a very effective fighting force against ISIS, is seen by Turkey, the U.S., and EU countries as a terrorist organization itself. The Sunni Arab states are more concerned with a Saudi-led conflict against rebels in Yemen, while many other coalition partners are leveraging the fight against the Islamist State to further their own interests.

Russia began bombing vital ISIS facilities in Syria in late 2015, but Putin mainly targeted Syrian rebels, effectively helping Assad recapture territory. A Shia militia faction involved in fighting the ISIS is loyal to Iran’s nationalist cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, whose own army had fought U.S.-led forces early on in the war. The Persian Gulf Arab countries are also more interested in containing Iran than fighting ISIS. In its August of 2015 issue, the Economist summed the situation up almost poetically, in saying that “The caliphate survives because its defeat is nobody’s priority”.

The New War on Terror

With the main Al-Qaeda threat in Afghanistan now defunct, President Obama increasingly focused on reducing the U.S. military footprint overseas. In a 2013 address to the National Defense University in Washington D.C., Obama maintained, “Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’, but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America”. With 20-20 hindsight, it is now being felt and openly expressed, in certain American circles at least, that the troop withdrawal from Iraq, and America’s detachment from Iraqi affairs, may have been too rapid.

With the rise of the ISIS and its various affiliates, the ‘global war on terror’ still rages on in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and beyond. Within two years, America had to return to the Levant. In fact, the Obama administration soon went from simply providing support via airstrikes to sending hundreds of additional military advisers to Iraq. Soon, 4,000 U.S. troops were back on the ground in Iraq and Syria. ISIS’s growing international influence is also forcing Obama to organize airstrikes in Libya, and consider deploying troops there as well, apart from committing more reinforcements to the Sunni Gulf states. Security forces from Yemen have been successful in recapturing territory from Al-Qaeda affiliates with the help of U.S. support. America is also active in Somalia, where it is helping a group of nations drive back the terrorist group al-Shabab. In Mali, the U.S. is helping French-led forces push back al-Qaeda affiliates in the Maghreb. The new war on terror is an indirect route to dismantling ISIS through the defeat of its regional affiliates, while restraining it to its current strongholds in Iraq, Syria, and the rest of the Levant.

Current Position of ISIS

Apart from jihadist groups in the Persian Gulf region, a number of militant organizations from Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Nigeria, and elsewhere have sworn their allegiance to the Islamic State. ISIS is armed with cutting-edge weapons and armories, many seized from the Iraqi National Military bases taken in their initial successes against them. ISIS has also acquired extensive assets based on oil resources in the caliphate’s territory, and hence it can be safely assumed that the Islamic State will not be obliterated without a hard fight.

Since 2015, in Iraq there have been concerted efforts by the military and Shia militias, the latter driven by Iranian interests and resources, which could eventually roll back the tide on the expansion of ISIS. As the evolution of the ISIS and the nature of jihadist organizations have shown, they can in fact break-up suddenly, and even unexpectedly. Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led intervention against ISIS, is killing about 1,000 Islamic State militants every month, though ISIS seems to be recruiting roughly the same number of new jihadists, effectively maintaining the group’s effective terrorist strength at around 30,000 to 40,000 fighters. The aerial strikes on ISIS bases in Iraq and Syria have severely restricted the movement of the militants, and with Russia entering the fray, the caliphate’s terror infrastructure is being severely undermined. Where the fight with ISIS will take us in the days and months and years to come, and whether we will ever see victory in the global war on terror, only time can tell.


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