ISIS: An Introduction


According to the UN, there are two unfolding humanitarian tragedies in the Middle East. While the plight of Gaza has captured the world’s attention, the actions of ISIS have gone largely unmonitored.

Firstly, what is ISIS?

ISIS stands for the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. Al-Sham is the Arabic word for the Levant – which denotes the landmass of Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. It is a Sunni Jihadist group in the majority Shia Iraq, frequently compared to Al Qaeda and the Al-Nusra Front in Syria.

How did it start?

Although often linked to, and explained through Al-Qaeda, it began life as the independent Army of the Sham in 2000. Created by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the group hoped to spark civil war in the Islamic world; putting it at odds with Al-Qaeda, whose stated mission behind Ossama bin-Laden was to replace “secular states with a single Islamic political leadership”.

How did the Army of the Sham join with Al-Qaeda?

Despite their differences, in 2004, the Army of the Sham became known as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and merged with bin-Laden’s group. The move was a clear reaction to the US-led invasion. As Lawrence Wright puts it, “for bin Laden, Zarqawi’s network offered the opportunity to extend the Al Qaeda brand in a field where American boots were on the ground. For Zarqawi, it drew new recruits to the fray, who longed to fight under the Al Qaeda black banner”

Is it still associated with Al-Qaeda?

No. Al-Qaeda in Iraq became ISIS in April 2013. Al-Qaeda, once the centre of the Axis of Evil in the eyes of the Western world, appears to have merely been the cocoon for the monstrosity that is now flourishing. Al-Qaeda has gone to lengths to separate itself from ISIS.

Can it be worse than Al-Qaeda?

From the beginning, the Army of the Sham has shown more bloodlust, a larger appetite for death and greater ambitions than Al-Qaeda could summon. A book outlining the strategy of the group was called “The Management of Savagery”; though it seems a stretch to say they have managed their savagery. As early as 2005, Al-Qaeda second in command Ayman al-Zawahiri worried that the group would “kill all the Shia [Muslims] in Iraq.” For ISIS, Al-Qaeda never went far enough.

Who is the Genghis Khan of ISIS?

That title would go to ‘emir’ Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Who is al-Baghdadi?

Al-Baghdadi, also known as Abu Dua and whose real name is Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Sammarrai, is a 43-year old Sunni Muslim who hails from Samarra in Iraq. Reports suggest he was an Islamic cleric at the time of the US invasion. From 2005-2009 he was imprisoned by the USA and in 2011 he was put on the United Nation’s terrorist list due to his being responsible for “managing and directing AQI large scale operations”. He has been called “the true heir to Osama bin Laden”.

What does al-Baghdadi and ISIS want?

The group wants a return to an Islamic caliphate – a single Sunni Muslim empire. Within its borders, sharia law would be strictly implemented; an area in which al-Baghdadi earned a PhD from the Islamic University in Baghdad.

How much progress has ISIS made in their aims?

ISIS now controls, according to the Patrick Cockburn of The London Review of Books, “an area larger than Great Britain […] inhabited by six million people, a population larger than that of Denmark, Finland or Ireland”. Moreover, it controls much of Syria’s oil and gas reserves. Recently, ISIS captured the Mosul damn in north Iraq – a strategic victory – and has moved west, towards the home of the ancient Yazidi religion. So far, ISIS has proved to be more Golden Horde than traditional terrorist cell.

Who are the Yazidi?

The Yazidi religion is a medley of religions, borrowing from Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism (an older Persian faith). Seen by ISIS as being an unpure religion, The Guardian reported that ISIS had sanctioned the indiscriminate killing of the group. ISIS has carried the mission out, with at least 500 reportedly killed, executed and beheaded in merciless examples of brutality and genocidal behaviour. The UN has estimated 40,000 people have fled for the surrounding mountains.

How has the West reacted?

So far, the reaction has been largely apathetic. Most of the attention here has been lavished on British residents who have left the country to join the ‘jihads’ and what threat they pose should they return. However, the recent attack on the Yazidi and the wavering strength of the Kurdish resistance has forced the Wests hand. Obama has ordered airstrikes, while Britain has airdropped aids to the Yazidi’s seeking refuge in the mountains.

How successful has the Kurdish resistance been?

Until the latest assaults, the peshmerga (the Kurdish militia) had been the only real force in the way of ISIS. Both America and Iraq fear an emboldened Kurdish population would declare independence from Iraq. Pleas for military support from Kurds have accordingly fallen on deaf ears and the Prime Minister of Iraq, Nuri al-Maliki has even begun illegally cutting it from Iraq’s oil revenue. ISIS is already beginning to overpower the pehmerga.

What can be done?

ISIS completely transforms the political landscape. It straddles, in the most dangerous way, the border between a state and a terrorist cell. It flies in the face of conventional wisdom. It can’t be negotiated with, not because one can’t negotiate with terrorists but because al-Baghdadi is an elusive leader, one with no compelling reason to negotiate. On the other hand, there is no hunger in the West for another war in Iraq. ISIS and its successes were built on ruins of the last invasion.

ISIS poses a major threat; one that the West is only now waking up to.






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