Behind the Headline: Who are Isis?

Militants from the radical Islamic group known as "Isis" have carved out a dominion for themselves in Syria and Iraq. Image from Reuters.

Militants from the radical Islamic group known as “Isis” have carved out a dominion for themselves in Syria and Iraq. Image from Reuters.

Fighters from a radical militant group known as “Isis” (short for “The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”) claim to have overrun a large military base near Raqqa, Syria, though these reports could not be independently verified at press time. Meanwhile, a video has emerged showing Isis demolishing a sacred shrine in the Iraqi city of Mosul. For the past two months, this jihadist movement has refused to leave the headlines, appearing seemingly out of nowhere and seizing control of huge chunks of Syria and Iraq, setting up a government for these territories they now rule, kicking out Christians, and declaring their leader to be the new caliph, or successor to the Prophet Muhammad.

Who are these people that the U.S. State Department is calling “worse than Al Qaeda”? Where did they come from, and why are they doing this? It’s time once again to go behind the headline.

Who are Isis, and where did they come from?

Map of the areas under ISIS control by Doug Mataconis

Map of the areas under ISIS control by Doug Mataconis

The story behind Isis begins with the U.S. invasion of Iraq back in 2003. In the chaotic period following Saddam Hussein’s fall, the Jordanian-born terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zaraqi moved in and began a campaign to oppose the U.S. military occupation. After al-Zaraqi swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden, his terrorist network became known in Western media as “Al Qaeda in Iraq”. For years, their suicide bombings and other attacks killed hundreds and frustrated attempts to stabilize the country. However, they started suffering a number of major setbacks. Al-Zaraqi was killed by a U.S. bomb in 2006, and not long thereafter Sunni Muslim tribal leaders in those parts of Iraq where they were operating started to turn on them. By 2008, Al Qaeda in Iraq was struggling for survival.

They started to regain some of their strength as U.S, forces withdrew from Iraq, but the event that really got them back on their feet was the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. The movement’s new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, decided to get involved in the new conflict across the border, and announced the merger between his movement and the Al-Nusra Front, a jihadist movement fighting both the dictatorship of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and more moderate, pro-democracy, Western-backed rebels. It was at this time that the movement changed its name to “Isis”, reflecting that it was operating in Syria as well as Iraq.

The alliance with the Al-Nusra front was short-lived; the two groups parted ways in 2013 and started fighting each other. By then, however, Isis had already gained a foothold in Syria. They started imposing a strict interpretation of Sharia law in the towns they occupied, forcing men to wear beards and women to wear a full veil. They use threats of violence against people’s families to keep them in line. To ensure that their orders are enforced as strictly and dispassionately as possible, they intentionally put people in charge who are not from the village, or even the country, they are policing, so there will be no temptation to be lenient. They execute those who violate their rules in public, and have gone so far as to chop off the hands of people caught stealing.

Isis soon found itself in a power struggle with its parent terrorist network, and by February of 2014, Al Qaeda completely disavowed Isis. Far from disrupting Isis’s momentum, the split only gave Isis the freedom to launch a massive offensive in Iraq. On June 9, they captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city with about 1.8 million inhabitants. Twenty days later, Al-Baghdadi declared that the organization would change its name to “The Islamic State” and that he was assuming the long-extinct title of “caliph”, or leader of all Muslims worldwide, adopting the new name “Caliph Ibrahim”. On July 5, he released a video sermon in which he called on all Muslims around the world to support him. Since then, his ambitions have only grown, according to The Fiscal Times, who predict that he may soon try to expand his domain into even more Middle Eastern countries. The threat Isis presents has brought even the United States and Iran together in a mutual desire to stop them.

Wait, what is a Caliph, and why has Isis’s leader claimed that title?

When the Prophet Muhammad died in 632 AD, the early leaders of the new religion of Islam met to decide who should lead the faithful. The caliph, whose title is Arabic for “successor”, was to be the supreme leader of all Muslims, sort of like how the pope is leader of all Roman Catholics. However, there was a major dispute among the early Muslim leadership over who should be the caliph, and these political divisions eventually led to the split of the Islamic faithful into two main sects: Sunnis and Shias. Sunnis supported the election of Abu Bakr, while the Shias supported Ali. The rivalry between the two led to a civil war, and over time these rival political factions started to adopt different religious teachings and practices as well.

Over the centuries, various dynasties of caliphs ruled over various parts of the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, such as the Sunni Umayyads and Abbasids, or the Shia Fatmids. Each of these three dynasties could trace their ancestry to a relative of the Prophet Muhammad, but centuries later, as the Turkish Ottoman Empire conquered and dominated most of the Middle East, the Ottoman sultans started to claim the title of caliph, and they were powerful enough that nobody dared challenge that claim.

As far as most mainstream Muslims are concerned, there has been no caliph since the Ottomans were overthrown in the 1920s. The re-establishment of a caliphate has been a goal of jihadist and radical Islamic movements for decades, yet Al-Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed caliphate was ridiculed by Isis’s opponents as “delusional”. If Al-Baghdadi can claim that title with no real merit, this USA Today editorial points out, what’s to stop any old average Joe from declaring himself caliph? It’s a meaningless declaration.

So, Isis is just another terrorist group with a crazy leader, right?

Actually, in many ways it has become a country for all practical intents and purposes. Ruling an area the size of Pennsylvania, it has a fully-functioning government, collecting taxes, providing key services like police, hospitals, garbage collection and welfare for the poor, and according to the U.S. State Department, they have a “full-blown army”. They have a capital city and are able to maintain control of both their own forces and the people in the areas they have captured quite effectively. Not only that, but Isis has access to enough oil and water to be economically viable as an independent country. The fear is that Isis will use their new domain as a safe haven for terrorists, as the Taliban had done in Afghanistan in the 1990s.

How do they keep power over the people?

ISIS forces image from The Telegraph

Largely through fear. As mentioned earlier, they are extremely strict and extremely brutal. They videotape themselves executing captured prisoners of war or other perceived enemies and post those videos online for the world to see. Any Muslim who doesn’t accept their radical version of Sunni Islam is killed, and Christians are told they must either convert to Islam or pay a “jizya” – an ancient tax early Muslims imposed on Christians living in their lands for the right to keep their religion. Almost all Christians in Isis-held cities have chosen to leave instead.

Having said that, they do have some legitimate support in the areas they rule. In Syria, the civil war has wreaked so much havoc that many Syrians find the Isis-held areas to be a peaceful safe haven where they don’t have to live in constant fear of being blown up or shot. In Iraq, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has done such a poor job accommodating the country’s Sunni minority that many Sunni Arab tribes and former supporters of Saddam Hussein’s regime have turned to Isis as an alternative, striking deals with Isis in return for cash and protection.

However, it’s not entirely clear how long Isis will enjoy this support. Isis has started destroying anything that smacks of their broad definition of “idolatry”, destroying irreplaceable artifacts from ancient civilizations, statues, Christian churches, and Islamic mosques and sacred shrines that don’t match their ideas about Islam.

Because nothing wins you support in the Middle East like destroying mosques!

Because nothing wins you support in the Middle East like destroying mosques!

What are Isis’s goals here?

As far as I can tell, power.

Last year, they claimed to want to conquer every land once ruled by Muslims, as far west as Spain and as far east as China. Journalist Sarah Birke argued that the biggest difference between Isis and other jihadist groups that have come before them is that Isis “tends to be more focused on establishing its own rule in conquered territory”. This is an important distinction: Isis is not content with just being a terrorist group. They want to rule, and to conquer, as the ancient empires of old had done.

John Gray wrote a column for BBC News where he argued that all of Isis’s talk of Islamic purity is a thin disguise for what amounts to a very modern revolutionary movement that has more in common with the Nazis, the Soviet Union and the Khmer Rouge than with early Islam. They are a totalitarian dictatorship, he writes, who believe they can use “systematic violence” to remake society to fit their vision. An anonymous former Isis fighter who spoke to BBC News appears to have confirmed as such, describing their use of propaganda, brainwashing, and fear to get people to do what they want.

The only question left is what, exactly, can be done about them, and so far, answers to that question have proven elusive.

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One Response to Behind the Headline: Who are Isis?

  1. AuntLeesie says:

    Wow. Yes, it sounds like the Nazi regime.OTOH, I’ve read recently that there’s been a significant number of Islamist s converting to Christianity. Cause and effect, maybe?

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