How did the Islamic State (ISIS) seize huge swathes of Middle East territory with mere ten-thousands of men? How did the organization start, what are its goals, and why does it espouse violence so disgusting that almost all Islamic religious leaders and even some terrorist organizations repudiate its behavior? Why has ISIS reached a situation where it is directly or indirectly at war with over 60 countries?
THE END OF DAYS
ISIS follows the extremist Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam adopted by the rulers of Saudi Arabia, yet lambasts those leaders for their close link to the West and opulent lifestyle. It believes in returning society to the “true” observance of Islam through violent jihad, yet makes money by trafficking Afghan opium.
Despite all their pious posturing, ISIS bigmouths are hypocrites. Dabiq’s latest edition lambasts Afghanistan Taliban terrorists for dealing with opium, interviewing an ISIS governor who complained:
“There’s no doubt that the nationalist Taliban movement has permitted farmers and merchants to grow and sell opium. Rather, the matter has reached the point that the movement itself harvests opium, and even worse than that is that the Taliban themselves transport opium and heroin in their personal vehicles, charging a fee to the sellers and the addicts! They also take a 10% cut as well as taxes from them.”
Yet the Russian Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN) reported last year that “According to our estimates, IS makes up to $1 billion annually on Afghan heroin trafficked through its territory.”
ISIS believes that a mysterious mahdi (redeemer) will soon impose Islamic rule over the whole world, yet deems it necessary to do the job before he shows up.
For this purpose, in 2014 the group declared a caliphate with religious, political and military authority over all Muslims worldwide headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Everyone must observe its ultra-strict version of sharia law or face death. Most Muslims oppose ISIS. Even violent Sunni groups either think ISIS brutality has gone too far, or are unwilling to submit to al Baghdadi’s self-appointed rule.
ISIS’ brutality is primarily due to the group’s belief that its extreme interpretation of Islam is the sole truth and all outsiders are heretical unbelievers who deserve eradication. The brutality also serves a practical cause by sowing dread among ISIS’ enemies and encouraging fanatics to join the winning side, as Osama Bin Laden said in 2001, “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.” Sunni youths worldwide are attracted by the violent videos the group propagates via websites and social media. ISIS’ brutality also provokes the West into a war ISIS believes it will win.
The group’s brutality originated with the violent Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who founded the Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (The Organisation of Monotheism and Jihad) terrorist organization in 1999. His goal was to topple the kingdom of Jordan, which he considered apostate despite its Sunni credentials. To al-Zarqawi, every Shia was an infidel who deserved eradication. He became notorious for ordering suicide attacks.
Al-Zarqawi’s terrorist group pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2004 and united with other Sunni insurgent groups to form the al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) organization. This soon became a major Sunni force in the insurgency against the Iraqi government. Easy pickings were available after the 2003 invasion of the United States against Saddam Hussein. His fall had thrown the country into turmoil. An Iraqi insurgency from 2003 to 2006 against United States soldiers and against the newly appointed Iraqi government deteriorated in 2006 into a full-blown Shia-Sunni civil war. Although Sunnis and Shiites are both Muslim, technical disagreements threw them into everlasting rivalry soon after the founding of Islam in the 7th century.
AL-BAGHDADI SAVES THE DAY
Throwing himself enthusiastically into the struggle, Al-Zarqawi declared all-out war against Shiites and Americans. He dispatched numerous suicide bombers to attack American forces and Shia militias, and is thought to be responsible for the 2005 bombing of three hotels in Amman, Jordan. Held responsible by the U.S. for the assassination of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley outside his home in Amman, Jordan, in 2002, he was sentenced to death in absentia.
After his death in a targeted killing by a Joint U.S. force in June 2006, his AQI organization joined other groups to form the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC). In October, the MSC united with other groups and tribes to form the Mutayibeen Coalition, which swore “to rid Sunnis from the oppression of the rejectionists (Shi’ite Muslims) and the crusader occupiers … to restore rights even at the price of our own lives… to make Allah’s word supreme in the world, and to restore the glory of Islam.” A day later, MSC proclaimed the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), comprised of six Sunni majority Iraq provinces.
But ISI steadily weakened under the onslaught of U.S. troops and the antagonism of Sunni tribesmen, who hated its brutality. In one area, 30 Sunni tribes united to help the U.S. drive out al-Qaeda militants. By 2008 ISI admitted that it was in a state of extraordinary crisis and by 2010, 80% of ISI’s top 42 leaders were killed or captured. Then al-Baghdadi became supreme leader in 2010 and turned round the group’s fortunes.
Al-Baghdadi had been involved with ISI and its earlier versions for a number of years, but was temporarily halted when U.S. forces arrested him in 2004 and locked him up at Camp Bucca in Iraq with other future leaders of ISIS. He was released in December that year as a “low level prisoner” unlikely to stir up much trouble.
Known as “the ghost,” al-Baghdadi has survived ever since, despite periodic reports of his demise, by keeping a low profile. He leaves few traces of his presence and only two known photos of him exist.
After becoming leader, al-Baghdadi replenished his group’s leadership with former military and intelligence officers who had served Saddam Hussein and made them a third of his top echelon. He vastly increased ISI’s range of operations in 2011, sending men to set up the al-Nusra front in Syria to participate in the rebellion against President Basher al-Assad.
That year, the U.S. listed al-Baghdadi as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist and offered up to $10 million for information leading to his capture or death, a reward second only to the $25 million offered for information regarding the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
In 2012, ISI regained a number of its former strongholds and began a new Breaking the Walls offensive to free imprisoned members of the group. By July 2013, fatalities in Iraq were exceeding 1,000 a month for the first time since 2008.
In 2013, al-Baghdadi suffered a temporary setback when he announced the merger of his forces in Iraq and Syria named the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). ISIS is also known derogatorily by the acronym Daesh, which resembles the Arabs words daes (trampler) and dahis (trouble-maker). Mentioning the name Daesh in ISIS territory is punishable by flogging or amputation of the tongue.
Leaders of al-Nusra and al-Qaeda opposed al-Baghdadi’s merger and cut ties with ISIS by February 2014. But ISIS quickly bounced back. Taking advantage of disarray in Iraq, ISIS and Sunni tribesmen who had been molded into an efficient fighting force by officers of Saddam Hussein’s defeated army seized the major towns of Falluja and Mosul. ISIS advanced within a mile of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and still controls territory close by.
Then came a backlash. ISIS conquests and the Sinjar massacre, the killing of thousands of Yazidi men in in the Kurdish city of Sinijar, almost caused the Iraqi government to collapse and prompted President Obama to renew U.S. military intervention in Iraq on the 15th of June, 2014, via airstrikes. American ground troops had left in 2011 when the country was already on the verge of chaos.
Two weeks later, on June 29, ISIS proclaimed itself a worldwide caliphate led by al-Baghdadi with religious, political and military authority over Muslims worldwide.
“Soon, by Allah’s permission, a day will come when the Muslim will walk everywhere as a master, having honor, being revered, with his head raised high and his dignity preserved,” the group’s English language Dabiq magazine proclaimed in al-Baghdadi’s name. “Anyone who dares to offend him will be disciplined, and any hand that reaches out to harm him will be cut off. So let the world know that we are living today in a new era.”
By now, ISIS controlled territory in Iraq and Syria was equal in area to the United Kingdom according to assessments of the U.S. defense department, although some argue that the group lacks direct control of much of the uninhabited territory around its power bases. Although U.S. led attacks pushed ISIS out of much of the area it occupied, ISIS simply grabbed new territory elsewhere.
ISIS influence spread not only in Iraq and Syria but worldwide. It has affiliates in Libya, Uzbekistan and Sinai, as well as the allegiance of the Boko Haram group which is active in Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. In 2015, an ISIS representative announced that 4,000 of the group’s fighters had smuggled into Europe. He was probably exaggerating, but no doubt many infiltrated during last year’s huge influx of refugees. During the past two years, ISIS has claimed responsibility for high profile attacks in Tunisia, Turkey, Yemen, Lebanon, and Aden, besides the November attacks in Paris and the downing of a Russian airliner in the Sinai Desert during the same month.
(Sources include Wikipedia)