As militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) continue their relentless charge toward Baghdad, their notoriety has reached fresh heights in the West. Their leader has a $10 million US bounty on his head and their ranks are 7000 strong in control of large areas of western Iraq and eastern Syria. But who are they and where did they come from?
Who are ISIS?
ISIS are an organisation that rose from the ashes of al-Qa’ida, perhaps the most infamous Islamic fundamentalist terror group in recent history. This could be all set to change though, with ISIS currently leading the most successful modern jihadi movement. The aim is to build an Islamic state throughout the Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria.
At the helm is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a man who built the world’s most dangerous militant group from the fractured remnants of al-Qa’ida. Brutal in ways that even al-Qa’ida were not, ISIS run an extremely tight organisational machine - absolutely key to their ongoing victories. Much of what western news agencies report comes from the curious but tightly controlled social media campaign run by ISIS. It shares news of battle victories and boosts morale, counting tens of thousands of retweets. It’s largely due to the violent videos shared last week of captured Iraqi soldiers being interrogated and executed that western media have paid attention to what is happening. So, where did they come from?
A New Leader for a Broken Movement
Since 2006, the militant cells known as al-Qa’ida had gone under the name Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), to which they would later add Syria. They were waging a sectarian terror campaign in Iraq on the majority Shia Muslim population under the command of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, until he was killed by US forces. Baghdadi became leader in 2010, after a successful rise within al-Qa’ida’s ranks after joining in 2003 during the US invasion. As he assumed leadership in 2010, ISI/al-Qa’ida were a fringe group whose influence was heavily suppressed by US intelligence and undermined by new initiatives within the moderate Sunni community.
Then, the US left Iraq.
Taking all on-the-ground intelligence networks and organisation with them, the Iraqi government and military had to step into this breach and fill the vacuum. However, the Iraqi military itself was overrun by sectarian division, technically unequipped and largely unprofessional. Since the emergence of a Shia led government on the back of the US departure, ISI exploited sectarian tensions amongst Muslims and began a propaganda campaign amongst the Sunni community that they were under persecution. Baghdadi promoted the ISI as a voice for the persecuted Sunni on the back of the political tension the arose, recruiting fighters into his ranks.
The 2011 Sunni uprising in Syria against President al-Assad was the perfect opportunity for Baghdadi. He quickly sent soldiers across the border to engage in military campaign, changing the name of the militant group to ISIS - adding Syria. The aim was and is now a new Islamic state carved from Syria and Iraq. The violence in Syria hardened ISIS fighters who quickly captured, and still hold, the province of Raqqa.
With complete disregard for international borders, ISIS could conduct operations and campaigns either side of the Iraq-Syria border, inflict maximum terror and violence, to then retreat cross-border to where the resident country’s military could not attack them. Baghdadi was then able to establish a serious foothold in Syria, attempting more extreme and complex attacks. His fighters gained a reputation for their sectarian violence against the Shia Muslims and Christians of Syria. Dissent is answered with severe violence and often death.
The uprising of the Sunni in Syria against their President led to unrest amongst Iraqi Sunnis who began to protest too. As the battle in Syria raged, within Iraq, ISIS was already consolidating support and many Iraqi Sunni protestors grew sympathetic to a militant cause. Throughout 2013 ISIS led operations against the Iraqi government and military, freeing prisoners from the infamous Abu Ghraib prison facility and engaging in extreme violence.
As the ISIS Iraq campaign pushed onward in recent weeks they have quite effortlessly evaporated the Iraqi national army, with whole divisions abandoning weaponry and uniforms to retreat away from the approaching front. Terror, fanaticism and discipline are the weapons of this new militant faction and the Iraqi military are melting away in fear, disillusion and disorganisation. Since early this year the group has controlled the city of Fallujah and also seized Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and northern capital. A significant shift in tide has occurred since that victory. ISIS continue to outmanoeuvre and intimidate the army with horrific acts of violence and retribution on military personnel and civilians.
Since Syria, the group realised the power of social media in promoting their cause. The ISIS online network promotes different information channels, from live battle feed Twitter accounts to individual fighter’s accounts. Those same sources that news networks use to show the horrors of ISIS action are used by supporters to share news of victories. The content ranges from graphic depictions of violence to humanising pictures fighters eating pizza or chocolate.
The worst videos have ranged from the ‘crucifixion’ of dissenters in Syria to clips of people digging their own graves prior to being shot by ISIS fighters. Brutal imagery polarises opinion on the group, it has increased their infamy but also boosted their following. It is perhaps the more alarming aspect of the rise and rise of ISIS that many British fighters who are among their ranks were recruited through the social media networks. At times these English-speaking volunteers share human moments or thoughts and, at others, unapologetically graphic killing. The fighters are now part of the diversity of voices that preach the ISIS message to the world. The digital jihadi movement is, these days, almost as powerful and organised as the ground campaign.
As things stand now, there is little end in sight and, unfortunately, much bloodshed looks still to come. The people of the West and Iraq’s neighbouring countries nervously wait and debate appropriate action. The people of Iraq, on the other hand, are still suffering at the barrel of the gun eleven years since Saddam. With the conclusion to this alarming episode still to be drawn, it appears that on all fronts, ISIS and Baghdadi are increasing their hold and permanence in cyberspace, geography and history as a radical and violent new voice for modern extremism.