The so-called Islamic State and al-Sham (ISIS) or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria– the name made popular by the media. Also known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Months ago they announced their longing to be referred to as the Islamic State (IS). Groups fighting the extremist militants, like the Peshmerga (Northern Iraq’s Kurdish Fighters) have used the moniker Daesh for some time now.
According to the Herald Sun the Australian prime minister said it best, “Daesh hates being referred to by this term, and what they don’t like has an instinctive appeal to me’’. It’s a subtle communication power move.
ISIS practices and believes in a brand of Islam separate from what some Muslims consider true Islam. Which by the way most definitely doesn’t include the murder innocents.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq
In the early years of the blunder known as the Iraq War, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) originated from a Sunni extremist group called al-Tawhid wal-Jihad lead by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In the 90’s Zarqawi and his terrorist cell was a group of amateurs with more ideology than ability – the 1999 failed bombing in Amman, Jordan was proof of that. It would be years before his group became a sophisticated terrorist organization. After the invasion, Zarqawi pledged allegiance and loyalty to Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden (Am I the only one who thought bin Laden was Mr. Splinter’s evil doppelganger?).
Many factors lead to the growth of this extraordinarily violent terrorist group. But I will go into just a few. I’d need an entire book to cover all the factors and not just a couple thousand words.
Assassinations as early as 2003. Countless acts of violence – as mentioned earlier most of the victims were Muslims. Many people remember this group from the beheadings they recorded, most notably Nick Berg.
The naivety of the Bush Administration and its policy of dissolving the Iraqi military put countless Sunni’s out of work. Not only did the Bush Admiration get rid of the military, it banned Saddam Hussein’s entire political party, mostly made up of Sunni Muslims from working in government. This included everything from college professors to career military officers. In other words, there were a bunch of pissed off, out of work men who were members of one of regions largest and best trained militaries in the region.
If that wasn’t enough, the next move towards democracy in Iraq was inserting a Shiite government. That enraged the Sunnis further and before you knew it, there was all out sectarian war between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Over the next several years, a combination of American supported and often imposed policy would continue to enrage Sunnis and embolden Shiite militias. Death squads lurked about at night leaving bodies in the streets in the mornings.
Zarqawi took advantage of this and would begin an unremitting campaign of terror on Iraqi citizens for the next two years. His group became adept at bombings and various commando style military tactics. Foreign jihadist joined the ranks and become known as some of the most ruthless AQI members.
The areas AQI controlled produced tales Hollywood couldn’t make up. Unspeakable and ruthless violence was rampant, along with an intense repression of the civilian population. AQI was rapidly and consistently alienating their supporters and wary allies. Tribal leaders were assassinated; Shia and Sunni Muslims alike were killed. Anyone who opposed their archaic rules. The vast majority of the people just wanted to go about their normal lives.
Eventually AQI would burn too many bridges (and people) within its Sunni community, which in turn caused the Sunni Uprising in Iraq. This put the United States military apparatus – with support from local tribal elders and former Iraqi military leaders, in a position to decimate Zarqawi’s terror group. In 2006 the Al-Qaeda in Iraq founder and leader was tracked down and killed. Power was swiftly transferred to a member of his inner circle.
The terrorist organization went “underground”. With little or no furlough at all, the remaining members and new recruits continued a steady flow of bombings and attacks. By 2008 it seemed like there were weekly bombings and massacres in Iraq. A great deal of it coming from AQI. During this period the group kept a low profile, staying underground, not attempting to hold territory.
Sometime after 2008 is when Abu Bakr Baghdadi took control of AQI. What the public knows about Abu Bakr Baghdadi is very limited – the intelligence community on the other hand definitely has a great deal of info on him.
Transition to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)
What I do know is Abu Bakr Baghdadi is he was born Abu Dua and grew up in Iraq. He does have a much longer complicated name that tells you is tribe for example, but like I said my Arabic is… well its none existent. So Abu Dua it is.
As a young man he attended the Islamic University in Baghdad where he studied up to the PhD level. He was supposedly detained as an insurgent and held in U.S. custody for a short time (insert conspiracy theory here). During this time he was an unassuming preacher and low-level member of AQI. He obviously made an impact and became a member of the inner circle. He joined leadership in some capacity and moved up in the ranks – or maybe he was just the most ruthless and killed a whole bunch of his competition.
When he took the helm as leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, he changed his name to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He continued to order attacks in Iraq.
By late 2012 it’s safe to say most of the original guys are assuredly dead by then – as is the custom when you’re a member of an indubitably nefarious terrorist organization. Everything from being consistently picked off by the Iraqi military and Shia militias, to the occasional America Special Forces raid. It also continued to turn allies into enemies. Because they held little to no influence in Iraq’s Sunni communities, AQI shifted its attention to the civil war that was raging in neighboring Syria.
During this time, a rift the size of a small pond grew to the size of an ocean between Al Qaeda factions. Eventually AQI would step from under the Al Qaeda Central (AQC) umbrella and plant stakes for their own tent.
There are two accepted reasons why Al Qaeda in Iraq split from Al Qaeda Central (the original terror group started by Osama bin Laden).
The first is AQC’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri (bin Laden’s successor), did not like AQI’s Mad Max approach to spreading their shared ideology. It is said Zawahiri wrote a letter to Baghdadi demanding he stop killing fellow Muslims because it was not helping their cause.
The second reason and the one I subscribe to is based on a power struggle between AQI and AQC. Dare I say Zawahiri was jealous of the notoriety and power Baghdadi was gaining? Was his demand of Baghdadi to stem the violence against Muslims an attempt to reign in a rouge lieutenant. Was he afraid of a coup? Based on what I know about these types of organizations and the sub-culture, power is everything. And Baghdadi was gaining to much power in jihadi networks.
Supposedly Baghdadi was having none of that. He split from Zawahiri’s AQC. Sometime during this period Baghdadi’s organization would take on the name the Islamic State and al-Sham (ISIS) – At this point Daesh begins to engage in battles with the Syrian Army and Syrian rebel groups. Videos emerge of mass executions of soldiers and civilians committed by ISIS. As they gain more territory and win more battles on multiple fronts, its ranks dramatically swelled from a few thousand to several thousand. Iraqis, and Syrians joined their cause – some out of fear for their lives and others because they held the same ideals. Within months thousands of foreign fighters join in on the rampage across the region pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
By late 2014 ISIS captures and completely controls the Syrian city Raqqa and sets up its headquarters there. Its pseudo state is very similar to the Taliban regime. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until the U.S. invasion in 2001. The only entertainment allowed was public executions in the stadium where soccer used to be played. By many accounts this group is the more violent of the two.
ISIS has also captured Mosul and large swaths of Northern Iraq. Because of the rapid and extremely violent tactics used by the militants, the Iraq military was defeated within a few days. They left advanced weaponry such as heavy weapons and tanks behind. Weapons the United Sates military left after the occupation. Detractors and enemies of ISIS are frequently beheaded and their heads placed on stakes in public view for all to see. Hundreds of people are killed in one day. Western journalist and aid workers were brutally killed in front of cameras. All of this occurred within about two years.
This is not the conventional terrorist group. It is a rare one that has the ability to control territory and set up a crude state (a crappy one, but a variant of a state nonetheless). ISIS is representative of a very small percentage of Muslims. But the power they wield in various areas in Iraq in Syria makes them the most capable and powerful extremist group in the region. It is clear they will remain a threat to humanity as a whole. Therefore learning as much about them as possible will be essential in defeating them.