Of late, the world has been shaken by the shocking and gruesome photos and videos that have introduced the viewers to the brutal terrorist group known as ISIS. Also known as Daesh, ISIL, or the Islamic State, this Islamist militant group has instilled fear into the hearts of leaders around the world and caused chaos in the Middle East. Today, ISIS is the world’s richest and most powerful jihadists group with its reach spreading far beyond the area of its operations. Consequently, it becomes imperative to look into the origins of ISIS, the rise of the group, and factors that have contributed to its success.
The origin of ISIS can be traced back to Sunni rebellion, an insurgence against the US-led occupation of Iraq in 2003 under the group known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In 2004, the group pledged its allegiance to al-Qaeda, and soon, its influence started to grow. During the peak of the Sunni insurgency in 2006, the group rebranded to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and its main aim was to oust the Iraqi government and create an Islamic state. However, the dream of the group has never materialized owing to the US and Iraqi military attacks that resulted in the killing or capturing of approximately 80% of ISI’s leaders. The killings has led to the removal of the older generation of leaders and paved way for other young leaders, and among them is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current leader of the group.
The main reason of ISIS killing people and seeking to control the cities is its desire to form a caliphate. Fundamentally, a caliphate is a form of government, where one Islamic religious and political leader controls a given region. In the efforts to attain its caliphate, ISIS has captured and annexed strategic cities and towns in both Iraq and Syria with the aim of expanding its domain. Currently, ISIS has already commandeered strategic cities in Iraq, including Mosul and Rawa. The fall of the Northern Iraqi town of Mosul to ISIS came as a shock to the world since the Iraqi Army, which was deemed more powerful than ISIS, at least on paper, practically ran away from the city. The fall of Mosul to ISIS caused deep concern about the defenselessness of the entire Iraqi state and even caused alarm about the fate of Iraq’s capital, Baghdad. On the other hand, the current chaos in Syria has given ISIS the chance to annex territory in the country. In 2014, ISIS declared the Syrian town of al-Raqqah as its capital, and from there, the group has been operating and reigning terror to even the civilian population. To make its caliphate larger and stronger, ISIS wants to take over some regions in Turkey and Jordan and to continue expanding further.
However, even though both Al Qaeda and ISIS have the same goal, ISIS has demonstrated and proven to be more brutal, merciless, and more effective at administering any territory it conquers. Whenever ISIS captures a city, the group kills any opposing forces in most cases members of the Iraqi forces and Shiite Militia troops. However, the group has also killed citizens of cities they feel are opposed to them. ISIS has already murdered in cold blood an estimated 17, 049 innocent civilians in Iraq alone. Given that ISIS wants to establish a caliphate and to reinstate an early form of Islam, the group kills all those against its holy war or belonging to the religion other than Islam. Moreover, the group has also killed an estimated 15,300 of Muslims people in Iraq, not to mention many Christians.
When compared to many previous extremist groups, ISIS is quite successful. The success of the group can be attributed to four main reasons. First, ISIS has capitalized on the marginalization of the Sunni tribe in Iraq to expand both its territory and local support. Second, ISIS militants are combat-toughened strategists fighting an unenthusiastic Iraqi army. Third, the group has been able to capture and exploit natural resources to finance its operations. Fourth, ISIS has successfully used the vibrant social media not only to spread its propaganda but also to recruit fighters in addition to increasing its global recognition and presence. Nevertheless, the most significant element cutting across these four aspects is the alliance of anti-American populations across Iraq and Syria under the premise that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. The majority of those joining ISIS comprises of the remnants of the Saddam government, Iraqi civilians forced to the militant insurgency during the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, global jihadists, and the ethnic groups that were abandoned and marginalized after the U.S troops’ withdrawal from Iraq in 2011.
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Fundamentally, the Iraqi tribes have a stronger structure in rural areas than in the urban areas. The Sunni population’s hatred towards the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad has made it easy for ISIS to acquire rapid control over the extensive Iraqi Sunni territory with the Iraq parliamentary elections in 2010 being critical to the Sunni. During the elections, the Iraqiyya coalition, under Ayad Allawi, garnered the support of the Sunni population, which led to the party winning the majority of seats in Iraq’s parliament. Nevertheless, despite Allawi’s win, Maliki was able to form the government as the Prime minister with the support of the U.S government and his Shia coalition. After the elections, Maliki targeted Sunni leaders in an attempt to strengthen the Shia supremacy of Baghdad. The majority of leaders targeted were the same Sunni leaders who had been effectively mobilized by the US troops during the US occupation of Iraq to paralyze Al-Qaeda’s dominance within the Sunni population in a process that was known as the Anbar Awakening. When the USA pulled out of Iraq, the US government directed its support to the Maliki government, hoping that Maliki would distribute it equally. Nevertheless, when the US troops officially withdrew from Iraq in 2011, Iraq’s Judicial Council issued an arrest warrant for Iraqi Vice President Hashimi, a major Sunni leader. The detaining of Sunni leaders and their employees resulted in the widespread Sunni protests, especially in the Anbar region. Consequently, when ISIS, which started as a Sunni extremist group, came to Iraq, the majority of the Sunni population supported the group, arguing that it was the lesser of two evils. According to some sources, the majority of ISIS’ key decision-makers are former combatants in Saddam’s army and security services. Their presence is a game-changer as it makes the group stronger as compared to the Iraqi army, whose leadership had been weakened by the political engagements of Maliki loyalists and by rampant corruption.
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The second greatest ingredient in the triumph of ISIS is their military strategy. The leader of the group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had spent four years in the Bucca Camp prison prior to assuming control of ISIS in 2010 (ISIS was then known as AQI). Abu Bakr used the opening of the Syrian civil war to stimulate a renaissance of the group comprising of battle-hardened combatants most drawn from moderate rebel groups who were then radicalized by the group. Unlike Al-Qaeda, ISIS rebels are brutal and controlled by an astute strategist and fruitful fundraiser who is a coldblooded killer as well. Additionally, ISIS has adopted an operational form that makes it possible for decentralized commanders to deploy their veteran combatants to fight against the weakest points of its enemies. Simultaneously, the group’s central power maintains enough operational power to carry out medium-to-long term plans on how to distribute troops, logistics, and support. Consequently, ISIS uses the strategy of attacking their enemies at their weakest points and, at the same time, avoiding battles they cannot win. This strategy significantly boosts the group’s self-esteem and stature. Currently, ISIS controls a huge territory in Iraq that neither Shia nor Kurdish forces will bother to fight for. Notably, ISIS has not attempted to capture Baghdad since they know they will be defeated because they know that the Shia troops are ready to die and defeat ISIS on their home territory. Similarly, it is highly unlikely for the Kurds to deploy combatants to recapture the Sunni territory. According to some military strategists, this mentality was a major influencing factor in the shattering performance of the Iraqi Security Forces at Mosul, which led to the fall of the city. Given that the Iraqi Security Forces comprise of the disproportionate number of Kurds and Sunni Arabs, they eventually abscond their duties arguing that they will die neither for Maliki nor for the Sunni militant insurgencies seeking to oust him. Once ISIS conquers a region, it erects organizational structures to rule the territories with a formal structure consisting of a cabinet and councils of financial and legislative bodies. Ironically, ISIS’ bureaucratic chain of command resembles that of the Western countries, whose principles it criticizes, as it simply removes democracy and puts into place a council to decide who should be beheaded.
Third, ISIS has also been able to take hold of the major natural resources in Syria to finance the group’s operations. Currently, ISIS controls up to 60% of Syria’s oil fields, including the Al Omar, Shadadi and Tanak oil fields. The US Treasury approximates that the group’s oil sales on the black market adds up to $1 million every day, probably making ISIS the richest terror group in history. Consequently, ISIS has increasingly become a combined organization following the model of Hezbollah. ISIS has three components, as it is part a terrorist cell, part an insurrectionary army, and part a proto-state.
Finally, ISIS uses a complex social media crusade to enlist and radicalize its followers as well as raise funds. In order to maintain an online presence, ISIS uses a Twitter app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings to advertise and inform people on ISIS’ latest developments. When ISIS captured Mosul, the Twitter app sent more than 45,000 tweets regarding the fall of Mosul. Additionally, the group has also shown its lighter side to the combatants. For instance, the group posted videos and pictures of children breaking their Ramadan fast together with ISIS fighters. By maintaining a high online presence, ISIS has been able to give their fight an attractive appeal, which lures new recruits from all over the world in addition to inciting lone wolf attacks in the name of ISIS.
In conclusion, since its inception, ISIS has rapidly grown in terms of the number of insurgencies as well as in territory in both Iraq and Syria. Not only does this expansion threaten the very survival of the Iraqi government, but it has also altered the nature and course of the current conflict in Syria. The success of the group in its endeavors can be attributed to the marginalization of the Sunni tribe in Iraq, which has enabled the group to expand its territory and to gain local support. Additionally, ISIS militants are combat-hardened strategists fighting an unenthusiastic Iraqi army, which is a significant factor that has led to the fall of Mosul. Third, the group has been able to capture and exploit natural resources, particularly oil fields, to finance its operations. Lastly, ISIS has successfully used the vibrant social media to spread its propaganda and recruit people from around the world. Although it is unlikely that, if ISIS continues to grow, it will threaten world peace as it is today, but there is a need to stop the group before it is too late.