The terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has very quickly taken control of large areas of Syria and Iraq, was born out of the Sunni terrorist organization al Qaeda. Its command of large areas of Syria and Iraq – and world headlines – is a result of the terror the group has provoked with its actions, such as the recent public execution of American journalist James Foley.
The leader of al Qaeda’s faction in Iraq (AQI) was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was responsible for no-holds-barred tactics in post-U.S. invasion Iraq that included beheadings, kidnappings and bombings. Killed in an American airstrike in 2006, the leadership vacuum from Zarqawi’s death was filled by Abu Du’a, an Iraqi, more commonly known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
An alliance of Sunni tribes in Iraq – the Sunni Awakening – was backed by the United States in 2007 and their fighting against AQI helped diminish its reach in that country. With the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011 however, AQI took advantage of the vulnerabilities there, gained power and widened its ranks. In just a couple of years, al-Baghdadi’s forces were back in Iraq and the name of the group was changed to ISIS because, according to the U.S. State Department, it reflected “its greater regional ambitions.” Various translations of the Arabic name of the group birthed other English-language versions like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
ISIS gained independence from al Qaeda last year when Osama bin Laden’s replacement, Ayman al-Zawahiri, fell out publicly with al-Baghdadi. Al Qaeda’s central command said in an online statement in February that al-Baghdadi and ISIS had often failed to follow orders and so all connections with ISIS were severed. Al Qaeda said that ISIS is “not an affiliate with the al Qaeda group and has no organizational relation with it.” Further, al Qaeda said it was not responsible for ISIS’ actions.
In June, al-Baghdadi summarily named himself caliph of the Islamic State. A caliph is the leader of an Islamic community ruled by Shari’ah. Also known as Islamic law, Shari’ah addresses politics, crime and economics in addition to diet, prayer, personal hygiene, sexual intercourse and etiquette. In so doing, al-Baghdadi has made a direct challenge to al-Zawahiri and the general devotion of the extreme followers of Islam throughout the Middle East.
ISIS has a credible amount of military expertise, but it has been the almost unfathomable brutality of its troops that has allowed it to consume so much territory so quickly. U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said on Friday that ISIS is “as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen.” Nevertheless, it received its first large defeat a few days ago when it was pushed off the important Mosul Dam by Iraqi and Kurdish forces, assisted by an aerial bombing campaign from the United States.
Horrific videos have been distributed from ISIS social media accounts, showing its fighters tormenting, torturing and executing any number of prisoners. Also, according to senior officials in the U.S. military who are intimate with the security forces of Iraq, ISIS has exploited such forces in some areas because they lack motivation to fight hard against its brutality.
The total number of Sunnis fighting for ISIS is unknown, but it is estimated to be in the tens of thousands, with many having traveled from all corners of the Earth to take their position as one of ISIS’ bullies. The man who beheaded James Foley, for example, speaks with a British accent. The National Counterterrorism Center in the United States reported that over 12,000 foreign nationals made their way to Syria just last month with no intention other than to fight with extremist groups such as ISIS. The Center says more than 1,000 of those were from the West and approximately 100 of them American.
Tom Kean, a former governor of New Jersey and the former chairman of the 9/11 Commission, recently met with top officials in the U.S. intelligence community about ISIS and other issues. “I was appalled at the ignorance,” he said, reporting that the high-ranking experts were taken aback by the group’s growth, ascendancy and competence.
By Gregory Baskin