The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is also synonymous with acronyms such as IS to mean Islamic state, Daesh (Arabic) or ISIS to mean Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The group is a Sunni Jihadist organization that gained worldwide popularity in early 2014 when it formed a quasi-state after eliminating Iraqi government forces from major cities. It officially declared the formation of a "caliphate" in June 2014. Caliphate refers to a state governed by Islamic laws, otherwise known as Sharia under caliph who is God’s deputy on Earth. Since then, the group has demanded Muslims worldwide to migrate to the states controlled by them and pledge their loyalty to their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Numerous countries and bodies worldwide including the United Nations consider ISIL as a terrorist group ("What is 'Islamic State'? - BBC News", 2015).
ISIL was formed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian citizen, in 1999. Zarqawi later formed al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in 2004 to join forces with Osama Bin Laden after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. The Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) was formed as an umbrella organization following Zarqawi’s demise in 2006. However, the group faded due to attacks by US troops and the establishment of Sahwa councils that opposed its brutality. Sahwa (Awakening) was formed by Sunni Arab tribesmen. Isi regained capabilities when Baghdadi became its leader in 2010. Within three years’ time, the group was back to propagating attacks in Iraq and rebelling against Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad through the al-Nusra Front (Hashim, 2014).
"Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant" was born in 2013 after Baghdadi joined his forces from Iraq and Syria. The group soldiered on even in Syria despite rejection by the al-Qaeda and al-Nusra leaders. By the end of the year 2013, the group concentrated on expanding in Iraq at the cost of a political disagreement between the government and the minority community; Sunni Arab. The group took over the central city of Falluja with the help of former followers of Saddam Hussein and Sunni tribesmen. Isis moved southwards towards Baghdad while scaring off the nation’s religious and ethnic minorities around June in 2014 after taking over Mosul city. By end of that month, after taking over many towns and cities, the group declared the formation of a caliphate and thereafter changed its name to "caliphate"(Hashim, 2014).
When, where and why
Since its formation in 1999, ISIL has pledged to protect the Muslim community against infidels and eliminate all that hinders God’s rule on Earth which is their mission or goal. Their militia is always ready for a confrontation with the United States Troops since they view it as a holy war between them (true Muslims) and their enemies at the end-of-times as described by the Islamic prophets about the apocalypse.
Isil was reported to be controlling around 210,000 sq km in Tigris-Euphrates river basin (which equates to the size of the United Kingdom) in September 2014. The US department of defense later declared one year later that their operations had made IS lose control of about 20-25% of Iraq and Syria’s populated areas where they once did. The militia had lost approximately 20,000 sq km in Iraq which translated to around 37% of what they controlled a year earlier, and approximately 4,000 sq km in Syria, translating to about 10% ("What is 'Islamic State'? - BBC News", 2015).
Despite the loss, Isil still captured new territories including oilfields, towns, military facilities, major roads, and cities around the same time. As of December 2015, Isil was believed to be in control of an expansive area in eastern Syria and western Iraq with an estimated over 8 million residents. The group now enforces the sharia law in over 18 countries worldwide including Pakistan and Afghanistan. Other aspiring areas include; Somalia, Indonesia, Mali, Philippines, Egypt, and Bangladesh. Isil has affiliate groups in the following provinces; Yemen, West Africa, Somalia, Sinai, Caucasus, Algeria, Libya, and Khorasan.
Growth/Decline Trend & Reasons
The initial Isil army was believed to have more than 30,000 fighters. However, as of early 2016, the numbers in Syria and Iraq were reported to range between 19,000 to 25,000 by intelligence. This decline was attributed to the high number of U.S air strikes and battlefield deaths in the region as well as recruitment issues and desertions. However, the numbers in other areas like Libya and Pakistan are growing possibly because the group is trying to replace their dying soldiers with foreign fighters since they’re not direct targets. The group is said to have attracted over 25,000 foreign fighters including 250 Americans while others come from neighboring Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Morocco (Tilghman, 2016).
Key Leaders of ISIL and its Ideology
Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, a former US detainee heads and runs Isil. He had two deputies; one in Syria and another in Iraq but both were killed. Baghdadi is believed to have a cabinet of senior leaders who advise him and local governors to conduct operations in Syria and Iraq. There are councils on military matters, security, media, finance, intelligence, foreign fighters’ assistance and legal matters (confirm executions). There’s an additional shura council to ensure all decisions by the councils and governors abide by Isil’s interpretation of sharia. Baghdadi doesn’t tolerate any opposition, threat, or contradiction. Most of ISIL's leaders were former intelligence officers and military officers who worked for Saddam Hussein and were fired after his Ba’ath government was overthrown.
The group is a theocracy believed to have been created from the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood that dates back to the 1920’s in Egypt. It’s therefore guided by modern global jihadist principles including al-Qaeda’s hard line ideology. It promotes religious violence and adheres to the extremist interpretation of sharia and Islam. Other observers trace Isil’s ideologies to; Anti-Zionism, Wahhabism, Salafi jihadism, Caliphatism, Antisemitism, and Salafism
Alliances with other Terrorist Groups
ISIL has demanded other jihadist groups across the world to accept their supreme authority. Most of them have including some from al-Qaeda, a rival group. By November 2014, 60 different jihadist networks from 30 countries had pledged loyalty to ISIL including Boko Haram (West Africa, Jundallah (Pakistan), and Abu Sayyaf (Philippines).
Past Events and History of Violence
Upon its rise in mid-2014, Isil is reported to have massacred thousands of its rivals and eliminated many other religious and ethnic minorities. Inside IS territories where Sharia is applied; religious minorities are forced to choose between converting, dying or paying a special tax while women are forced to dress in full veils. Beheadings in public are commonplace. On August 2016, the Associated Press discovered about 72 mass graves in areas liberated from the group’s control. The mass graves contained over fifteen thousand people massacred by the ISIL. Seventeen of these graves were traced in Syria and the others in Iraq. Around 16 of the graves found in Iraq, were located in unsafe conflict zones. The remains in these graves were not counted; instead, they were only estimated.
ISIL is considered a terrorist organization by numerous countries and international bodies including Amnesty International and the United Nations. Amnesty International has filed charges that Isil with an ethnic cleansing of the highest order in northern Iraq whereas according to the UN, the outlawed group is responsible for war crimes and human rights abuses. The group is popularly known for destroying cultural heritage sites and sharing videos in which they behead civilians, aid workers, soldiers or journalists.
ISIL is the richest Jihadist group globally with assets ranging between $800m to $2B. The militant group initially relied on Islamic charities and private donors from the Middle East region who wanted the Syrian president Assad ousted. Three-quarters of the $2B the organization owned in mid-2014 are argued to have been looted from the central bank of Mosul and other commercial banks in the city. However, the group has devised self-funding means since then. It’s reported that the group makes around $ 100 m a week through selling crude oil and refined products to local merchants. Such revenue is said to have declined due to air strikes on oil infrastructure ("What is 'Islamic State'? - BBC News", 2015).
The group is said to raise millions of dollars monthly through looting, extortion, robbing, and ransom payments from kidnapping. They demand payments from people who conduct business, pass by or live in their territories while claiming to provide “protection” to them. Religious minorities or non-Muslims are required to pay a special tax. Other sources of funding include;
• Stealing livestock
• Raiding banks
• Controlling sale of crops and livestock
• Selling antiquities
• Selling abducted women as sex slaves
Threat Assessment and Future of Isil
ISIL members are jihadists adhering to Sunni Islam extremism. They’re very intimidating and conduct crucifixions, bombings, mass shootings and beheadings to terrorize its adversaries. They use both small arms and heavy weapons such as anti-aircraft guns, truck-mounted machine-guns, surface-to-air missile systems, and rocket launchers. They also deploy the use of armored vehicles, bomb proof trucks, and tanks captured from Iraqi and Syrian armies. They’re reported to have a flexible supply chain that ensures their fighters don’t run out of small arms and ammunition. They’re said to coerce both men and women into their army and brainwash children to adhere to their ideologies before subjecting them to thorough training on how to use firearms and weapons. One cannot object to the leaders or leave the group once they’ve joined or else they risk being killed together with their families. The group believes the rest of the world including other religions and some Muslims are unbelievers who want Islam destroyed and are therefore enemies or targets. Whereas their tactics seem intimidating, their future looks deem. It’s reported that all ISIL's fighters including the foreign ones have been reduced to a total of 12,000 fighters. However, the group is down but not out as they’re always planning retaliatory attacks on their “enemies” including Russia, US, UK, and France among others countries (Zehlin, 2014).
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