A series by Viviana Angelini
In the most shocking acts of terrorism since 9/11, the beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers by a single masked man in an arid landscape have been filmed and released to the world. These horrifying videos come from the hands of the so-called Islamic State (IS). Although featured in the news only recently, the organization has existed for over a decade in the Middle East. This is the first in a series of articles which will provide context to help understand the origins of the IS, its goals, and the threat it poses.
Though the IS’s past is shrouded in mystery and secrecy, many believe it started in 2003 as the al-Qaeda of Iraq (AQI). Many of the AQI terrorists originally came from Syria and Iran. These countries allowed rebel fighters (many of whom were released from prison) to flow into Iraq to combat US troops. The Americans had recently invaded Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Syria and Iran support of the AQI was calculated to deter a US invasion of their own countries following the deposition of Hussein in Iraq.
During the anti-American insurgency in 2004, the AQI became known not only for its skill in battle but also for its cruelty. The AQI killed both Sunni and Shiite civilians with suicide bombings and beheadings. It also forced Muslims to live by the AQI’s strict interpretation of Islamic law. AQI’s parent organization, al-Qaeda Central (AQC), became increasingly uncomfortable with AQI’s violence against other Muslims and directed it to tone down the killings. When the AQI persisted with its brutal persecutions, the AQC distanced itself from AQI. When its leader was killed in a US strike in 2006, the AQI renamed itself the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), severing ties to al-Qaeda.
The current leader of the IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, came into power in 2010. Born in 1972, al-Baghdadi is a former educator and preacher who claims to hold a doctorate from Baghdad’s Islamic University. He was actually captured by US troops in 2005 and held for four years at Camp Bucca in Iraq. Apparently dismissed as a non-dangerous low-level operative, al-Baghdadi was released into Iraqi custody in 2009. If not an extremist before his imprisonment, al-Baghdadi almost certainly became radicalized while being held.
Al-Baghdadi assumed leadership of the ISI after its two leaders were killed in a joint US-Iraqi operation in 2010. Shortly thereafter, he began sending operatives into Syria to form a new terrorist group called Jabhat al-Nusra. In April 2013, al-Baghdadi attempted to combine Jabhat al-Nusra and the ISI while changing its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) (al-Sham is variously referred to Syria or the Levant, which as Greater Syria historically encompassed areas now within Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and the Palestinian territories). Al-Baghdadi moved ISIS to Syria, rapidly gaining members and support by offering free medical aid, food, and fuel to the needy.
On June 29, 2014, an ISIS manifesto entitled “This is the Promise of Allah” declared the creation of a caliphate (a sovereign Islamic state) with al-Baghdadi as its supreme religious and political leader, or caliph (meaning “successor” to Muhammad). By changing its name yet again, to the Islamic State (IS), the group signaled its disregard for national borders and intent to rule all Muslims worldwide (numbering more than a billion).
Hence the ultimate goal of the IS—to establish a caliphate of Muslims based on its particular brand of Islam. The manifesto declares, “It is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to the [caliph] and support him”. It proclaims how the flag of the IS has risen while enemy flags have fallen, their borders been destroyed, and their soldiers imprisoned, killed, or defeated. Muslims are honored; the Sunnis are masters and esteemed. The people of heresy are humiliated; the infidels are disgraced and required to pay a tax and other obligations. Courts and judges are appointed; lessons and classes are held; and the religion has become completely for Allah. Crosses and graves are demolished as Sharia penalties are implemented—all of them. The “swords of Jihad were unsheathed” for this purpose of “compelling the people to do what the Sharia (Allah’s laws) require of them”.
The penalties executed by the IS are primitive, including beheading, stoning, and other cruel punishment. However, the IS itself is not primitive. It is very aware of social media, which is used with extraordinary savvy to recruit and spread its message worldwide. As of September 2014, the CIA believes that the IS can muster between 20,000 and 31,500 jihadists to fight for its budding caliphate. This is the new face of jihad—tracing its roots to ancient caliphates, fighting on the battlegrounds of decades past.
The next article in this series will examine the military steps the IS has taken toward fulfilling its goal of creating a caliphate.