ISIS: Then, There and Now
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria was born in a region known for its decades of strife, poverty and religious extremism. But was their creation inevitable? Was the Middle East always leading down the path to an era of beheadings and Islamic Caliphates? Or are outside reasons to blame for its creation? And what hope is there for the future?
May 11, 2004. The World is stunned to see a horrific video posted on a militant group’s propaganda website that shows the beheading of Nick Berg, a American freelance radio-tower repairman who went to Iraq and went missing in March. The group responsible was named “Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad” (Group of Monotheism and Jihad) and there path of destruction would become known to the world and the soldiers fighting in Iraq. This group would later come to be known as “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” after declaring allegiance to Osama Bin Laden a couple months later, and it would grow later into ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Its leader, Abu Musab Al-Zargawi, will become known as a leader of death and blood.
Zargawi was different from other leaders found throughout Al-Qaeda. Bin Laden and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, preferred to work from the behind the scenes, instructing there followers how to follow the proper ways of their form of Islam by attacking American bases and setting off IEDs, (Improvised explosive devices). While Zargawi preferred to have “hands-on” policy, as shown by the fact he was the one who took it upon himself to behead Nick Berg and later Eugene Armstrong. He will personally push Iraq into civil war.
In 2006, Zargawi was in a meeting at a safe house when two 500-pounds crashed through the roof, killing everyone inside. Zargawi’s rule had ended, but his mission continued on. AQI (Al-Qaeda in Iraq), had successfully Incited sectarian violence throughout Iraq. AQI targeted many Shia mosques and residential districts which incited aa wave of sectarian violence between Shias and Suunis. Even the main branch of Al-Qaeda has begun to distance itself from the violence mostly targeting civilians. In a video that appeared in December 2007, al-Zawahiri defended the AQI, but distanced himself from the crimes against civilians committed by “hypocrites and traitors” that he said existed among its ranks.
IEDs were the number one cause of casualties among the American and other Allied Forces at the time, and they were going off daily, sometimes hourly across the country. Al-Qaeda bomb makers like Abu Abdullah were building IEDs that could look as simple as trash on the side of the road, yet powerful enough to destroy an armored Humvee. The IED would make 2007 the deadliest year for American soldiers, since the start of the war. The IED will drive AQIs rise to power during the Iraqi Civil War, and will lead to its down fall during its twilight.
The Iraqi Civil War raged from 2006 to early 2008, driven by the sectarian division between Shias and Sunis, helped along by the continued AQI IED-ing and suicide bombing of Shia neighborhoods. By 2007, the general population started to turn against AQI. Rejected by Suuni and Shia alike, AQI was driven from cities by militias formed to defend their homes and a new surge of American forces. In 2008, the Civil War ended and deaths of coalition forces dropped dramatically. According to the “Iraq Coalition Casualty Count” Survey, it placed the number of casualties of Coalition Forces at 961 in 2007, in 2008 it had dropped to 322, and then even further in 2009 at 150. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was defeated, for now. Until in 2011, where the vacuum of Arab Spring broke up and Al-Qaeda in Iraq was given a second chance.
The Arab Spring came to a shock to everyone, not only to the international community but also the Terrorist community. Nor did both understand the meaning or the consequences of such an event. To the International community it was a democratic process brought to the Middle East, to groups like Al-Qaeda; it was uprising against Western oppression. In a 9/11 anniversary video in 2011, Zawahiri, the new head of the main branch of Al-Qaeda after a Special Forces mission in Pakistan resulted in the death of Osama Bin Laden, said “America thought the Arab region was stable under its control enforced through a number of agent rulers, who it employed, supported and put in power but then came the powerful and blessed Arab earthquake, to turn America’s calculations head over heels. USA lost Zain al-Abidin bin Ali against its will. It lost Hosni Mubarak despite hating it; it is losing Gaddafi, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Bashar Al-Assad, all against its will.” What Zawahiri did not understand that, though correct the outcome of the Arab Spring would be very anti-western; he would play no role in it.
Bashar Al-Assad used brutality, oppression and lethal force in an attempt to prevent the Arab Spring from entering his country. Like the dictators before him, Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak, such tactics only fueled the revolutions. When the regime forces cleared the streets by firing live ammunition among the crowds, the crowds started to arm themselves. Thus regime forces were forced out of entire cities, replaced with militias loyal to the opposition.
First, the Free Syrian Army, a group of defected soldiers, after refusing to shoot on civilians, dominated the fight. But as the rebels and regime forces fought to a stand-still, new types of groups started to emerge in the void of power found through-out the country. These Islamic based extremist groups were vast in number, and wide ranged in ideals. People flocked to these groups believing them to be able to bring stability. A similar example happened in Afghanistan during the 1990s after the Soviet-Afghan war. Frustrated with the continuing fighting of the Civil War, people place faith in groups that can bring stability and a sense of normalcy. These Islamic extremists grew in strength, joining together to become even stronger creating such groups as the Islamic Front. One group, named Al-Nusra, would become the center of AQIs new rise to power.
Al-Nusra announced its creation on January 23, 2012. It is believed that the original members of Al-Nusra came from Al-Qaeda’s main branch and AQI that were fighting in Iraq the war against the Americans before they left the country. It is very likely that this mixture of Syrian, main Al-Qaeda members and AQI members is what will lead to the split up of Al-Nusra a year later.
In April 2013, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq (AQI changed their name to Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in October 2006 and also was the time that Abu Abdullah al-Rashid al-Baghdadi became ISI’s figurehead emir, with the real power residing with the Egyptian Abu Ayyub al-Masri until a raid on his house ended in Al-Masris death in 2010). Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, released a recorded audio message on the Internet, in which he announced that Al-Nusra was an extension of al-Qaeda in Iraq in Syria and that both groups would be merged into one named “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”.
However, Al-Nusra rejected such a claim and said it would join with other group, re-announcing its pledge of loyalty towards the main branch of Al-Qaeda under Ayman al-Zawahiri. Zawahiri attempted to end the stand-off between the two groups, denouncing that the two groups were to merge and sent a delegate to negotiate. Al-Baghdadi rejected Zawahiris statement and said the merger would continue forward. Shocked that someone who is supposed to be following him rejected his command, Zawahiri decided to denounce the group, breaking the ties between Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the now Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and the main branch of Al-Qaeda, forever.
But this didn’t deter al-Baghdadi. In fact it seemed to in bold him. No longer held down by the restraints, he was his own leader now. His group was bound to rule with an Islamic iron fist. He had recruiters in Syria, recruiting many members of Al-Nusra and other groups into his newly formed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. This brought tensions between Al-Nusra and ISIS to a boiling point, clashes started between both sides that continue to this day.
Islamic State used a powerful tool in its arsenal to recruit young Jihadists, the Youtube. Since the dawn of the internet, it has been plagued by propaganda. ISIS took advantage of the young generation filling social media and placed videos for millions to see, such as lines of surrendered soldiers executed on their knees, to beheadings. This propaganda succeeded to attract many recruiters from every corner of the globe. Around 2,000 jihadists have flocked from countries such as Britian, France, Germany, China and the United States.
The United State’s last soldiers left Iraq in December 2011, believing to have left Iraq capable of handling the turmoil that was still stiffening there country. However, a newly embolden and enforced ISIS brought its forced across the border from Syria and attacked Iraqi forces. The little trained Iraqi military fled in fear despite, tearing off their uniforms and leaving behind swaths of military equipment given to them by US. It wasn’t long before a good chunk of the country was in the control of ISIS.
It was always a fear of the Americans that they would have to return to Iraq. In June they did just that. With a small group of security forces and advisors, American jets began a bombing campaign against ISIS forces. However, despite the return of American air power, and an estimated 1200 American troops, it is unlikely ISIS will be removed from Iraq any time soon, especially when their strongholds across there border in Syria is left mostly alone.
With fighting in Iraq and Syria growing in intensity, and what seems to be a continuing unstoppable ISIS still growing in strength, America and its allies will be forced to make tough choices. Choices they will have to commit to if they ever hope to destroy ISIS. And working with people they may once considered there enemy.
One such scenario is already underway in Iraq, though the Americans may not want to admit it. Like USA, Iran has been sending soldiers and advisors to Iraq to assist in the fight against ISIS. US might have to push past its complaints of Iran’s nuclear program and work with Iran to fight ISIS. Ignoring Iran, like they currently are, may work in the long run, however if America is interested in shortening the war by several years, Iran which has a strong say in Iraq, is the best allied choice to the Americans.
As for Syria, US requires to strike ISIS strongholds located throughout the country. But doing so may be perceived as support for Assad’s Regime, while continuing its support for groups such as the Free Syrian Army. There best option would to coordinate between FSA to attack ISIS, but this may be impossible. Support for ISIS runs strong throughout FSA, despite fighting between the two groups since its creation. And FSA is constantly to busy fighting the Syrian military to fight ISIS. US may have to live with the fact that airstrikes against ISIS may allow gains by the Syrian government, at least for the moment until the FSA can take up the void.
Whatever choice US and its allies choose, for years to come ISIS will continue to be the most powerful terrorist organization in our history. Whose threat is not limited to Syria and Iraq. ISIS wishes to reach out its new Caliphate reaching from Spain to India. They have also expressed their wish to attack targets through-out the West.