The Rise of the Islamic State

It starts off small and insignificant. So small, in fact, that it’s ignored by most. But it grows stronger by the day, slowly gaining momentum. It feeds off of hate, anger, and fear. It soon begins to grow at a frightening exponential growth, conquering everything in sight with swift ruthlessness. By the time officials take notice of its expansion, it is too late. The same people who were supposed to prevent it from becoming the unstoppable behemoth it now is are powerless against it; they cannot contain it or curtail its growth. It has expanded from something that was once trifling and trivial, to being “beyond anything we’ve seen”. One might think I’m referring  to a malignant disease, such as AIDS or cancer. In reality, I am talking about the extremist group the Islamic State.

We here at In Loco Politico have covered the expansion and growth of the IS before, but in light of major recent events, I felt complied as to update our readers on the deteriorating situation in the Middle East.

For those who are unaware, the IS is a ruthless terrorist organization fixated on carving out an Islamic state that includes the entire Middle East, North Africa, parts of Asia, Eastern European countries, and even Spain. In essence, the group is trying to combine all territories that have been under Muslim control at some point or another in history under the black flag of the Islamic State. According to the Islamic State’s members, they are the main authority in the Muslim world, so all Muslims must join and accept their doctrine or face death.

The group spawned from the ashes of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) after the organization was crushed by the 2007 surge of troops into Iraq. While coalition forces were able to deal a huge blow to the network, they did not manage to completely extinguish it. The remnants of AQI only festered and grew throughout the years. People from all walks of life joined the organization; soldiers that were loyal to Saddam who could no longer serve in the Iraqi military, typical Sunni Muslims who were frustrated with how Shi’ite Iraqi government treated them, or Muslims living in Western countries sick of Western neocolonialism.

Area that the IS claims will have control of within 5 years.

Islamic State forces have made huge leaps and bounds in the past couple of months. They have captured various towns throughout both Iraq and Syria and have taken strategic points. IS fighters have even claimed control of the Mosul dam, a a crucial piece of Iraqi infrastructure. Kurdish forces have since regained control of the dam and have managed to at least halt their advance and have even pushed IS fighters back in some regions. The Kurdish victories would not have happened had it not been for American airstrikes in the region that softened the IS’s defenses.

The Islamic State has also undergone a name change; they used to be known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) but they have since dropped the “of Iraq and Syria” part of it. Some analysts argue that this was a move to attract more potential recruits and to appear as more widespread or global.

What was once a “JV” terrorist group, with their forces estimated at 2,500 in early 2012 has burgeoned to a force to be reckoned with. According to a CIA report released in September, the Islamic State’s membership ranges between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters strong. Along with being the largest terrorist organization in the world, they are also the wealthiest. In mid June, they robbed the Mosul Central Bank of a reported $425 million dollars, although US officials doubt the actual amount was that high. Regardless of the actual amount stolen, the IS still has a pretty sizable bankroll, due in part to the kidnapping of Westerners (they demanded $125 for American journalist James Foley) and the extortion of local villagers.

Still from James Foley's execution video.
Still from James Foley’s execution video.

They also receive funds from rich private donors in neighboring countries, along with profit they receive from captured oil fields in Iraq and Syria. IS rebels sell the crude oil on the black market for as low as $30 per barrel compared to $100+ in the international market. Analysts claim that the rebel group could be making as much as $3 million per day off the sales of refined petroleum. For this reason, the United States has led allied airstrikes that have hit various IS targets, including some oil fields.

Extent of oil fields under IS control.

The growth of the IS can be attributed to an accumulation of factors. After the withdrawal of American troops in the region, the United States left Iraq ravaged and decimated, turning the country into a cesspit of religious tension and anti-American sentiment. Without American presence in Iraq, morale amongst Iraqi security forces became low; they often desert their post rather than fight IS fighters and face near certain death. They are not only poorly disciplined, but are also inadequately equipped to fight the IS fighters, who often use military-grade weapons captured from Iraqi security forces. These weapons, of course, were given to the Iraqi military by the United States. In essence, American tax dollars are paying for the weapons that IS fighters are using.

American tax dollars are also hard at work providing the IS fighters with transportation. The US State Department recently sent 43 Toyota Hilux trucks to rebel groups in Syria as a form of non-lethal aid. The rebels, of course, eventually joined or outright evolved into various extremist groups in both Iraq and Syria, including the IS. When they joined the groups, they brought with them the vehicles and weapons given to them by the United States and other Western governments in order to combat the Assad regime.

IS fighters parading through the streets in their new, American-bought trucks.

When the United States deposed Saddam Hussein and his tyrannical regime, they also sent Iraq and essentially the entire Middle East into an uncontrollable tailspin. While there is no question that Saddam was a brutal dictator, he at least maintained order and stability in the region. Same can be said about other local dictators such as Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Their totalitarian regimes were criticized by nearly all Western governments, but they managed to keep their country out of turmoil and kept extremists at bay. Not only that, but also the literacy of the Libyan population grew from 25% pre-Qaddafi to 83% post-Qaddafi. Life expectancy also grew from 55 to 74 years. I am in no way condoning the atrocities and humans rights abuses committed by these dictators, but without the presence of an all-powerful strongman, these regions will undergo a period of social and religious turmoil before it gets any better.

Placing troops in Iraq for the third time has been a widely unpopular idea among American citizens, yet many Americans want President Obama to stop the expansion of the IS. For these reasons, airstrikes have been the go-to action in the middle East to combat terrorist. While the strikes kill the targeted suspect more often than not, they also kill scores of innocent civilians within close proximity. Their civilian death toll has made American strikes carried out by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) highly unpopular among the citizens of these countries. The IS is highly aware of this and has turned this animosity as a recruitment tool.

While American airstrikes in the area might be helping IS gain recruits, IS fighters claim that they want said strikes to stop. They want them to stop so badly, in fact, that they have beheaded two Americans journalists and one British aid worker thus far. We must reiterate that these three Westerners did not have any ties to the American airstrikes nor Western military involvement. The IS seems to be taking the “sons must pay for the sins of their fathers” approach in order to get the United States from continuing said airstrikes.

Like many other terrorist organizations, the IS videotapes the beheadings and posts them on the internet. At the end of all videos, the masked executioner promises that so long as American airstrikes continue, IS will behead more Westerners they claim to have in captivity. What the IS fails to realize is that the United States is relentless when it comes to airstrikes. To the United States, it doesn’t necessarily matter if two journalists get beheaded; they’ll just carpet bomb and flatten two countries.

The videos exhibit IS’s prowess when it comes to the use of social media and technology. Rather than the grainy, low quality beheading videos that have become synonymous with terrorist groups, the IS’s videos are shot in high definition. They also cut the goriest part of the video (the actual beheading) out, perhaps in an attempt to make the video more accessible and “family friendly”. The executioner in the videos also appears to have an east London accent and has been dubbed “Jihad John” by many news outlets. Various media sources have stated that Jihad John is actually 23-year-old Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, a failed London rapper who left London year ago to fight alongside the IS. Neither American nor British intelligence have corroborated this evidence so far.

A group of IS fighters.

Middle Eastern and Arab countries have just as much if not more to fear from IS than the US, yet until recently they have done very little to help curtail the IS’s expansion. The threat posed by the IS has created a rare instance in which the United States, Iran, and Syria are all poised in agreement against a common enemy: the Islamic State. Iran got involved because their state religion is Shi’ite while the IS is a Sunni movement. The country fears that the insurgency might cause an uprising of Sunnis in Iran.

Syria’s President Bashar Assad also has a lot to lose from the expansion of the IS. After all, the IS is Assad’s regime’s biggest threat in the Syrian civil war.  This, of course, places President Obama in quite the predicament. Should he choose to launch airstrikes in Iraq and Syria (spoiler alert: he already has) against IS, in turn helping the same regime that he condemned just months prior?

The situation also puts the President at odds with his own words to the American public. During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-senator Barrack Obama ran on a promise that he would end the infamous Iraq war. In 2009, that promise he made to the American people seemed to be coming true. President Obama announced that he would begin a withdrawal of all American military forces and that our troops would be home in time for the holidays. The withdrawal of all American military forces in Iraq began in June of 2009 and wrapped up in December of 2011. President Obama finally declared the dreaded Iraq war, which has cost the United States $1.7 trillion dollars (not including the $490 billion in benefits owed to veterans) and 4,486 American lives, over.

Despite Obama’s own campaign promises and withdrawal of troops, on August 8th Obama announced the United States has launched allied airstrikes against IS targets in Iraq and, more recently, in Syria. There have been 222 individual strikes within Iraq between early August and late September, along with 51 in Syria within the past week.

Coupled with the airstrikes, President Obama has also authorized deployment of troops on the ground. The United States isn’t the only one to authorize troops in the region; Turkey has recently also approved request to send troops to the area. The US has been leading a coalition, a coalition of the willing (or perhaps, the unwilling) composed of both regional (Saudi Arabia & the United Arab Emirates) and western European (France & Britain) partners. After a decade of perpetual war in both Afghanistan and Iraq, many Americans are relieved to see regional countries take some responsibility of the situation.

As if it wasn’t enough that the United States is conducting airstrikes and placing troops on the ground, we are also arming and providing military advisement to the Kurdish people. This has been a controversial move, especially after recent events in which extremist groups are using the same weapons we provided them with against us. Many critics are saying that the United States is arming and supporting a new “rebel” group every couple months or so.

The Kurds are the inhabitants of a swath of land that encompasses parts of South-East Turkey, north Iraq, and West Iran. They are an ethnic group composed of people from various religions, though Sunni is the most prevalent. The Kurds have been fighting for self-autonomy ever since the Kurds of Iraq fell under the rule of the British after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. They have only succeeded in Iraq, where the Iraqi government recognizes their right to self-government.

Under Saddam’s Shi’ite government, the Kurds were repressed and treated as second class citizens. Their want for autonomy and resistance angered Saddam. This anger culminated to become the Al-Anfal campaign, one of the most vicious acts of genocide in recent history. Saddam launched the Al-Anfal campaign to try to get rid of pockets of Kurdish resistance by any means necessary, including collective punishment of civilians and using chemical weapons. The first campaign was launched on the evening of March 16, 1988. Iraqi forces pounded the Kurdish town of Halabja with rockets and napalm. Before the dust even settled, Iraqi aircraft began relentlessly dropping chemical weapons on civilian neighborhoods. The streets were filled with poisonous gas and the smell of sweet apples, the tell-tale smell of mustard gas. The lucky ones dropped dead immediately. Those who weren’t so lucky died in a fit an uncontrollable laughter, while others coughed up green vomit before dying shortly after.

A photojournalist walking among the victims of the chemical attacks.

After the 5-hour-long campaign had ceased, there was upwards of 5,000 dead and 10,000 injured. Saddam Hussein just perpetrated the worst chemical weapons attack in the history of mankind; a court in The Hague had confirmed that the use of chemical weapons did qualify as an act of genocide. The Iraqi army took the town of Halabja shortly after the attacks and razed it.

For an organization that seems hell-bent on instating an archaic and intolerant Muslim caliphate throughout Iraq and Syria, IS sure knows how to use the internet and social media to further their cause. Many high-ranking members of the organization run Twitter accounts, in which they post pictures with dead and/or decapitated bodies. They also spread pro-IS propaganda (see picture below) and make threats towards Western countries.

IS also uses social media to gain new recruits, such as 19-year-old Aqsa Mahmood. Asqa left a comfortable life and a loving family in Glasgow, Scotland to go wage jihad in Syria. Asqa’s parents, Muzaffar and Khalida, immigrated to Scotland from Pakistan in the 1970s to be the first Pakistani cricket player for Scotland. The Mahmood family lived comfortably; they resided in an affluent neighborhood and their kids attended prestigious private schools.

That, however, did not stop Asqa from taking a flight to Turkey where she crossed the border into Syria. Her parents never expected Asqa to do such a thing, as she never showed any signs of harboring extremist sentiment. They said she liked reading Harry Potter books and listening to Coldplay. Yet when the Syrian Civil War broke out, she became concerned with the violence that was taking place between Assad’s regime and the protesters. She began listening to online sermons and connecting with other like-minded people that gave her advice on how to get to Syria. She also met an IS fighter, to whom she is now married to.

Tweet posted by Aqsa.

In November of last year, Asqa said a final goodbye to her family and boarded a flight to Syria. Since she’s left, Asqa has maintained limited contact with her family. On a CNN interview, her family pleaded for her to return home. Asqa is one of the many women who have left comfortable lives in Western countries in order to make the pilgrimage to Syria. These women are encouraged by women already within the organization, who tell these potential recruits that they will be supporting their “fighter brothers” for the good of Allah as well as spread Islam throughout the world.

There is also a shocking number of Westerners making the exodus to Syria in order to fight for al-Baghdadi. Out of the 12,000 or so foreign fighters in the area, there are over 2,000 European and 100 American citizens in the group’s ranks. Douglas McCain is one of the various Americans who has traveled to Syria in order to fight for al-Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed caliphate. McCain went to Syria by way of Turkey in June, but was killed while fighting the Free Syrian Army. According to his family, McCain “reverted” back to Islam after being roommates with Troy Kastigar while in college. Kastigar was killed in 2009 while fighting with the Somali terrorist organization al-Shabbab. It is believed that McCain became interested in joining an extremist group after meeting Kastigar.

While Twitter has been of great use to IS fighters, it can also be one of the greatest threats to the terrorist group. Somewhere in Damascus, behind a computer/cellphone/tablet screen, an unknown person has been running the Twitter account @Wikibaghdady has been active since early last December. The account has tweeted various damning tweets about the Islamic State, but officials have not been able to prove the authenticity of the tweets.

The Twitter account claims that al-Baghdadi is a fraud; he does not hail from Baghdad as his nom de guerre implies, nor does he hold a PhD in Islamic studies like his biography claims. Al-Baghdadi is, in fact, a cleric named Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim who hails from the Iraqi town of Samarra. In addition to this, al-Baghdadi is not the ruthless mastermind he claims to be. Many senior officials actually doubted his capability to lead when he was nominated to the head position when the IS’s top two leaders were killed in 2010.

From here, the tweets begin to depict a conspiracy that resembles the plot for a Tom Clancy novel. While Al-Baghdadi was inexperienced, he was also relatively unknown, a fresh face in the region. Many high ranking IS members were former generals and people-of-power loyal to Saddam’s Baathist party. Due to the scores of human rights abuses and atrocities perpetrated by Saddam and his buddies that affected pretty much everyone in the region, the Baathist left a bitter taste in the mouth of Middle Easterners. Haji Bakr, a former Baathist party member and colonel in Saddam Hussein’s army, was aware of this. He knew he couldn’t have a former Baathist lead the group; it would automatically delegitimize the entire movement. So he placed al-Baghdadi, a relatively unknown cleric, as the figurehead of the organization. In essence, al-Baghdadi is a puppet while the former Baathist members are the puppeteers.

Al-Baghdadi addressing a crowd of his followers in a Mosul mosque, a rare public appearance from the mysterious leader of the IS.

The tweets go on to claim that the whole “instating a hardline Islamic caliphate” thing is just a ploy used by the Baathists to gain the support of disenfranchised Sunni Muslims. They don’t actually want to instate a caliphate, they simply want to regain power in the region and they’re using fervent, disenfranchised Muslims to do so.

The IS’s strategy is considered an unorthodox one for terrorist groups. Rather than just relying on hit-and-run attacks such as suicide bombings, IS fighters keep and hold onto towns and other strategic points. Their use of social media and technology are also astounding, perhaps implying that the organization is more organized than a rag-tag group of soldiers.

Despite continued airstrikes by American and Coalition forces, there seems to be no end in sight to the IS’s expansion and growth. The current situation in Iraq/Syria marks the third time American troops have been in Iraq in the past 25 years. Maybe President Obama believes third time’s a charm. While President Obama claims that our involvement in Iraq and Syria is not a war, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck… well you know the rest. So let’s strap ourselves in, my fellow Americans, for another decade of war!


5 thoughts on “The Rise of the Islamic State

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