If you’ve been watching the news lately — or, for college students, if you’ve been watching Jon Stewart or the Colbert Report — you’ve heard of the militant Jihadist organization operating in Iraq and Syria known as ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). If you’re like the average Stanford student, you have a pretty vague idea of what the organization is: a militant Middle Eastern group with a pseudo-religious leader and scary imperialist goals.
“Sounds like Al-Qaeda, and we dealt with them pretty handily, right?”
Al-Qaeda swore off its allegiance with ISIS because the latter was too extreme. In other words, it’s a group about which you should have more than a cursory knowledge.
ISIS has a short but terrifyingly rapid history. The organization drew its members from a number of Iraqi insurgent groups, including Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), that profess Sunni Islam. The supreme leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, led its forces last year during the Syrian Civil War, during which ISIS saw significant growth in its numbers and influence.
Its strength in the war, coupled with its existing representation in a number of Iraqi provinces, has led to its control over about a third of Iraq and Syria. The organization declared its independence in January of this year and took Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, as its capital on June 10.
Now, ISIS is feared in both America and the Middle East — for good reason. Its original goal was to declare a caliphate in the Sunni regions of Iraq and Syria — the same goal once possessed by Osama bin Laden — and it did so last week. An ISIS spokesman said that Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi would be thenceforth known as “Al-Khalifah Ibrahim,” or “the Caliph Abraham.”
The group now officially calls itself “The Islamic State,” with the motto “Remaining and Expanding.” It sees itself as the one true Islamic state and has goals for expanding its caliphate through whatever means possible.
So far, those means have been bloody. ISIS is famous, even among Sunni insurgent groups, for having one of the most brutal interpretations of Islam. Al-Qaeda cut ties with it back in February, saying that it was an unyielding and wantonly violent gang. Its 4,000 fighters have directed attacks upon religious enemies like Shia Muslims and Christians, fought military and government forces that oppose them and claimed the lives of thousands of civilians.
What does this mean for the governments opposing them, including those of the United States and Iraq?
It seems like their first step, apart from suppressing attacks across Iraq and Syria, is to identify Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. There have been a few possible photos and appearances, but nothing substantial so far. The biggest step towards finding out what the ISIS leader looks like was made this past Sunday, when a video of a man giving a sermon at the biggest mosque in Mosul surfaced in Iraqi social media sites.
The video depicts a man, who is called “Al-Baghdadi,” surrounded by gunmen, giving a sermon. According to a translation posted by the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors terror organizations, the man urges his followers to wage jihad during Ramadan — the month of fasting which began at the end of June.
“It is a month from Allah when we are protected from hell, and this is every night — nights during which the marketplace of jihad is open,” the man said.
The Iraqi government is cross-referencing the video with other sources to find out whether this man is the leader we are looking for. The United States does not have such sources and is awaiting intelligence from Iraq. However, two things are sure: First, even if this is not the ISIS leader, the video is an indication of the group’s growing influence; and second, the year-long search to view Al-Baghdadi’s face does not bode well for our inevitable search for the man himself. And while governments are scanning videos, ISIS-controlled Iraqi provinces are being uprooted.
Many of the citizens of Mosul and the other ISIS-controlled cities have fled to Shi’ite-majority Baghdad, where Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki claims that Iraq’s defeats to the organization so far are not enough to stop him from fighting back.
“I have vowed to God that I will continue to fight by the side of our armed forces and volunteers until we defeat the enemies of Iraq and its people,” Maliki said.
With the United States hesitant to send help after the Iraq War and increasingly extreme threats coming from ISIS (like a recent video in which fighters announced in Spanish that they will “take back Spain,” the land of their forefathers), we can only hope that the prime minister’s vigor matches the country’s strength.
So why should we care?
Well, ISIS is quickly earning national infamy. The Washington Post released an article yesterday about how all of the other groups in the world named “ISIS” are changing their name out of international recognition of the terrorist group.
It will very quickly become a question whether U.S. involvement is viable, necessary or (as many will probably argue) a repeat of last time. The group could also become a very real spiritual threat. Implicit in its plan to eradicate all enemies of Islam is the notion that all Muslims who are compromising with the West must be dealt with. It has already made threats against the holy city of Mecca.
The threat of ISIS is on the rise, and we shouldn’t be in the dark at its peak.
Contact Liam Kinney at [email protected]