News / Middle East

Terrorist Group is Fusion of a Quasi-State, Radical Islam

Militant Islamist fighters wave flags as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province, June 30, 2014.
Militant Islamist fighters wave flags as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province, June 30, 2014.

The group calling itself “The Islamic State” continues its drive to conquer and rule a piece of the Middle East. Its violent campaign to spread its extreme form of Islam challenges the governments of both Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan.  A massive relief crisis is ongoing as hundreds of thousands of people flee its wave of terror and murder.

Radicals from all over the world are joining the Islamic State, driven by their shared desire to impose a radical brand of Islam in every land they conquer and create a ‘Caliphate” - an Islamic religious governing authority.

“The aim [of those supporting the Islamic State] is not power,” said Middle East analyst Tawfik Hamid of the Potomac Institute. “Their aim is to use power to achieve an ideological belief [the Caliphate]. The difference is huge – in the former case, they would sacrifice their ideology if this would help them gain power.”

But with the Islamic State, the opposite is true.

“They are not ready to make ideological concessions to reach power,” said Hamid.

The “Islamic State” was proclaimed in June. It asserted a Caliphate ruled the Syrian and Iraqi territory the militant group holds. And military operations continue to seek additional territory.

The Islamic State was formerly called ISIL – “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” – the name it took in April, 2013. That, itself, is an outgrowth of what was called al-Qaida in Iraq, or AQI, which came together in 2006. The proclaimed head of the Islamic State, whose nom de guerre is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, became the leader of AQI in May 2010, and then ISIL. 

In 2013 al-Baghdadi moved operations to take part in the rebellion against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.  He had a falling out with the Syrian Sunni radical group Jabhat al-Nusra – the Nusra Front, and the rift caused al-Qaida leader Ayman Zawahiri to disown ISIL and al-Baghdadi.  But in June 2014, reports say al-Nusra agreed to send its fighters to join the Islamic State, giving its thrust into Iraq even greater energy.

Many intelligence estimates have pegged al-Baghdadi’s force at some 15,000. If al-Nusra, which has a similar force strength, has indeed merged there could be 30,000 fighters under the Islamic State’s black banner.

“The fighters are very heavily Iraqi/Syrian,” said Raffaello Pantucci at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “There are substantial bodies of people from across the world. The biggest community is from the Gulf [Saudi, Kuwait], but there is also a big group from North Africa [Tunisia and Libya seem very well represented]. Then from across Europe, a smaller number of North Americans, and then random clusters of Central Asians, Southeast Asians, Australians, and a few from Africa.”

The Islamic State, like al-Qaeda and other radical Islamists, use the Internet as a recruiting tool and a means of projecting terror.

“Their multimedia campaign is very slick and quite well controlled.They are active on social media, produce high quality videos with clear and easy messages,” Pantucci said. “Their videos and messages are clearly well received, as people re-tweet them and consume them with great vigor. The terror and violence they deploy in this direction is something of a trademark that obviously their followers enjoy and find appealing.”

The Islamic State posts videos to show its prowess on the battlefield. It is also uploading scenes of opponents getting shot dead and other forms of execution, including crucifixion. 

Violence is a highly valuable tool to the Islamic State because it achieves the goal of control without any compromises to the group’s ideology. Much of that violence has been facilitated by the capture of weapons abandoned by the Iraqi army in Mosul and other cities, and with weapons brought into Iraq from Syria.

The Wall Street Journal quoted Center for Strategic and International Studies analyst Anthony Cordesman as saying “You lost approximately three divisions worth of equipment and probably at least three depots in that area [Mosul].”

Much of the equipment taken by the Islamic State when the Iraqi army fled Mosul was front-line American weaponry.  Multiple reports say the loot included U.S. Stinger surface-to-air missiles, artillery pieces, Humvees, and heavy trucks, not to mention piles of assault rifles and ammunition. Because of this, the United States recently accelerated transfers of weaponry to the Kurdistan Government’s Peshmerga military, and initiated air operations in support of Peshmerga and Iraqi army movements.

While many call for robust military operations to crush the Islamic State, there must be a political solution, said RAND analyst and author Colin Clarke.

“Make progress on stabilizing Syria” and resolve its civil war”, he said. “Iraq desperately needs new leadership that is perceived by the Iraqi population as inclusive of all minorities.”

Clarke blames outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s Shi’a “sectarianism [that] is in large part responsible for the popular support Sunnis now offer the Islamic State.”

A new Iraqi government – with a new prime minister and president – must move quickly and take decisive actions both militarily and politically to address the Islamic State.

Jeffrey Young

Jeffrey Young came to the “Corruption” beat after years of doing news analysis, primarily on global strategic issues such as nuclear proliferation.  During most of 2013, he was on special assignment in Baghdad and elsewhere with the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).  Previous VOA activities include VOA-TV, where he created the “How America Works” and “How America Elects” series, and the “Focus” news analysis unit.

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Comment Sorting
by: Jonas Nduli
August 15, 2014 7:55 PM
Let's not play down the current state of the Muslim community, today. ISIS may be the latest group to hit the headlines - but they are by no means a small, isolated entity crazies. Viewing them as such would be a serious error. They are from the mainstream Sunni doctrine and consider themselves as 'good Muslims'. Accordingly, they have tens-of-thousands of well wishers or supporters, from around the world. Somehow, over a number of decades, millions of Muslims have started supporting and actively working with - Islamist groups in central Africa, North Africa and across the Middle East. The risk presented by these people today, is huge.

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