The aspiration of the IS or Islamic State is the creation of a caliphate. According to Islam law, a caliphate is state that is ruled by a single religious as well as political leader. Another term used to define such a state is Sharia.
Large swathes of eastern Syria and North West Iraq have now been seized by IS.
Its brutal tactics that include abductions of ethnic and religious minorities as well as mass killings and heading of journalists and soldiers have sparked outrage and fear across the globe prompting military intervention from the US.
What IS wants?
As stated earlier, the IS group’s aim is to establish a caliphate.
While the activities of the IS are currently limited to Syria and Iraq, the group has promised that it will ‘break the borders” of Lebanon and Jordan to “free Palestine”. With support from Muslims around the world, the group demands everyone should swear allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, its leader.
The Origin of IS
The roots of IS can be traced back to Abu Musab a Zarqawi (late) of Jordan who established the Tawhid wa al-jihad in 2002. Zarqawi formed ‘al Qaeda in Iraq(AQI)’ in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion lead by the US. With this move Zarqawi also pledged his allegiance to Osama Bin Laden and the AQI positioned itself as a major force flaming the insurgency.
When Zarqawi died in 2006, ISIS or Islamic State in Iraq was created by AQI as an umbrella organization. As a result, the surge of the US troops weakened and the Sunni Arab tribesmen created Sahwa(Awakening) councils rejecting ISI’s brutality. In 2013 Iraq witnessed enhanced attacks with dozens of them coming every month. Simultaneously the al-Nusra front was set up to join the rebellious forces against the Syrian President Bashr al-Assad.
In 2013 April Baghdadi’s forces in Syria and Iraq merged leading to the creation of ISIS or Islamic State in Iraq . The al-Qaeda and al-Nusra rejected this move but Baghdadi’s loyal fighters split from al-Nusra helping the ISIS retain its position in Syria.
The ISIS focus shifted back to Iraq by end December, 2013 and a political standoff between the minority community of Sunni Arab and the government lead by the Shia community was exploited. The group then took control of Fallujah actively aided by the tribesmen.
The Mosul city was overrun by ISIS in June2014 and then it advanced south heading for Baghdad. By the end of June, it consolidated the hold over dozens of towns and cities and ISIS announced the creation of caliphate changing its name to IS or Islamic State.
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Territories Now Controlled by IS Now
Rough estimates put the extent of territory controlled by IS and allies at about 15,000 sq. miles or 40,000 sq kms in Syria and Belgium which is around the size of Belgium. Some other estimates put the area at 35,000 sq miles or 90,000 sq.kms, which is the size of Jordan. This territory now controlled by IS include cities such as Mosul, Fallujah, Tikrit, and Tal Afar of Iraq and the Syrian city Raqqa – with dams, oil fields, border crossings and main roads.
Some 8 million people are reported to be now under full or partial control of the IS with the group interpreting stringent implementation of Sharia including forcing women to wear veils and non Muslims to either convert or pay up a special tax as well as imposing punishments including executions and floggings.
How Many are Fighting for the IS?
US officials hold the view that some 31,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq are fighting for the IS. Hisham al-Hashimi an Iraq expert holds the view that some 30% are “ideologues” and the remainder joining from coercion or fear. Noticeably, a significant number of these fighters are neither Syrians nor Iraqis. A recent estimate by the Sufan group put a figure of 12,000 as foreign nationals from as many as 81 countries that include 2,500 from the western states having travelled to Syria to join the fight over the last 3 years.
The IS fighters are also capable of using and can access a wide range of heavy and small weapons that include truck mounted machine guns anti-aircraft funds, rocket launchers, and surface to surface air missile systems that are portable. They have also captured from Iraq and Syrian armies armored vehicles and tanks. Bomb proof trucks and Humvees also form part of the vehicles captured from the Iraq army and these were manufactured originally for the US military.
What Makes the IS Strong
The IS today has rapidly progressed to a position of significant strength that it can no more be just wished away. Consider the following to put the enormity of the situation into perspective.
Flexible Supply Chain
The supply chain of the group is believed to be flexible and that ensures constant supply of small arms and ammunition for the fighters. In August, the significant fire power that helped IS overrun Kurdish Peshmerga positions in north Iraq has surprised many.
IS is also reported to be cash rich with about $2bn worth of assets and cash and that makes it the wealthiest among all militant groups in the world. The chunk of this financial support has come from individuals in various Gulf States. Presently, the IS is largely self financed earning several million dollars every month from taxation, smuggling, tolls, extortion, kidnapping and income from the oil and gas fields under its control. Adding a further twist, the Iraq offensive turned out to be lucrative with access to significant amount of cash that was seized from major banks in towns and cities. The members of the IS are Jihadists who uphold an extreme interpretation of ‘Sunni Islam’ and regard themselves to be the only believers. According to them, the rest of the world consists of unbelievers who seek the destruction of Islam and that argument is advanced to justify the attacks on Muslims as well as non Muslims alike.
Even Muslims Don’t Subscribe to the Barbaric Practices of the IS
Enemies of the IS have been terrorized through crucifixion, beheadings, and mass shootings. Such atrocities have been justified by the IS members quoting verses from the Koran that speak of “striking off the heads” of all unbelievers. However, Muslims in general have denounced them. Even Adman al Zawahiri, the al-Qaida leader disavowed the actions of the IS in Syria in February and Zarqawi was warned in 2005 that such a scale of brutality will lead to loss of “Muslim hearts and minds”.
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Header image credit: “Islamic State (IS) insurgents, Anbar Province, Iraq” by Islamic State (IS)