• Wed, 26, Aug, 2015 - 5:00:AM

ISIS: Explained

Image: Enno Lenze / Flickr

Among the lead international news stories on an almost daily basis, the atrocities of the terror group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (most often abbreviated as ISIS, though sometimes referred to as ISIL, IS or Da’eesh among other names) are well-known to almost everyone. But while it’s common knowledge their actions are – quite literally – among the most barbaric in recorded human history, what’s less known is how ISIS came to be so powerful, and how the chaos in the chaos in Iraq and Syria allowed for their rise.

So what, exactly, is the deal with ISIS? Villainesse explains.

How was ISIS formed?

ISIS began in 1999 as Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (“Organisation of Monotheism and Jihad”), under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Founded in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, the group pledged its loyalty to Al-Qaeda in 2004, becoming popularly known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). One of the main insurgent groups fighting against the United States after the US invaded Iraq in 2003, it was responsible for numerous suicide bombings and other attacks that resulted in the deaths of thousands. Its stated goal at the time was to force the US to withdraw its soldiers and to re-establish Iraq as a nation governed by Islamic law.

After Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike in 2006, the group underwent a period of extreme flux, with numerous people vying for control. By 2010, a man named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi assumed leadership, claiming that his background as an Islamic religious scholar meant he could guide the group spiritually and unite all Muslims worldwide in a single nation, or Ummah. The group was renamed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) in 2013, and formally separated from Al-Qaeda in February 2014.

What does ISIS want?

The stated goal of ISIS is to form a single Caliphate – an Islamic government led by a single religious leader – throughout the world. This is done in accordance with the group’s warped interpretation of the Koran, which they believe commands them to spread their “message” and convert non-Muslims. If a person does not wish to convert to Islam, ISIS believes, then they must be killed.

Why are they so dangerous?

ISIS has already spread far beyond its original stronghold of Fallujah, and today controls large swathes of both Iraq and neighbouring Syria. In fact, the group’s de facto capital is now the Syrian city of Raqqa, which they conquered in 2013.

While military operations by dozens of nations – New Zealand included – has slowed the group’s territorial expansion, what makes ISIS especially dangerous is their extensive use of the Internet to disseminate gruesome propaganda and convince people around the world to join them and carry out terrorist attacks on their behalf.

How are women affected?

The claim that ISIS may be the worst oppressor of women in known history is not an exaggeration.

In areas controlled by the group, women literally have no rights, and are nothing more than the property of their husbands or their closest male relative. Girls as young as nine years old may be married off without any say in the matter, and slavery – both sexual and literal – is widespread. If a woman is raped, it’s often seen as her fault, and she may be executed for it. Before kidnapped American aid worker Kayla Mueller, 26, was murdered in February, she was kept as a slave and repeatedly raped by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself.

With the unspeakable horrors ISIS routinely commits against women well-publicised, what’s even more shocking to many is that there are some women who voluntarily join ISIS – sometimes even running away from their homes in Europe or the West and traveling thousands of miles to do so.

The roles of these women are varied once they join ISIS. The vast majority are married off to male ISIS militants, while others are assigned to work on social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter to try and lure more women to ISIS. Still others join the feared Al-Khansaa Brigade, an all-female paramilitary group tasked primarily with enforcing ISIS’ perverted interpretation of Islamic law on other women. They’re said to be responsible for crimes including torturing and executing other women.

While much has been written about the hundreds – if not thousands – of young women who have voluntarily joined ISIS, much less attention has been paid to the reasons why they join. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London says the reasons can vary, but can include anger over persecution of Muslims, a desire to be part of a sisterhood with similar beliefs, and the belief that fighting is empowering.

How can ISIS be stopped?

That’s a question many are asking.

An aerial bombing campaign by the United States and others that began in 2014 has seemingly done little to loosen ISIS’ hold over much of its territory. Further complicating matters is the ongoing civil war in Syria, which is pitting the government of Bashar al-Assad – whose atrocious human rights record has been criticised by many, including New Zealand prime minister John Key – against a vast array of disparate rebel groups, including ISIS, with wildly different goals.

But ISIS is so brutal, even contemporary enemies such as Russia and the United States have said they need to work together to fight them. Over 60 countries are at war with the group, including New Zealand. Kiwi military instructors are currently in Iraq helping train Iraqi soldiers to fight ISIS, and humanitarian aid from NZ has also been delivered.

Of course, the presence of Kiwi military personnel in Iraq also makes New Zealand a potential target for ISIS. John Key, Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee, and intelligence experts have all warned there is the potential either ISIS or ISIS-inspired individuals could carry out attacks on our shores in retaliation, though so far their fears have been unfounded.

For now, we can only hope it stays that way.


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  • Terror /
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  • Syria /
  • Islam /
  • Al-Qaeda /
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