1. The organisation has variously been known as AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq), ISI (Islamic State in Iraq), ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), SIC (State of the Islamic Caliphate), ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and Da’ish (an abbreviation of the Arabic for ISIL).
The numerous names demonstrate the changes the group has undergone (from being aligned with al-Qaeda to claiming to have founded a new caliphate*). They also give an insight into the ambition of ISIS, which has pretensions to rule territory spanning the Middle East and even North Africa. There has also been some debate as to what foreign governments should call the organisation: while the American and British governments prefer ISIL, France uses Da’ish – a term which the group itself very much dislikes but which, the French government points out, denies the terrorists any air of legitimacy.
* (an Islamic state ruled by a supreme religious and political leader, the caliph).
2. Muslim groups in Britain have stood out against ISIS
The situation is far more complex than simply Christian vs Muslim. For, while the group may claim to have founded a new caliphate, many Muslims reject ISIS’s self-professed religious authority. Organisations such as the Islamic Society of Britain and the Association of British Muslims have argued that the terrorists are neither Islamic, nor a State. Meanwhile, however, a number of young British Muslims have been travelling to Iraq to join ISIS. Just how far these men (and women) are motivated by religion is debateable. As Thomas Babbington Macaulay, MP, historian and poet, put it in 1848:
“The experience of many ages proves that men may be ready to fight to the death, and to persecute without pity, for a religion whose creed they do not understand, and whose precepts they habitually disobey.”
3. Some have blamed the Iraq War for the rise of ISIS
ISIS is made up of Sunni Muslims. Under Saddam Hussein, Sunnis held much of the power in the country, despite the fact that the majority of Iraqis are Shias. After the Western invasion of Iraq, Shia militias seized upon the chance to seek revenge against their erstwhile repressors, as Frank Ledwige describes in his book Losing Small Wars. Today the Iraq government is dominated by Shias, which provides ample recruitment propaganda for ISIS. As long as sectarian violence continues in Iraq and as long as either Sunnis or Shias feel under-represented in government, Iraq will struggle to find peace.
4. Al-Qaeda broke their association with ISIS because the group defied orders to not kill so many civilians.
ISIS is too violent even for al-Qaeda. Which is worrying. The high-profile beheadings which the terrorists have carried out of journalists and aid-workers has further fuelled their reputation for brutality.
5. ISIS gets a large amount of revenue from the sale of oil and electricity, and from extortion.
As well as being ambitious and extremely violent, ISIS is organised to the point of looking like something of a mini-state. The capture of Syrian power plants and oil fields means the group does not have to rely on funding from outside sources. Add the money ISIS gets from ‘taxing’ local humanitarian and commercial operations and the organisation is a well-funded terrorist outfit. This money allows the group to pay high salaries to its fighters, making them better paid than the Iraq military. It also apparently allows them to offer free healthcare, housing and other benefits to those in the areas they control. And guess who is buying the oil and electricity from ISIS? The Syrian government.
6. When attacked in Iraq they escape to Syria and when attacked in Syria they escape to Iraq.
This makes ISIS that much harder to defeat militarily. Known as using a ‘rear area’, this tactic has been seen in places like Afghanistan where the Taliban would frequently cross the Afghan-Pakistan border to escape prosecution by either country. The incompetence of the Iraq army (which suffers from high desertion rates and lack of morale) has compounded the problem. Current US bombing strategy aims to counter this by cutting-off the ‘rear area’ and preventing ISIS from retreating.
7. ISIS is not the only anti-government group in Iraq
One such rebel group is Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN). These are Sunni nationalists, many of whom are former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party loyalists. This illustrates just how deep the sectarian divisions are within the country and the difficulties faced by peace-builders there. The military defeat of ISIS will not alone fix the problems facing Iraq. There is a real danger that another terrorist group would simply take its place. Solutions therefore need to include building religious tolerance and national unity in Iraq.