Rise of ISIS and the Iraq Crisis

By afternoon, yesterday, Rutba, another town in Iraq’s western Anbar province, was captured by ISIS.

It is the fourth town – after Qaim, Rawah and Anah – that they had captured in two days. Many more had been taken earlier.

And I believe that what is happening in North-western Iraq, and what is likely to happen there in the next few days, can have a tremendous impact on the entire geo-political situation of the Middle East for years to come.

I felt therefore that a look at ISIS, its leadership, and an understanding of what they want, is relevant for us today.

ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is a jihadist group in Iraq and Syria, which is already in control of a huge portion of Northern Iraq, including Mosul, the second largest city of Iraq.

And they seem to be marching straight towards Baghdad in a major confrontation with the Iraqi armed forces.

The final “S” in the acronym ISIS stems from the Arabic word “al-Sham”. It can mean the Levant, Syria or even Damascus but in the context of the global jihad it refers to the Levant.

Levant, incidentally, is an old term for the countries of the ‘Eastern Mediterranean’.

Our readers must have noticed, therefore, different news-reports in the media, with this group being sometimes called ISIS, and sometimes called ISIL.

This breakaway group from AlQaeda, claims now to have with it fighters from the UK, France, Germany and other European countries, apart from the US, the Arab world and the Caucasus.

Unlike other rebel groups in Syria, ISIS is seen to be working towards an Islamic emirate that straddles both Syria and Iraq.

Formed in April 2013, out of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), ISIS has been disavowed by al-Qaeda. But we really do not know if there is, or there will be, an inside deal.

The leader is said to be Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, an obscure figure, born in 1971, in Samarra, north of Baghdad.

He is said to have joined the insurgency that erupted in Iraq soon after the 2003 US-led invasion.

By 2010, he emerged as a strong leader of the al-Qaeda in Iraq. But his group soon broke away to become ISIS in 2013.

In January 2014, ISIS is said to have capitalised on the growing tension between Iraq’s Sunni minority and Shia-led government by taking control of the predominantly Sunni city of Fallujah, in the western province of Anbar.

When we analyze a bit, we can see that the departure of US troops from Iraq, the subsequent dwindling of numbers in Iraqi armed forces, and the release of many Al Qaeda prisoners – who were already skilled at organizing military combat – must have all contributed to the rise of ISIS.

Also, the civil war in Syria, and the lack of fair representation of Sunnis in Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, caused ISIS to grow.

According to BBC reports, Baghdadi is regarded as a battlefield commander and tactician, which analysts say makes ISIS more attractive to young jihadists.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda on the other hand, is viewed as an Islamic theologian, and not as a military strategist like Baghdadi.
This is perhaps the main reason why many western young people are joining forces with him.

BBC says that one Prof Peter Neumann of King’s College London estimates that about 80% of Western fighters in Syria have joined the group.

Prof Neumann also believes that before the capture of Mosul in June 2014, ISIS had cash and assets worth about $900m (£500m). Afterwards, this rose to around $2bn (£1.18bn).

The Financial Times puts the estimated wealth of ISIS at a staggering $2.3 billion today.

Apparently, the group took hundreds of millions of dollars from Mosul’s branch of Iraq’s central bank. And its financial windfall might continue if it maintains control of oil fields in northern Iraq.

So, on the one hand, despite Iraqi government’s requests to help in air strikes at ISIS, US is only saying it will send 300 advisors. Not troops.

And on the other hand, many inside Iraq, including the Kurds, are asking the Iraqi PM to step down.

And this puts the current government to be on very shaky ground, even as it retaliates to ISIS attacks.

As this column goes to press, Iraqi government is bombing the ISIS-held city of Tikrit, to take back control on the city.

But will the Iraqi Army completely subdue and deter ISIS from its aim of establishing a hard line Sunni Islamic state stretching across the Levant, dissolving post-colonial borders?
Or will this go on into a long drawn civil war?

The future, I believe therefore, is really, truly, not anybody’s guess. It is uncertain and unclear.