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Thursday, August 11, 2016

A (Very) Brief History of ISIS

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Islamic State (IS), Da’ish, and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), has attracted the world’s attention with its rapid expansion in Iraq and Syria, its brutal treatment of religious minorities (e.g., Yazidis, Christians), and its well-publicized beheadings of hostages. Its origins can be traced back to 1999 when it was founded by Abu Musab al Zarqawi as Jama’at al Tawhid wal-Jihad (Organization of Monotheism and Jihad). It changed its name in 2004 to Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafiadayn (Organization of Jihad’s Base in Mesopotamia—more commonly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI))—when it pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda.

The group became notorious for its involvement in the broader Iraqi insurgency after the U.S. invasion in 2003, not only for its violent attacks on coalition forces, but also for its suicide bombings of civilian targets and televised beheadings of hostages, sometimes by Zarqawi himself. AQI established control of Sunni neighborhoods where they enforced strict rules of behavior, such as banning smoking and music and listening to speeches by moderate clerics. Zarqawi was killed in June of 2006 by a U.S. airstrike, and Abu Ayyub al-Masri succeeded him as the group’s leader. In that same year, it merged with several other insurgent groups, calling itself the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC).

In October of 2006 the MSC declared the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), naming Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as its Emir and al-Masari as its Minister of War. The group’s stated goal was to seize control of the western and central areas of Iraq and turn it into a Sunni Islamic state. However, its indiscriminate use of violence led it to lose popular support and helped give rise to the “Sunni Awakening” where many former militants joined with coalition forces to combat it.

From 2008 to 2010 ISIS was on the run. In 2008 it was driven out of many of its safe havens, and its leaders declared that the group was in a state of “extraordinary crisis.” By 2010 thirty-four of its top forty-two leaders had been either captured or killed, including Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took over as the group’s new leader (a position he has retained to this day), and he immediately began replacing the leadership vacancies, many of whom had served as military and intelligence officers under Saddam Hussein.

Helped along by a host social and political factors, including the heavy-handed policies of Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, which alienated the Sunni community and led to protests in 2012, as well as the rapid withdrawal of coalition forces, ISIS began to make a comeback. The group actively sought to regain the ground it had lost in 2008, and when Iraqi Security Forces attempted to close a protest camp in Ramadi that led to a Sunni uprising that forced the ISF out of Fallujah and Ramadi, ISIS seized control of the cities. ISIS also declared the beginning of a new offensive that sought to free ISIS members held in Iraqi prisons, and in 2013 the group carried out simultaneous raids on Taji and Abu Ghraib prison, apparently freeing more than 500 prisoners.

After the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011, al-Baghdadi sent ISIS members with guerilla warfare experience to Syria in order to recruit fighters and establish local cells, and in 2012 Jabhat al-Nusra (more commonly known as the al-Nusra Front) was founded by Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani. It grew rapidly and gained popularity among Syrians opposed to the Assad regime. In 2013 al-Baghdadi announced that ISIS had established and financed al-Nusra and that the two groups would merge and become the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). However, al-Jawlani rejected the merger, claiming that Baghdadi did not consult him or anyone else from al-Nusra. Al-Nusra’s resistance to the merger could have been because al-Qaeda had ruled against it, something that Baghdadi ignored, ultimately leading al-Qaeda to cut ties with ISIS in 2014, putting an end to their 10-year relationship (Al-Qaeda did not sever its ties with al-Nusra, however..

Another reason might have been due to the differences between the two groups. For example, while al-Nusra appears to be focused on overthrowing the Assad government, ISIS is more interested in extending its rule to areas it has conquered. And while al-Nusra pursued a strategy of slowly building support for an Islamic state, ISIS was far more ruthless, carrying out sectarian attacks and imposing sharia law immediately. Moreover, al-Nusra is seen by Syrians as being more of a homegrown group than is ISIS, which many describe as a foreign occupier. Regardless of the reasons, the merger between al-Nusra and ISIS has not gone as smoothly as Baghdadi had hoped. In fact, the two groups have sometimes fought one another. That said, some al-Nusra branches have pledged allegiance to ISIS.

In June 2014, ISIS proclaimed itself a worldwide caliphate, with Baghdadi as its caliph, and renamed itself the Islamic State (IS). As a caliphate, ISIS claims religious, political, and military authority over the world’s Muslims, but most Islamic governments and Muslim leaders have rejected ISIS’s claim. Baghdadi and his core allies have been able to maintain strength and enforce their authority throughout the areas ISIS controls via alliances with similar minded and violent groups. In August, after ISIS captured the towns of Zumar, Sinjar, and Wana, the United States simultaneously launched a humanitarian mission to protect religious minorities, such as Christians and Yazidis, as well as an aerial bombing campaign to protect Americans in Iraq and support Iraq in its fight against the group.

In short, Donald Trump's claim that President Obama and Hillary Clinton are co-founders of ISIS are absurd. The group has been around for longer than they have been (or were) President and Secretary of State, respectively. One could argue that the rapid drawdown of troops created a vacuum in which ISIS was able to recover and expand. As I noted a couple of years ago ("What To Do About Iraq?")
In one of my very first posts ("Leaving Afghanistan Smartly") I recounted a remark by counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, who was one of General Patraeus's advisors in Iraq during the "surge" and an opponent of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 in the first place: "Just because you invade a country stupidly doesn't mean you have to leave it stupidly (see Tom Rick's book, "The Gamble" page 29).
We would have been smart to have heeded Kilcullen's advice. Unfortunately, we didn't. Although the invasion of Iraq was ill-advised, it was just as shortsighted to leave the country in such a hurry. Rather of removing all of our troops, we should have left a small force behind that could have continued to secure the safety of the Iraqi citizens. Instead, we now have a humanitarian crisis on our hands. ISIS is showing no mercy to religious minorities, who have been told to leave or die. Many in the West have seen video clips of Iraqi Yazidis fleeing for their lives (see above), and for the first time in 1600 years, there are no Christians living in Mosul ("ISIS and Mosul's Christians").
However, when conservative radio show host, Hugh Hewitt, stated that he understood Trump to mean "that he (Obama) created the vacuum, he lost the peace," Trump objected. "No, I meant he's the founder of ISIS. I do. He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton" ("Donald Trump: I meant that Obama founded ISIS, literally").

I recently read that the Republican National Committee Chairman, Reince Priebus, told Trump that he'd been better off going on vacation after the Republican Convention ("Exclusive: The Republican Party’s Chairman’s Warning to Donald Trump"). Remarks such as those about the Kahn family, 2nd Amendment People, and Obama as ISIS's founder have kept the focus on Trump rather than on Clinton weaknesses (e.g., new revelations about her emails) ("Trump's Gaffes Steal Clinton's Blunder Thunder"). A simpler solution would be for Trump just to keep his mouth shut, but that seems to be an unlikely scenario.

Note: The history of ISIS is adapted from a paper I wrote with my colleagues Dan Cunningham and Rob Schroeder for a presentation at the 2015 ASREC (Association for the Study of Religion, Economics, and Culture) conference in Boston, Massachusetts.

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