WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT ISIS- (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria)

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT ISIS- (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria)

ISIS used to be al-Qaeda in Iraq

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, better known as ISIS, has claimed responsibility for the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris. To really understand the group, the first thing you need to know about it is that it used to have a different name: al-Qaeda in Iraq.

US troops and allied Sunni militias defeated al-Qaeda in Iraq during the 2007 "surge" — but didn't destroy it. The US commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, described the group in 2010 as down but "fundamentally the same." In 2011, the group began rebuilding, and in 2012 and 2013 it freed a number of prisoners held by the Iraqi government, who then joined its ranks.

Meanwhile, the group saw an opportunity in Syria, where peaceful protests descended into violence in mid-2011 and 2012. It began establishing a presence in Syria in mid-2011 in order to participate in the fight against Bashar al-Assad's regime, a move that helped it gain fighters and valuable battlefield experience.

In 2013, the group once known as al-Qaeda in Iraq — now based in both Syria and Iraq — rebranded as ISIS.

Tension grew between ISIS and al-Qaeda, and they formally divorced in February 2014. "Over the years, there have been many signs that the relationship between al Qaeda Central (AQC) and the group's strongest, most unruly franchise was strained," Barak Mendelsohn, a political scientist at Haverford College, writes. Their relationship "had always been more a matter of mutual interests than of shared ideology."

According to Mendelsohn, disagreements over Syria pushed that relationship to the breaking point. ISIS claimed that it controlled Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qaeda faction in Syria, and it defied orders from al-Qaeda's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to back off. "This was the first time a leader of an al-Qaeda franchise had publicly disobeyed," he says. ISIS also defied repeated orders to kill fewer civilians in Syria, and the tensions led to al-Qaeda disavowing any connection with ISIS in a February communiqué.

Today, ISIS and al-Qaeda compete for influence over Islamist extremist groups around the world. Some experts believe ISIS may overtake al-Qaeda as the most influential group in this area globally.

ISIS wants to establish a caliphate

Since pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2004, the group's goal has been remarkably consistent: to found a hard-line Sunni Islamic state in their Syrian and Iraqi holdings. As General Ray Odierno puts it: "They want complete failure of the government in Iraq. They want to establish a caliphate in Iraq." Even after ISIS split with al-Qaeda in February 2014 (in part because ISIS was too brutal even for al-Qaeda), ISIS's goal remained the same.

Today ISIS holds a fair amount of territory in both Iraq and Syria — a mass roughly the size of the United Kingdom. One ISIS map, from 2006, shows its ambitions stopping there — though, interestingly, overlapping with a lot of oil fields:

Another shows its ambitions stretching across the Middle East, and some have apparently even included territory in North Africa:

Now, ISIS has no chance of accomplishing any of these things in the foreseeable future. It isn't even strong enough to topple the Syrian or Iraqi governments at present, and it's actually lost a fair amount of territory since its summer 2014 peak. But these maps do tell us something important about ISIS: It's incredibly ambitious, it thinks ahead, and it's quite serious about its expansionist Islamist ideology.

The conflict between Iraqi Sunnis and Shias sustains ISIS

One of the single most important factors in ISIS's resurgence is the conflict between Iraq's largest two Arab religious groups: Shias and Sunnis. ISIS fighters themselves are Sunnis, and the tension between the two groups is a powerful recruiting tool for ISIS.

In the most basic theological terms, the Sunni-Shia split in Islam originated with a controversy over who would take power after the Prophet Mohammed's (SAW) death. Today, of course, Iraq's sectarian problems aren't about re-litigating seventh-century disputes; they're about modern political power and grievances. But those do tend to fall along Sunni-Shia lines.

A majority of Iraqi Arabs are Shias, but Sunnis ran the show when Saddam Hussein, himself Sunni, ruled Iraq. Saddam spread a false belief, still surprisingly persistent in the country today, that Sunnis were the real majority in Iraq. Thus, Sunnis felt and still feel, entitled to larger shares of political power than might perhaps be warranted by their size.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi civil war sparked after the 2003 US-led invasion had a brutally sectarian cast to it, and the pseudo-democracy that emerged afterward empowered the Shia majority (with some heavy-handed help from Washington) at the expense of the Sunni minority. Today the two groups don't trust one another and so far have competed in what they see as a zero-sum game for control over Iraqi political institutions. In 2013, Shias used control over the police force to arbitrarily detain Sunni protestors demanding more representation in government.

So long as Shias control the government, and Sunnis don't feel that they're fairly represented, ISIS has an audience for its radical Sunni message. That's an important part of how the group built up support in Iraq's heavily Sunni northwest.

In the next issue (Insha Allah)- Iraq’s former prime minister made the ISIS problem worse.


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