Ruthless, organised and well-financed, ISIL has rapidly transformed into the world’s most vicious Jihadist organisation.
Over the past few months, the world has witnessed the disintegration of Iraq after the rise of Sunni militant group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Hundreds upon hundreds of decapitated and mutilated bodies have adorned streets in Iraq and Syria. Armed with the ‘word of God’ accompanied by an enormous arsenal, ISIL aims, as the name suggests, at establishing an Islamic state along the fertile crescent and the Levant, or the return of the Caliphate, as they call it. Amid several tragic and appalling attacks sustained across the region daily, one cannot face such a dark future sponsored by ISIL without understanding the history that led them to commit such massacres.
In 2006, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), under the command of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, directed numerous attacks to dominant Shiite targets, in what seems to be an attempt to reignite the Sunni-Shiite sectarian struggle and leave the country in a perpetual state of conflict. AQI reached its peak of wreaking havoc after the bombing of Al-Askariya mosque. The tensions were somewhat alleviated after Al-Zarqawi was assassinated in 2010.
After the withdrawal of US forces in 2011, Iraqi government officials began drawing public attention to what they called ‘the third generation of Al-Qaeda’. The new Al-Qaeda was rebranded in 2006 as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI).
Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, 39 years of age with a doctorate in Islamic Studies, rose to power in ISI in 2010 following Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi’s death, subsequently making the Iraqi-born Islamic scholar the organisation’s Emir. Al-Baghdadi formed his own militant groups in his birthplace of Samarra, before joining forces with AQI. The withdrawal of US troops in 2011 came as a pivotal moment to morph the crumbling ISI and its constituents into the ground shaking force that is known today as ISIL.
Records have shown profound disagreements between Al-Qaeda, formerly led by Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri, and its Iraqi branch, ISI. Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri refused to further attack fellow Muslims in Iraq, arguing that it would erode the public’s support of their cause. The ever-growing clashes between both parties led to Al-Qaeda’s disownment of ISI.
Fighters of Al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant carry their weapons during a parade at the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, near the border with Turkey, 2 January (photo: Reuters)
In the beginning, Al-Baghdadi focused on covert operations executed by small militant cells, such as looting, robbing banks, shaking down truck drivers, as well as extortion, smuggling, and clamping down on businesses in order to generate finances for ISIL.
In 2014, the group enforced taxes on businesses, both large and small, reaching a monthly gross income of $8 million, according to some estimates. In the recent takeover of Nineveh province, ISIL militants stole $429 million from Mosul’s central bank, making them the world’s richest terrorist group.
Ayham Kamel of the Eurasia Group, a US-based consultancy, says ISIL will “use cash reserves from Mosul’s banks, military equipment from seized military and police bases and the release of 2,500 fighters from local jails to bolster its military and financial capability.”
ISIL presence in Iraq and Syria
The estimated number of ISIL militants ranges from 3,000 to 5,000 fighters. A number of them are foreign fighters from the West and the Caucus, who are enticed by the idea of establishing the ideal Islamic state. ISIL has a stronghold in Al-Raqqa, Homs, Al-Bukamal in Syria and has gained control of Mosul, Tikrit, Ramadi, and Fallujah.
In recent events in Iraq, ISIL militants captured the entire province of Nineveh, bordering Syria. It is worth mentioning that most of the ISIL’s activity is in the north and eastern side of the country near the Iraqi border. It is apparent that the ISIL is fulfilling their long term goal of establishing an Islamic state. It is reported that the ISIL’s de facto presence is in Al-Raqqa, Homs, and Al-Bukamal in Syria and Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul and Tikrit in Iraq.
Iran has openly offered its support to the Shiite government in Iraq and has begun to send ground troops into the country to support the government and civilian volunteer’s efforts to combat the expansionism of Sunni militants in the country. Iran also plays a role in Syria as it has openly supported Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad by sending troops from the revolutionary guard to fight along Al-Assad’s forces and defend their Shiite sacred shrines. Militants from Hezbollah also joined the fight in Syria to support Al-Assad’s regime against Sunni militants.
The US is now considering to conduct airstrikes in Iraq, ruling out the option of sending ground troops into the country after they withdrew in 2011. The US expressed their concern over the latest events in Iraq and said that it may intervene to protect its interests in the region, and to protect Iraqi citizens from the eminent threat inflicted by extremist insurgents. President Obama also stated that the intervention is based on his claim that “Nobody’s going to benefit from seeing Iraq descend into chaos”.
The USS George H.W. Bush has been ordered into the Persian Gulf, from which it could send manned aircraft to strike jihadist positions (photo: Reuters)
Another angle sees these events as a popular uprising of Iraqi citizens and tribesmen against Al-Maliki’s government. Some analysts see that the expansions made across hundreds of thousands of square kilometres in Iraq couldn’t be the work of an organisation of militants whose numbers wouldn’t exceed hundreds. They say that the Iraqi government is claiming that cities in Iraq are falling in the hands of extremist Sunni insurgents to justify Iran’s presence in the country.
The recent events in Iraq indicate that a sectarian civil war is boiling after the government called on citizens to pick up arms and join their fight against ISIL insurgents. The takeover of Nineveh province is certain to fuel the Syrian crisis, especially after Iraqi soldiers withdrew from border areas. The Syrian situation may be cloned in Iraq, if foreign parties continue to fuel the crisis and blatantly intervene. The future may see a divided Iraq: An Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a Kurdistan, and an Iran-dominated Shiite state.