Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard a lot about ISIS. We have grieved with the families of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. We wonder what the next steps will be for the U.S., particularly regarding military action. And we read endless niche website articles posted on social media detailing ISIS’ persecution of Christians, genocide against ethnic minorities, and horrific abuse of women. But exactly who or what is ISIS? Here are 10 things to know.
1. ISIS or ISIL?
You may hear this group referred to by both names. ISIS stands for “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria;” ISIL stands for “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.” The Levant is a term that means “eastern Mediterranean” and refers to the region comprised of Syria, Jordan, Palestine (now the state of Israel), and–in some interpretations–Turkey and Egypt.
2. Is ISIS a terrorist group like Al-Qaeda?
The answer to this question is hotly debated. ISIS was founded by various Al-Qaeda cells which banded together under a man named Abu Omar al-Baghdadi to “resist the occupation forces (i.e. U.S. and coalition forces). In that sense it is a terrorist organization. But Abu Omar rebranded the movement as the “Islamic State in Iraq” in 2006, with the promise of creating a new Islamic state in place of the Iraqi government supported by the United States. Now, ISIS claims statehood and executes governmental functions over the area it controls–much of northwestern Iraq and western Syria–by installing conservative Islamic authorities and enforcing Sharia law.
3. What is a Caliphate?
News reports and pundits have emphasized ISIS self-declaration as a Caliphate. Many Muslims believe that a Caliphate is a sort of “holy empire” because a Caliph, considered a successor to the Prophet Mohammed–is it’s ruler. Therefore a Caliph theoretically exercises spiritual as well as secular authority over the Caliphate. The current leader of ISIS–Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi–took the title Caliph Ibrahim. One interpretation of the religious importance of a Caliphate is that it implies authority over all Muslims around the world, which is perhaps an indicator of ISIS’ ultimate intentions.
4. How could the U.S. and coalition forces allow ISIS to remain in Iraq?
There is a lot of blame flying around for the recent rise of ISIS. Perhaps some of it is justified, although the situation in Iraq that permitted ISIS to survive a relentless U.S. counter-terror campaign was complex. The ‘ruling class’ of Iraq under Saddam Hussein was comprised of Sunni Muslims, who are often very conservative. The majority of the population, however, was of a different sect called Shia Muslims, or Shiites. The U.S. military government largely excluded Sunnis from the government, effectively ending Hussein’s government and the mostly-Sunni Iraqi army. Many Sunnis resented their loss of influence and prestige, which naturally created a friendly environment to Al-Qaeda insurgency. When the U.S. withdrew in 2011, the surviving Al-Qaeda cells calling themselves ISI, or the Islamic State in Iraq, banded together to consolidate resources and go to war with the Iraqi government.
5. How is ISIS so powerful?
ISIS’ resonance with some segments of Iraqi society has provided them support and safe places to gather, allowing them to organize. Also, both Al-Qaeda and ISIS draw fighters from ideological supporters throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world. Although ISIS does reportedly press children into service as suicide bombers and child soldiers, the bulk of its fighters are military-age males who support the ISIS ideology. ISIS fighters also appear to western observers to have varying degrees of military training. As far as weapons, the 10 years of war in Iraq have made it an abundant source of arms and military equipment. ISIS has made a priority of stockpiling both by stealing left-over U.S. military materials as well as Iraqi army equipment. ISIS also robs banks to gain cash to support its government. More recently, as ISIS has grown in influence, some conservative Islamic nations and groups have reportedly began supplying ISIS weapons and money in secret.
6. Why is ISIS so brutal towards Americans, Christians, and women?
Much of the coverage of ISIS has focused on the beheading of two American journalists, the mass executions of Christians in large cities like Mosul and Fallujah, and the abuses against women that go with Sharia law. In the admitted view of ISIS, Sharia law compels all non-Muslims to convert or face death, and prohibits women from being educated, choosing their own husband, holding a job, or even from showing skin. The fighters of ISIS use terror tactics, long refined under Al-Qaeda and now used to full effect in the form of a brutal and oppressive government, to violently install this version of Sharia law wherever they have conquered.
7. Who is fighting ISIS?
Currently the Iraqi army is at war with ISIS, though to date it has lost more fights than it has won, perhaps a testimony to ISIS’ military effectiveness. The northwestern part of Iraq is home to a Kurdish majority, which has a martial tradition and has long maintained it’s own professional militia, the Peshmerga. The Peshmerga has had the most success against ISIS, winning back some territory which includes part of the city of Mosul. The Peshmerga has also fielded an all-women military unit, both as an effective fighting force and as an insult to ISIS proclaimed contempt for women. Also, various groups in Syria have combined forces to partially evict ISIS from the eastern provinces of that country.
8. Who are the Yazidis?
The Yazidis are an ethnic group in Iraq that practices a religion mixing elements of paganism, Zoroastrianism, and monotheistic religions. ISIS singled them out for persecution as “devil-worshippers” and has reportedly kidnapped Yazidi women for use as sex slaves, buried Yazidi women and children alive, and committed mass executions. In early August 2014, some 35,000 to 50,000 Yazidi fled into the mountains near the Mosul dam to escape ISIS, where they were besieged. The U.S. supported the Yazidis by conducting airstrikes on ISIS forces, and the United Kingdom and France joint U.S. efforts to air-drop supplies to the Yazidis. These efforts allowed an estimated 20,000-30,000 Yazidis to escape into Syria.
9. Will ISIS attempt terrorist attacks outside of the Middle East?
Nobody really knows if ISIS will pursue terrorism against other nations. They have not stated they will, as Al-Qaeda did, but the execution of two American journalists is possibly a direct threat against the United States. Without more information, gathered either publicly or through intelligence networks, it is a matter of opinion whether ISIS will strike outside its self-proclaimed area of jurisdiction.
10. Will the U.S. go to war with ISIS?
At the moment, no. The President has supported forces fighting ISIS with air strikes and non-combat support, and has sent trainers in to work with the Iraqi army. History buffs will note that’s how the Vietnam conflict started, but ISIS success is still very much in doubt, despite their effectiveness so far. It is really up to your judgment to predict what will happen in the months and years ahead.