[A Close Point of View] ISIS – genesis, atrocities, and the current situation
In Europe, we first heard about ISIS during a series of bloody attacks which were particularly intense in the period between 2015 and 2017. Those were not the first terrorist attacks in the so-called West, but their audacity and a high number of people sent shockwaves among the public.
In an article that I wrote a while ago ([A Close Pont of View] What has happened to global terrorism?) I traced the development of modern-day terrorism. I mentioned several significant historical events, starting with the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, through the war in Afghanistan, ending with a short analysis of the beginnings of ISIS. It was a general sketch of terrorist activities and their evolution over the years. Today, I would like to focus more on this topic and try to pinpoint the reasons behind ISIS’ successful taking over large areas of the world. First, I will point out several examples showing the growing scale of the terrorist phenomenon. They make us realize how difficult it is to overcome an enemy that constantly recreates itself like the severed heads of mythological Hydra.
From Munich to World Trade Center
In 1972, during the XX Summer Olympics in Munich the members of the Palestinian organization Black September kidnapped 11 Israeli sportsmen. As a result of an unsuccessful operation of the local police (as confirmed by investigative journalists probing those events), all hostages, one policeman and five out of eight terrorists were killed. That atrocity was a massive shock that exposed a lack of organizers’ preparation to provide security to participants of such large events as the Olympics.
In 1980, separatists from the Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Arabistan took hostages in the Iranian embassy in London. After six days, the authorities decided to launch a rescue operation which was carried out by SAS (Special Air Service – a special forces unit of the British Army). During the operation one hostage was killed and two were injured. One soldier got injured as well, while five out of six kidnappers were killed (one surrendered).
Later there were attacks on the World Trade Center in February 1993 (the first but less known) and on September 11, 2001. In the latter one, nearly 3000 people were killed and 6000 injured. While preparing materials for this article, I couldn’t find much on the second most deadly attacks in the last decades, namely the 2007 Til Ezer massacre in Iraq. Nearly 800 people were killed and 1500 injured after a fuel tanker and two cars full explosives were detonated. That act of terror was aimed at the Yazidis who seven years later became victims of the ISIS genocide.
It is impossible to list here all terrorist events that took place, even in the last two decades. Every year there are at least several of them. Terrorist attacks are carried out in different places of the world. Their common denominator ıs targeting civilians, people going to work, doing shopping, or taking holidays in exotic resorts. And it is this aspect that shows best how the aims of terrorist organizations have changed. In the past, the attacks were carried out against specific individuals or institutions. Today, public places and each one of us is under threat because the aim is to trigger fear.
I have noticed that there is a trend in the mainstream media to describe terrorist attacks as “incidents”. But I will call a spade a spade and I will try to use more suitable terms. In the list below I included several attacks carried out in European countries by people associated with the Islamic State.
The terror that aims at sowing fear.
In January 2015, terrorists attacked the offices of the satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo” in Paris. Brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi burst into their office killing 12 and injuring 11. As it later turned out, one of them was trained by al-Qaeda in Yemen. The next day Amedy Coulibaly, acting in cooperation with terrorists in Paris, took hostages in a supermarket, killing 4 people. The French police’s raid on the attackers was broadcasted by TV stations all over Europe.
In November the same year, Islamists carried out a series of coordinated attacks in Paris, including on the Bataclan concert hall. They also took hostages and chaos reigned throughout the city. 130 people were killed and more than 350 injured. It was the most deadly event in France since World War II.
Several months later, terrorists struck again, this time on the Brussels airport and metro station. In July 2016, a terrorist drove a truck into a crowd of people gathered in the Nice promenade. On that day, the French were celebrating Bastille Day which attracted many foreign tourists to the city. 87 people were killed, including two Polish girls.
In December the same year, Tunisian Amis Amri stole a truck driven by a Polish driver. He shot the man dead and drove the vehicle into a crowd at the Berlin Christmas market in the center of the city.
The Origins of ISIS
Those events made many people aware of the existence of the so-called Islamic State. Global terrorism was no longer limited to small groups wanting to achieve a specific goal, and attacks were not directed against specific countries or nations. The threat appeared on the streets of large cities and the victims were random people. That made the Islamic State, also called ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh, famous – massacres that no one was expecting because they were often born in the heads of the so-called “lone wolves”. Let’s add that they were very determined and ready to die for the sake of their ideas. How have we arrived at the point when today pretty much everyone has heard about ISIS? Where have these extremists sowing fear around the world come from?
At the end of 1979, the USSR invaded Afghanistan. The reason behind the incursion of the Soviet forces was internal fights between the government forces and the Afghan mujahedeen that were taking place in that country. The militants, inspired by radical Islam, were against reforms that introduced gender equality, wide access to education, and separation of religion and state.
Despite a profound ideological gulf between the two, the United States supported the mujahedeen. The conflict was seen at the time as part of the ongoing Cold War. It was at that time when two individuals emerged who later contributed to the establishment of ISIS. They were Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden and Jordanian Abu Musab az-Zarqawi. The former became the public enemy number one of the US after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. He was one of the founders of al-Qaeda which initially was created to fight the Soviet forces. Later, however, it changed its front and took the US and its influence in the Arab world as a target. Bin Laden was killed in 2011 by a Navy SEAL.
Az-Zarqawi founded a branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq. With time it went through many mutations that finally led to the emergence of the Islamic State. The Jordanian met bin Laden in the 80s in Afghanistan where he fought in the war against the Soviet Union. Later he returned to Jordan, but in 2011 went back to Afghanistan, this time to fight against the American forces. Between 1992 and 1999 he was jailed for an attempt to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy. He was injured during combat and then made it to Iraq. Over there he became the leader of a group of fundamentalists who initially targeted Shiite civilians. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Zarqawi and his organization took arms against the occupant. Abu Musab az-Zarqawi was killed during a raid on his hideout.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) waged open war with the Shiites, leading to a religious conflict in Iraq. After az-Zarqawi’s death, AQI’s leadership went to Abu Abd Allah ar-Rashid al-Baghdadi, but it was his successor who Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who became famous as the founder of the Islamic State’s caliphate. He added Iraq and Syria (or the Levant) to the name, emphasizing their adherence to the Islamic State.*
Territorial expansion in Iraq and Syria
In 2011, mass protests erupted in Syria which aimed to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. They quickly descended into a civil war with various local and foreign groups joining the fights. Within several years, the conflict turned into a religious war. Islamists from Iraq saw it as a chance to establish their caliphate. They supported the Sunni opposition and established an offshoot of al-Qaeda called Jabhat al-Nusra. The Islamic State also joined the fights, while its leader al-Baghdadi was becoming increasingly influential. With time he became strong enough to announce the merging of al-Nusra with the Islamic State, against the will of Ayman az-Zawahiri, the successor of Bin Laden. Initially, the two groups worked closely with each other. However, with time a rift emerged between them. In the first months of 2014, the Islamic State pushed their competitors out of Ar-Raqqa, becoming the strongest Islamist organization in Syria. They established their capital in the newly-captured city. They also turned against the Kurds and broke the Pact of Umar which from the 7th century governed relations between Christians and Muslims in Syria.
Gathering in ISIS ranks tens of thousands of militants not only from the region but from the entire world, al-Baghdadi decided to begin territorial expansion in Iraq. The jihadists very quickly took over a sparsely-populated province An Anbar and headed towards the Nineveh Plains and the Salah ad-Din province. In June 2014, they took over nearly two-million Mosul, where al-Baghdadi announced the establishment of the Islamic State’s caliphate. At the same time, an offensive in Syria was taking place which led ISIS to take control over large swathes of territory in both countries.
The Iraqi army and the Kurdish forces were unable to stop that rapid march. Smaller groups did not pose any threat at all to ISIS. The terrorists moved their forces towards northern Iraq, where they took over Christian towns in the Nineveh region, driving out or murdering their civilian residents. They were destroying monuments and churches as well as houses, schools, and hospitals. They were looting shops and houses to blow them up at the end. They gained notoriety with kidnappings and murders of foreign hostages, whose recorded executions were later used in a series of propaganda movies.
On August 3rd, ISIS began a genocide of the Yazidis in Sinjar. Early morning they surrounded cities and villages in the region of the Sinjar Mountain and started massacring civilians. Many residents fled. Some of them found refuge on the plateau of the mountain where they faced hunger, dehydration, and exhaustion. According to different estimates, terrorists murdered several to over a dozen thousand people, mainly men, the elderly, and infants. Another dozen or so women and children were taken hostage. Young girls and women were used as sex slaves. Boys were trained for suicide missions or detonators’ construction.
Those events led the US to launch airstrikes on ISIS bases and training camps. They also initiated the establishment of the anti-terrorist coalition that included over a dozen member states, such as the US, Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, France, Great Britain, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia, among others.
The Anti-Terrorist Coalition
From that moment preparations were taking place to finish ISIS off. A long-awaited counteroffensive began in October 2016. Operation (which has been going on to this day) was codenamed Inherent Resolve. Main target was recapture Mosul from the jihadists’ hands. An operation to liberate Ar-Raqqa in Syria was launched practically at the same time. Already in the first days, the coalition managed to liberate tens of smaller towns located around Mosul. The city was like a fortress that tens of thousands of soldiers fought for, with American air support. It was liberated in July 2017, followed by Raqqa which fell in mid-October. The last bastion of ISIS, the Baghuz village in Syria, was recaptured in March 2019. It was accompanied by a horrific atrocity which the media were practically silent about. After the battle, bodies of fifty Yazidi girls were found. They were raped before death and then beheaded. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed on the 27th of October 2019.
That loudly announced victory in no way means the end of ISIS, which from then on has been working underground. Among fanfares accompanying the press conference it was forgotten that it is not a cohesive and centralized organization, but many groups with a common aim but different means to achieve it.
Apart from frequent terrorist attacks that are continuously taking place in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has increased its activities in southern Asia and Africa. Especially in the Sahel region, namely in the territories that include the southern edges of Sahara, the Islamic State is today exceptionally dangerous and is gaining more power every day. In Nigeria, the Boko Haram group has been active for two decades and it rules in the entire southern part of the country. It has imposed the sharia law and banned education apart from Quranic classes. Groups associated with ISIS or al-Qaeda are also active in Mali, Niger, and other countries of the region. We can convince ourselves that it’s far away, but the truth is the threat can return to Europe – a natural target of extremists. I want to remind you that al-Qaeda and all of its offshoots were created to fight with the West and its culture.
* The organization under Zarqawi’s leadership was called Islamic State. Al-Baghdadi changed it to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The name ‘Levant’ is a historic term that denotes eastern territories of the Mediterranean Basin, namely today’s Palestine, Israel, and Syria. The Arabic term “Daesh” is used as well, which is an acronym of ISIL/ISIS (al-Islamīyah fī al-ʻIrāq wa-al-Shām).