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After the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, multiple Islamic Jihadist groups were formed to fight this foreign presence on Muslim soil. With similar ideologies to al-Qaeda, Salafi Jihadist forces, were naturally predisposed to organize and spread.
“Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad” (JTJ), founded and led by the Jordanian national Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 1999, hence became one of the most prominent Jihadist groups fighting in Iraq. In 2004 JTJ pledged its loyalty to Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s leader at the time, and became known as al-Qaeda in Iraq” before changing its name to “The Islamic State in Iraq” (ISI).
Taking advantage of the war and chaos in Syria, ISI spread to several of the country’s regions via “al-Nusra Front”, an active Jihadist group in Syria. However, disagreements related to operations in Syria, and ideological and “methodological” differences arose between ISI and al-Qaeda. This subsequently led to a complete separation between al-Nusra Front, loyal to al-Qaeda, and ISI, which gathered its forces and dissident members of al-Nusra Front in Syria following the dispute between both groups.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) thus saw the light in June 2014, under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. ISIL’s leaders and members recognized al-Baghdadi – one of the most prominent jihadists in Iraq and a close friend of al-Zarqawi who had been killed in 2006 – as the “caliph for Muslims everywhere”. Hereafter, ISIL became known as “Daesh”, a name they themselves did not use officially, but was spread nonetheless among international media as the acronym of the group’s Arabic name.
One of the most prominent differences between ISIL and other jihadist groups operating in the Middle East and North Africa was the use of the word “State”. The latter took centre stage in the name of the group and required, first and foremost, the formation of a geographic entity through which ISIL could manage and rule. The group sought to achieve this from the start of its spread in Syria, by controlling cities and villages and taking advantage of the chaos on the ground and the weakness of local authorities in controlling their regions, especially in eastern Syria.
Other armed opposition forces in those areas scattered and yielded to ISIL’s economic and military power. As a result, ISIL managed, in 2014 and 2015, to control large areas of Syria starting with the city of Raqqa, followed by the province of Deir ez-Zor and its small towns, then the rural areas of Homs, Aleppo, Damascus and Daraa, thus expanding its control to half of the country.
A turning point in ISIL’s journey to claiming geographic control was the invasion of Mosul in Iraq, the second-largest city in the country. After the group obtained full control of the city on 10 June 2014, following the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi and parts of al-Anbar during previous months, the Islamic State had laid claim to one-third of Iraq. Combined with the regions it had already invaded in Syria, ISIL controlled approximately 300,000 km2, almost twice the size of Syria.
In parallel with Iraq and Syria, ISIL expanded to other countries, such as Egypt where jihadist groups in the Sinai Desert pledged their allegiance to the group, and Nigeria, where “Boko Haram” followed their example in 2015. Other jihadist groups in Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and other countries – that ISIL used to expand its reach – followed suit. Subsequently, the Islamic State was able to form a series of “wilayas” (provinces), shaping the “caliphate” it was seeking, despite its unclear presence in some countries, which was limited to dozens of fighters whose only role was to announce the “expansion of the caliphate” outside its main areas of control.
ISIL’s geographic expansion underlined its military power, which, according to analysts, field monitors and military experts, was tied to several factors.
Firstly, when ISIL first started spreading in Syria, it absorbed minor military opposition factions already possessing weapons, which they had seized while attacking military zones controlled by the Syrian regime.
Secondly, the leaders of ISIL were trained and specialized in military cartography, assault and advancement in the field.
Thirdly, former military leaders in the Iraqi army, who had been expelled or jailed after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, had joined the Islamic State.
Lastly, and most importantly, ISIL claimed multiple large military bases during its battles in Syria and Iraq, such as the Division 17 base in Raqqa, one of the largest military zones in northern and eastern Syria. This was followed by the group’s invasion of Mosul, including all surrounding military bases and arms depots left behind by Iraqi army divisions as they retreated before ISIL’s advance.
Additional factors included ISIL’s conduct of large-scale recruitment operations in the areas under its control and the operation of training camps with fighters from multiple nationalities and age ranges, including children who had been “recruited in the thousands from Mosul, Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIL” . The group recruited people from some of the poorest areas by providing financial incentives and implementing jihadist ideology “education” in its training camps and schools.
Depending on the source or analysis consulted, the actual number of ISIL fighters remains disputed. The majority agree that while the group was at its strongest, from 2014 to 2016, there were approximately 30,000 to 50,000 fighters.. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) stated that 40,000 to 50,000 members from 80 countries joined ISIL between 2011 and 2018, most of whom had received military training.
As the Islamic State expanded and its revenue multiplied, its economic power proliferated in Syria and Iraq, where it relied on numerous sources of funding, among which: the imposition of taxes on the inhabitants of its controlled regions; the productive enterprises that affiliated to ISIL after the departure of Syrian and Iraqi authorities; the oil trade, since the regions under its control were rich in oil and subsoil wealth; donations and endowments sent by supporters and sympathizers, whether from individuals or organizations in Arab and Western countries; the collection of ransoms from organizations and states for hostage releases; the smuggling and trade of antiquities, as ISIL expanded in regions home to multiple important museums and archaeological sites; and, most importantly, ISIL laid claim to the Central Bank in Mosul and looted $400 million worth of banknotes and gold bars.
ISIL’s economic capability was the primary factor allowing it to grow, expand, and survive for an extended period of time, despite the war waged against it and the siege imposed on many regions under its control.
Internal structure – the carrot-and-stick policy
ISIL’s economic and military force allowed it to put in place an administrative structure capable of managing its affairs, protecting it from the inside and controlling life in the regions under its dominion.
The group built a hierarchical chain of power headed by the “caliph”, followed by a Shura council that included all of ISIL’s high commanders. The latter set the group’s general policies and crucial strategies and appointed lower-ranked leaders in administrative and “sharia” councils. These “sharia” councils were spread across the regions under ISIL’s control and oversaw internal operations.
ISIL also established entities to manage its concerns regarding everyday life: the military council oversaw war and training operations; the “sharia” council supervised religious matters and the application of sharia law as adopted by the Islamic State and enforced on the area’s inhabitants; and the media council, in charge of marketing ISIL’s image and managing the multiple media and religious outlets affiliated to it.
As for the relationship with its inhabitants, the Islamic State was known for employing individuals in two ways: to deal with security matters and to enforce the sharia. Present in all the areas of control in Syria and Iraq, they were often recruited among the Arab and foreign fighters of ISIL and were usually of Tunisian, Saudi, Egyptian, Iraqi, or even European descent, but rarely Syrian. Those dealing with security were part of the secret services specialized in political matters; whoever was arrested by those in charge of security was known to disappear.
Sharia enforcers were in charge of implementing the sharia among the people, forbidding any gender mixing, barring smoking and monitoring people’s attire in public. Multiple punishments awaited offenders, the most infamous of which was public flogging. Dozens of video clips, leaked from Raqqa and other Syrian cities, showed the flogging of citizens in front of crowds and the amputation of hands as a sentence for those convicted of theft or even smoking.
ISIL adopted these violent practices to exert control over entire cities and villages. However, worse methods, such as field executions of foreign journalists and captive soldiers, were employed to show the world how bloody the Islamic State was. The executions were carried out in front of state-of-the-art cameras, and ISIL members, specialized in media, directed cinematic videos, filmed and produced by professionals. These productions aimed at sending a message regarding ISIL’s violent capabilities and readiness to embrace bloodshed if it were provoked.
Bloodshed multiplied after an international alliance decided to wage war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Terror within its own territory was accompanied by terror abroad, as ISIL members and sympathizers carried out terrorist attacks in numerous countries, including the United States, France, Australia, Denmark, Turkey, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. One of the operations, claimed by the Islamic State and carried out outside its territory, involved a series of six coordinated attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015, killing 130 people and injuring 350 others.
Internally, ISIL tried to balance its autocratic rule by providing the inhabitants of the areas under its control with every necessity. According to Syrians living in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor during ISIL’s occupation, food staples were cheaper to acquire there than in the areas controlled by the Syrian regime and other military factions. However, this status quo was temporary, as the areas were constantly under attack in the war waged against the Islamic State.
Western countries watched warily as ISIL grew in Syria and Iraq until starting to consider it a real threat to their security and safety. On 7 August 2014, the United States spearheaded the international mobilization by launching a limited military offensive in response to the atrocities ISIL had comitted against the Yazidi community in Iraq – described by the United Nations as “one of the worst genocides of the past century”. According to a United Nations report, the massacre included ethnic cleansing operations that killed thousands and “the enslavement of more than 6,500 women and children, and the displacement of more than 350,000 Yazidis to refugee camps north of Iraq”.
The US scrambled to interfere amid fears that ISIL would make its way to Erbil, the capital of its ally Kurdistan, which received military reinforcements from the US in both Iraq and Syria. In September 2014, former US President Barack Obama ordered raids on ISIL in Syria without waiting for a vote from Congress. France was next to enter the war, followed by other countries eager to be part of the alliance against the Islamic State.
Among those were Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates, which sent part of their military forces to fight ISIL in Syria, while Western forces focused on Iraq. Foreign interference focused primarily on the air force, while battles on the ground were fought by the Iraqi army, militias in Syria such as Kurdish forces, and Syrian opposition factions. The US also offered support to the “Syrian Democratic Forces” led by the Kurdish factions, which comprised Arab and Kurdish fighters.
The decline of ISIL
As of 2015, signs of weakness and decline of the Islamic State started showing while Western strikes intensified, and ISIL lost territory, fighters and weapons. Its areas of control shrunk by a quarter in both Syria and Iraq, especially in the latter. The loss in Syria was limited to the northern areas close to the Turkish border, as the Turkish forces and their allies, the Syrian opposition factions, were crucial parties in the war against ISIL in those areas.
Heavy raids began to wear down the Islamic State in 2016, limiting its presence to large cities, which it too started to lose in 2017, starting with Mosul, which Iraqi forces regained fully on 10 June 2017.
In October of the same year, ISIL lost Raqqa, its capital in Syria. On 10 December 2017, the Iraqi government announced that it had regained full control of its territory. By 2018, the Islamic State had lost all but a few areas in Eastern Syria, and on 23 March 2019, ISIL was driven from its last stronghold in al-Baghuz, in north-eastern Syria. Later that year, on 27 October, ISIL’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed during a US military operation targeting his residence in rural Idlib, in northern Syria. From there on, the Islamic State was reduced to secret groups that led occasional operations, particularly in Iraq, thereby raising concerns among the international community regarding ISIL’s ability to rebuild itself.
Syria and Iraq lost thousands of their citizens when the Islamic State controlled their territories and during the war against it. Hundreds of thousands were displaced, and large cities such as Mosul and Raqqa were destroyed. These cities have yet to recover, in light of the poor political and economic situation in Syria and Iraq. The exact situation that created the appropriate circumstances for ISIL and other extremist groups to rise in countries suffering from wars, political oppression, poverty and ignorance.