This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.
Long before ISIS – the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – released the horrific video depicting the execution of journalist James Foley, the world had already become acutely aware that there was no limit to the group’s brutality and ruthlessness. For months, news outlets have been presenting a virtual non-stop horror show of mass beheadings and the slaughter of innocents as ISIS carves out a swath of land from northeastern Syria and western Iraq upon which to establish its “caliphate” – a state run strictly according to its extreme vision of Islamic (“sharia”) law.
Beyond its repulsive recording of ISIS inhumanity, the Foley video is demonstrative in the detail it offers about ISIS, the organization. That the killer spoke with a British accent is, for instance, indicative of the global recruitment capability for ISIS fighters and the fear of Western security officials that the radical terror group is attracting adherents from nations including France, Britain and the United States, some of whom will presumably return home at some point and turn their weapons and killing experience on their own countrymen.
Who are the people behind this video? How did the Islamic State, in an age of so many extremist terror groups, come to occupy such a pre-eminent role in the Middle East?
The roots of the Islamic State can be traced back to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. As the United States launched “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” aimed at toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime, more and more local insurgency groups began to emerge in an attempt to confront the invading Western forces. One such group was Jamaat Al-Tawhid Wa Al-Jihad, led by Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi, a radical Islamic terrorist reported to have been intricately involved in the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington. Under his auspices, Al-Zarqawi gathered a few small insurgency groups together to form Al-Tawhid. One year later, in 2004, the group pledged its allegiance to Al-Qa’ida, becoming its local franchise in Iraq.
By April 2011, the group, now called “Al-Qa’ida Iraq,” was headed by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, having replaced Al-Zarqawi and his successor, Egyptian-born Abu Ayub Al-Masri, both of whom had been assassinated in American air strikes.
Under Al-Baghdadi’s rule, the organization began following its perceived Islamist imperatives of conquering territories and imposing Sharia (Islamic religious) law upon them, all of which is designated to form part of its “Caliphate” – a Muslim empire. At first, Al-Baghdadi focused on subjugating parts of Iraq; but later, following the Arab Spring of 2011 and the onset of its civil war, became determined to take over parts of Syria as well.
Despite its shared Islamist, Jihadist ideology, Al-Qa’ida chief and Osama Bin Laden successor Ayman Al-Zawahiri did not like Al-Tawhid’s competitive incursion into Syria where he was already operating a separate franchise there called the “Al-Nusra Front.” Al-Zawahiri insisted that Al-Baghdadi limit his organization’s activity to Iraq, but the latter openly defied his Al-Zawahiri’s diktat and continued his extravagant conquests.
Finally, in 2014, Al-Qa’ida publicly disowned Al-Tawhid, removing it from the Al-Qa’ida umbrella. Al-Tawhid then rebranded itself as the “Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham” using the historic Arabic name for Syria – or ISIS.
Driving ISIS to murder and displace its own people long after the last American soldier left Iraqi soil is the commitment of Al-Baghdadi and his force to “Wahhabism” – the puritanical following of Allah as the one and only ruling authority, with the accompanying notion that the virtue of Islam has been degraded by the materialistic lifestyle of the 21st century. Wahhabis, therefore, seek to return to the purity of the Quran, rejecting any modern interpretation of Islam while emulating the 6th century lifestyle of the Prophet Mohammed. For the fighters of ISIS, the choice presented to those it has vanquished – whether Sunni, Shiite, Christian or any other belief – is to convert or be killed.
On June 29, ISIS proclaimed the formation of an autonomous Caliphate in the regions it has conquered and named Al-Baghdadi as its “Caliph.” Dropping the repetitive “IS” and becoming simply “Islamic State,” -- the name change signaled the organization’s larger goal of taking over the entire Middle East.
“ISIS is taking a multipronged approach, it strikes multiple opponents in multiple directions at once, and doesn’t work in a linear fashion,” Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI) in London told The Media Line. “It is trying to spread wherever it can and in any direction it can.”
On July 18, following the annexation of the Iraqi city of Mosul into the Islamic State, Al-Baghdadi’s forces issued an ultimatum to its 2,000-year old Christian community and threatened its members to convert to Islam or evacuate the city within 24 hours.
According to various eyewitnesses, ISIS militiamen drove across the city’s streets, marking all Christian property and residences with the Arabic letter “Nun,” which stands for “Nassrani” (“Christian” in Arabic). Christians were forced to leave their homes barefoot while militiamen looted their belongings. As of today, the majority of Mosul’s 25,000 Christians have been completely displaced from the city or killed, and around 30 churches, some thousands of years old, were desecrated or destroyed. Similar scenes of conquest also played out in the cities of Tikrit and Samarra.
At the same time, thousands of Yazidis (an ethnic minority indigenous to Northern Iraq) were displaced from their homes, many brutally murdered, others were trapped or besieged.
The ISIS rampage is being felt beyond the growing borders of its caliphate and far from the Middle East. Utilizing modern technology such as the Internet and social media, the organization’s global recruiting in part explains the British-accented killer of James Foley.
Disaffected young men from everywhere are finding ISIS and joining its ranks, according to James Lewis, senior fellow at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. He explained to The Media Line that the group attracts Muslims and others, “a real mix; most dangerous to Western nations because they blend in so easily. This is of particular concern to the United States and to European countries.”
According to Ghaffar Hussain, managing director of the Quilliam Foundation, “At least 2,000 Europeans have joined the ranks of ISIS -- estimated at about 13,000 -- including 900 from France; 500 from the United Kingdom; and the rest from Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Most are of Muslim descent or connected to Islam.”
The fear is that untold numbers of Western nationals who are trained by ISIS and fight alongside its minions will return home and direct their newly-honed propensity for violence inward.
Experts approached by The Media Line were of the opinion that there is only a military solution to the ISIS threat.
“The future of the Islamic State,” Joshi from RUSI concludes, “depends on whether or not someone will be willing to take it on militarily – be it the Iraqi Air Force, the Arab states, NATO, the U.S., or a combination of some of them.” He added that “if there is a coalition to support the central Iraqi government in Baghdad, both diplomatically and militarily, then the Islamic State may be contained”.
Ghassan Hussein agreed. “ISIS is not an organization that can be negotiated with and therefore only a military solution can solve this,” he said.
Despite the many uncertainties regarding the group’s future, one thing remains clear: from a small insurgent group formed over a decade ago to fight Western forces in Iraq, the Islamic State has grown today into an organized army, conquering, murdering and displacing anyone who defies its rule along the way.
From the Iraqi city of Mosul to the Lebanese city of Arsal, the Islamic State is on a constant expansion – becoming a tangible threat not only to Iraqis or Syrians, but also to those in Europe and the Untied States.