ISIS threat can no longer be ignored

Early this year, it was estimated that ISIS could field 10,000 fighters; today it has gone up to 50,000.

The video of the brutal beheading of US journalist James Foley appears to have concentrated minds in world capitals on what the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is doing in Syria.

The slaughter by ISIS of 700 tribesmen from the eastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zor did not achieve this end.  Although ISIS has sunk deep roots in Syria, the organisation has been a major threat to Iraq only since June 10th after seizing the northern city of Mosul and beginning to kill and expel Christians, Yezidis, and ethnic Turks. 

 This wilful blindness to the dangers posed by the rise of ISIS in Syria has led to its triumphs in Iraq. ISIS has to be tackled simultaneously in both countries if the regional powers and international community are to stamp out the organisation and try to end the infection of disaffected Muslims with its highly contagious ideology.

General Martin Dempsey, head of the US military, admits this hard fact even though the Obama administration has not.

Emergence of ISIS

To fight ISIS, opponents must know ISIS, rebranded as the "Islamic State."  It is unique among the many jihadi groupings that have sprung up since the Western-sponsored fundamentalist war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

ISIS/IS emerged as Unity and Holy War (al-Tawhid wal-Jihad) in Iraq after the 2003 US invasion and occupation. Its first head was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who began his jihadi career in Afghanistan. His reputation as a fighter won recruits from the “jihadi international,” veterans of the Afghan, Bosnian, Chechen and Algerian wars. By 2004, Zarqawi had become al-Qaeda's emir in Iraq and his organisation, renamed, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), attacked both US forces and Iraq's Shias, put in power by the US.

AQI identified with Iraq's Sunnis, marginalised by the US occupation authorities until the US military appealed to Sunni tribesmen to help counter AQI.  It had proclaimed “Islamic states” or “emirates” in towns and villages it seized and imposed its own extreme version of Islamic law and practice.

The tribesman responded positively to the US call and helped contain AQI but were rewarded by the Shia-fundamentalist Iraqi government with persecution and imprisonment rather than pensions and jobs.

 AQI survived because it developed an underground command and control structure and had funding from al-Qaeda central on the Afghan-Pakistan border. AQA revived in late 2011 and dispatched units, under the banner of Jabhat al-Nusra, to participate in the insurgency across the border in Syria. 

This group began with car and suicide bombings, drawing in the parent Iraqi organisation, which rebranded itself as ISIS. Initially, it fought alongside other insurgent groups but during 2013 grabbed territory captured by its allies. They turned against ISIS after it seized control of the north central Syrian city of Raqqa, now the capital of the “IS.” This territorial base enabled ISIS to expand operations to the edge of Aleppo and into Deir al-Zor, where ISIS took over Syria's main oil fields.

At this time it became clear that ISIS cannot be regarded as a “group” among the hundreds of groups that emerged during the Syrian conflict. ISIS is an organisation with a history of terrorism, a hierarchical structure, and experience in staging attacks and in battle. Early this year, it was estimated that ISIS could field 10,000 fighters, today they are said to number up to 50,000, a large proportion opportunists.

Since capturing Mosul, ISIS has gained territory in Iraq, arms, assets, and adherents, the core believing God is on their side. At least four Indian citizens have joined its ranks.

ISIS has also attracted educated men who have used social media to launch a very sophisticated public relations campaign to win fresh blood and impress both state and private donors. ISIS’s public relations arm even issues annual reports on its activities, demonstrating that ISIS is a business as well as a fully-fledged terrorist organisation. 

The first, 198 pages long, came out in 2013, and the second in March of this year. The report, covering the period from November 2012-2013  gives details of 9,540 operations or attacks in seven regions of Iraq. The operations involve assassinations, bombings, improvised explosive devices, sniping, and strikes on checkpoints.

Forces trying to counter ISIS must take its uniqueness into account and move quickly and forcibly to eliminate this organisation.  There is no time to lose.  Six months were lost when Baghdad failed to tackle the ISIS take-over of the Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Falluja early this year and 18 months were squandered after the ISIS seized Raqqa in Syria.

The decapitation of Foley should concentrate minds on the situation in Syria/Iraq and must, at long last, compel all governments to see it is a threat to the entire region. ISIS cannot be ignored in Syria while the US bombs its convoys, checkpoints, and outlying posts in Iraq.

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