The Growing Shadow of ISIS
As the chaos in the Middle East continues to churn towards regional meltdown, the complexity of the situation seems to have the West at a total loss. Nations once known as world leaders, most notably the United States, appear unable to even understand the cast of players. No viable policy that could effectively counteract the forces at play has emerged. Into that vacuum has rushed a flood of Islamist terrorist groups, fighting each other as well as the offending governments they have chosen to attack. It happened in Libya, then in Syria, in the Sinai, and most recently in Iraq.
The confrontations developing in the Middle East are the predictable outcome of the so-called “Arab Spring,” coupled with weak American leadership which has empowered Islamists throughout the world to challenge the West at every opportunity. They know that the West will not respond.
The “Arab Spring” began in Tunisia in 2010, and raced through Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria, and other countries with large or predominantly Muslim populations whether Arab or not. The movement was later renamed the “Arab Awakening,” but changing the name didn’t change its Sunni Islamic character.
The common thread throughout these rolling revolutions that cut such a broad swath of the Muslim world was the dramatic shift from largely secular autocracies to Islamist-dominated governments. Uprisings that began naïvely as movements to promote democratic government, devolved into bloody and chaotic wars, spanning the region from West Africa to Malaysia. In many cases they installed new Islamist leaders governing under strict Shari’ah law.
Deeply imbedded and often covert in these conflicts is Shi’ah Iran and its proxies such as Hezbollah, hell-bent to generate chaos; presumably the chaos Shi’ah Muslims believe will precede the coming of the 12th Imam. On the other side are scores of Sunni groups, fighting the Shi’ah in Iraq, Assad in Syria, and each other wherever they can.
One of the most notorious of these is ISIS, the Islamic State of al-Sham (Syria) also known as ISIL (Islamic State of the Levant). Its reputation for fearlessness, brutal savagery, and radical Islamist ideology has created a serious new threat to the West.
ISIS evolved from a group founded by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2004. He gave the group the improbably long name of “The Organization of Jihad’s Base in the Country of Two Rivers.” In 2006, the name was changed to the simpler “Islamic State of Iraq” (ISI). Then, in 2012, after entering the conflict in Syria to challenge both the forces of the ruling Assad and the various opposition groups, secular and Islamist, ISI was changed to ISIS. Thus including Syria and reflecting its expanded goals, ISIS moved further away from the core al Qaeda agenda that did not embrace the Caliphate as a primary goal.
While the group’s original aim was to establish an Islamic caliphate in the regions of Iraq where there is a Sunni-majority, once the group became involved in the Syrian war, this mission was expanded to include controlling the Sunni-majority areas in northern Syria. In the course of ISIS’ expansion and successes in Syria, they opened a second front in Iraq. ISIS smashed through city after city and took a huge swath of the country from the north to central Iraq in the largely Sunni areas. The goal was expanded to attacks on the Syrian border to blur the boundaries between Iraq and Syria that could facilitate a merger into a single Islamist state.
On June 29, 2014, ISIS took a major step to achieve its goals. It formally announced the establishment of the Caliphate, naming Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the “Caliph for all Muslims.” In a recorded message distributed online, ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani said, “The Shura [council] of the Islamic State met and discussed [the caliphate] . . . . The Islamic State decided to establish an Islamic caliphate and to designate a caliph for the state of the Muslims . . . . The jihadist cleric Baghdadi was designated the caliph of the Muslims. . . . The leader of Muslims everywhere.”
Little is known about the shadowy figure of al-Baghdadi, also known as Abu Du’a. His name is a nom de guerre, and his real name is unknown. According to the US State Department, Baghdadi was born in Samarra, Iraq in 1971. He took over command of ISIS in 2010 after two of its commanders were killed in a US-Iraqi raid. In 2011, the US Treasury designated him a terrorist. Within ISIS, he is known as a battlefield commander and tactician, however his current whereabouts, like his history, is a matter for speculation. The US believes he is living in Syria, but others are certain he is in Iraq.
With the announcement came the news that the name of the organization was changed once again, this time to “The Islamic State.” The organization has called on al-Qa’eda and other jihadist Sunni factions to pledge their allegiance to the new Caliphate.
This is a stunning turn of events. In fact, its importance cannot be overstated. This one event has the power to galvanize the Sunni Muslim world in a way that has never happened before. However, it also has the power to enrage some of the Sunni jihadist groups, like al Qaeda, who are not likely to accept a role subservient to ISIS. Even worse, Shi’ah nations like Iran would never agree to show fealty to a Sunni caliphate. Their respective responses could well start a new round of conflicts and internecine terrorism unlike anything we have ever seen. Much depends on how responsible the leaders of the Muslim world will be in keeping the conflict of ideologies from exploding into war. If history is any gauge, there is little room for optimism.
ISIS has been infamous for the vicious brutality that has characterized its operations, and has left a trail of bloody horror behind it in Iraq and Syria, including crucifixions, mass murders, and dismemberment. It would be unrealistic to expect them to care much about the welfare of the Muslim masses should conflict break out as a result of their announcement. Whatever happens next, it is not likely to be business as usual.