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The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS and/or ISIL is an extreme violent Islamist group that has severely increased in the last decade throughout the Middle East. This group is also called Da’-ish in Arabic. The rise of this barbaric group has been one of the most disturbing events to happen in history. The somewhat unexpected outburst of violence and attacks of this group in 2014 was shocking and caught the international community off guard. With only a few hundred soldiers, ISIS was able to capture Iraqi territory and defeat their military that was heavily trained by the Unites States. However, this extremist group did not appear out of the blue. To understand ISIS, you must first dive into the details of their horrific past and where they emerged from. This paper will look into the early history of ISIS and how it came to be one of the world’s most feared terrorist group.
Before understanding ISIS, you must investigate the history of Al-Qaeda because that was a major spark in forming this group. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, around 20,000 foreign fighters traveled to help Afghans fight off Soviet Forces. This is where the appearance of Osama Bin Laden occurs. Bin Laden recruit’s other radical Islamists like himself to form Al-Qaeda. In 1988, the Soviets withdrew but that does not bring the war to an end. A year later, a Jordanian man called Ahmad Fadhil Nazzal al-Khalaylah joins their training camps and changes his name to Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. What we did not know is that this man would create what is known as ISIS, today. Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi: Al-Zarqawi grew up in a low-income neighborhood located in Zarqa, Jordan. He did not have the chance to go to college and did not have any stable jobs in his country. He was known to be a criminal and a thug that was involved in street gangs that committed horrific crimes. In and out of jail throughout his early teenage life, Zarqawi was quite frankly the opposite of religious. He was known as the “Green Man” because of the ink covering the skin of his body from all the tattoos he had. His process of radicalization started in prison.
Zarqawi was a supporter of the Palestinian cause and had planned to blow up Israeli checkpoints in Jordan which led to him being arrested and jailed. That is where he met Abu Muhammed Al-Maqdisi, a writer, who soon became his religious mentor. His impact was so great on this young criminal that when it was time for Zarqawi to leave prison, he walked out a completely different man. He had been radicalized and began to follow a jihadist ideology. In 1989, Zarqawi travels to Herat, Afghanistan which was a well-known place for the training of Jihadi groups – including the infamous group called Al-Qaeda. Instead of joining Bin Laden’s allegiance, Zarqawi forms his own training camp and recruit’s fighters mainly from the Sahel and the Levant, areas in which he is familiar with. Zarqawi’s group consisted of men that were uneducated and grew up in a lower class just like him, while Bin Laden and his fighters came from the upper middle class with university degrees. Abu Musab had a much smaller scheme compared to Bin Laden’s movement. His first goal was to set up an Islamist State in Jordan and was also interested in creating a movement that would help the Palestinian cause. Bin Laden had a much bigger agenda and that was the United States. Zarqawi’s mission was not significant enough to get Al-Qaeda’s attention. In a way, Bin Laden believed that this much smaller group was beneath him.
Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi returns to Jordan and forms his own group called Jama’at al- Tahwid wal-Jihad (JTJ), in 1999. His mission was to overthrow the Kingdom of Jordan which he believed was un-Islamic and turn it into an Islamic state. This was the group that would later become ISIS. After the U.S invasion of Iraq in 2003, many foreign fighters and extremists were entering the country, including Zarqawi’s group. Iraq was destroyed and was left in chaos. When they entered the country, they were welcomed by Sunni militants and officers that were left unemployed after the invasion. Fearing the growth of the Shia community, the Sunnis in Iraq formed an alliance with Zarqawi’s group and joined their movement. After its significant growth in Iraq, JTJ captured Al-Qaeda’s attention.
In 2004, Zarqawi pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda, becoming the country’s most powerful and significant Sunni terrorist group. The benefits that came with joining Al-Qaeda’s forces were the access of funds they began collecting as well as receiving a large number of fighters. AQI was not just fighting the Americans, but also the Shia community in Iraq, by bombing their mosques and executing civilians which sparked an outburst from the Shias. This caused a civil war between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq. Zarqawi’s methods of force were so extreme and barbaric that even Al-Qaeda sent a warning to him to calm it down. Completely disregarding these warnings, AQI begins to take control of large Sunni areas in Iraq. Sunni tribal chiefs had become fed up of the lifestyle they had under Zarqawi’s rule. They decided to take up arms against this extremist group because of how dangerous and harsh their lives had become. They initiated an uprising against AQI called the Awakening in 2006. US troops also increased their presence in Iraq fighting off this extremist group. It was that same year that Zarqawi was killed by a US airstrike. By 2009, the presence of AQI had decreased immensely.
Iraq had reached a point where it was somewhat stable compared to their past. They formed good relations with their diverse communities from many different cultures and backgrounds and their level of security had risen. However, because of Iraq’s hectic internal politics, AQI was able to resurrect easily. Noori Al-Maliki had destroyed Iraq’s progress by causing division inside the country, by using extreme violence. He provoked the Sunni community by favoring and privileging the Shia majority of the population. This only caused Iraq’s sectarianism to deepen immensely. The internal political divide in Iraq literally generated the appearance of AQI quite easily. ‘Raw political sectarianism in Iraq was the main causal factor in ISIS’s rise,’ Fred Hof explains, who served under the Obama administration in 2012 as special adviser for the transition in Syria. Al-Qaeda in Iraq found a new leader called Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Under his leadership, they began recruiting former Sunni fighters who had a history in Saddam’s military. These provoked officers were the ideal solution to forming a greater fighting force for AQI. AQI branches out to Syria: In 2011, protestors in Syria roamed the streets demanding Syrian president, Bashar Al-Assad to step down from power. This is when the Syrian regime began executing these protestors, provoking a civil war. Assad released a large number of extremists from prison in 2011. His plan to create an extremist opposition was quite devious. He knew exactly what he was doing when he issued the release of these criminals. His plan was to create an opposition that would not be supported by the West. This would allow Assad to do as he pleased without the West intervening and questioning his political agenda. In this case, Assad knew that a religious extremist group (specifically Islamic) would never gain support from the Superpowers. In August 2011, Al-Baghdadi sent Abu Mohamed al Joulani, one of his right-hand man’s to Syria. He was sent out to establish a new branch of AQI in Syria, which he did. After his succession, he then created a group called Jabhat al Nusra, another jihadist organization that would fight the Syrian government in the civil war. In 2012, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s group began a series of attacks on Iraqi prisons. This attack helped them greatly in recruiting more fighters and enlarging their organization. With the help of his loyalists, many Iraqi prisoners and criminals were being released and rapidly joining the terrorist group. This plan led to extreme power for this group and further proved the weakening of Iraq’s government.
AQI was still existent in Iraq, however, Al-Baghdadi began to worry that the organization in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra, would eventually want to separate from Baghdadi’s group and begin to work independently. In 2013, Baghdadi made a decision that would affect both AQI & Jabhat al Nusra; he took full control over both groups and decided to separate from Al-Qaeda. He then comes to the decision to rename the group and call it ISIS. On June 10, 2014, only a few hundred soldiers from ISIS were able to defeat Iraq’s military group that consisted of thousands of fighters that were trained by the U.S and capture the city of Mosul. The fighting went on and ISIS was able to take control over much more of Iraqi territory. This is when Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declared that ISIS was now a legitimate state.
After the horrific events in 2014, many people began to wonder where ISIS came from and how long this terrorist group had been around for. A good deal of the population believed that ISIS was a new organization that appeared out of the blue. However, to understand ISIS and how it came to be, you must realize that its history goes far beyond the attacks of 2014. The Islamic State has always been around, but we just did not know it yet, nor did we see it coming so unexpectedly. To grasp this concept, you must understand that ISIS did not progress so rapidly just by creating and recruiting barbaric fighters. Although, this did help them with their attacks, this was not the only reason they advanced significantly. With the help of political leaders, chaotic internal politics and the division between sects and communities, ISIS gained its power and did what most terrorist organizations have not been able to achieve.
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