A deadly terrorist group has been mercilessly slaughtering people on lines of extreme religious fundamentalism. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria which goes by a lot of other names has been horrifying the whole of this world with its acts of violence. Violence can easily pass as an understatement in this case. But has somebody thought where did this group that exemplifies ruthlessness in every way possible originate from?
Iraq is a very complex and diverse country with the south being Shia-dominant, central Iraq being Sunni-dominant and the north being Kurdish and Christian-dominant. But predominantly, Iraq is Shia-dominant. Iraq was ruled by a Sunni leadership meaning Saddam Hussein and clan for the longest time. The picture is very similar to that of Bahrain. A Sunni leadership or monarchy at the helm of affairs in a country with more and more Shias. A general air of discontent was very natural and imminent, therefore. Though the geographical composition of demographics would be different, Syria is also supremely diverse, socially.
The idea of this group has travelled across places from Jordan to Afghanistan, from Iraq to Syria with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan successfully getting rid of the presence of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Taliban, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and the uprising against Bashar al-Assad in Syria running in the background. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi intended to begin a terrorist organisation on lines of monotheism and jihad and founded Jama’at al-Tawhid w’al-Jihad which essentially works as ISIL’s predecessor. Zarqawi established the group ideally in Afghanistan. Then fled to Iraq when the Taliban fell in Afghanistan which he assumed was a relatively safer haven for him and the extremism he intended to preach and propagate to function. His successor Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi then took forward this whole idea of extremism to Syria.
The Sunni dominance in Iraq ceased after the downfall of Saddam Hussein. So much so positions in the Military & Government were now dominated by Shias who are the majority in Iraq. This supplemented Sunni resentment and helped Zarqawi’s group pick up phenomenal momentum. The group began with no association with either Osama Bin Laden or Al-Qaeda. But later, when Zarqawi began emerging as a kingmaker with reference to his violence, he joined hands with Al-Qaeda and his group began functioning as the Iraqi or Mesopotamian unit of Al-Qaeda. One very crucial difference between Zarqawi’s group and Al-Qaeda was that though both of them regarded Shias as apostates it was Zarqawi who directed attacks on them more vigorously while the Al-Qaeda continued their war with the West particularly America. Zarqawi’s group attacked Shia towns and even the holy place of Najaf where Iran’s supreme religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini once sought refuge during his times of exile. To sum this up, for the Shias of Iraq, Zarqawi and America were the same.
But Zarqawi and his group’s fortunes came crashing when he was killed by an American airstrike in 2006. Now one also needs to additionally make note that Zarqawi intended to rise as an Emir. He wanted the Sharia law to be exercised among the Sunnis. Those who opposed were executed cold blooded with no mercy. This implies that the Sunnis of Iraq were also gradually wearing out and withdrawing their support to Zarqawi, his ideas, practices and his group, all together. This was what the Americans capitalised but unfortunately not to the best of their abilities.
The Americans now wanted their troops to move out of Iraq and came up with an insurgent movement called “The Awakening” to defeat Al-Qaeda in Iraq completely and help the country find some riddance from violence. Zarqawi’s group primarily consisted foreigners i.e. non-Iraqis including Zarqawi himself who was from Jordan. The Sunnis who were not in support of this group’s actions and intentions were backed by the Americans and were now to be known as the “Sons of the Soil”. The Sons of the Soil were promised jobs, monetary support and assistance to rebuild Sunnis areas that were destroyed, immunity from punishment for crimes and also share in political power back in Baghdad. Though they did enjoy momentary success in crushing the morale of the Al-Qaeda cadre but the Nouri al-Maliki government in Baghdad were not seemingly serious about reconciliation and did not keep up to any of the promises made to the Sons of the Soil. Eventually, reconciliation seemed to be a supremely distant dream and the Iraqi sectarian crisis got from bad to worse.
Zarqawi was succeeded by Baghdadi and the Al-Qaeda in Iraq was on its road to revival after 2011 when the US completely withdrew their operations. Now, not only Shias but even the Military and Police personnel were targeted regularly. Nouri al-Maliki filled police & military positions with even members of Shia militias which angered the Sunnis. The former Sons of the Soil now found a cause to fight for and brought themselves together under Baghdadi. The Al-Qaeda in Iraq was now to be known as the Islamic State of Iraq.
Baghdadi now literally had an army at his disposal. Most of the former Sons of the soil were former members of the Iraqi National Army and possessed a lot of military skills & tact. With these fighters, Baghdadi gradually moved to the west to Syria where a popular uprising was being staged against the Bashar al-Assad government. Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite (a Shia sub-sect) and from the times of his father, Hafez al-Assad, the top Syrian government and military positions have been open only to the Alawite sect, a tradition that has been continued by Junior Assad as well. The Islamic State of Iraq began attacking positions of the regime and took over cities like Raqqa and Homs. Raqqa continues to be the Islamic State’s capital in Syria while the regime and Islamic State continue to be at war with the regime, rebels and international coalition in other regions of Syria. This is when the group further rebranded itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (implying the Levantine region).
After their partially successful tryst in Syria, Baghdadi and clan returned home and took over swathes of the Anbar region in central Iraq i.e. Ramadi, Fallujah and Iraq’s largest city Mosul in the north. According to reports, people in this region initially rejoiced the idea of being governed and ruled by somebody of their own because of their own anger against the government in Baghdad. But the happiness never lasted long once the Islamic State began imposing Sharia law and exercised it in the most brutal way possible.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant once envisioned a caliphate across the world. Today, as hundreds and thousands of their fighters have been fleeing, their future seems supremely uncertain. As we talk, the Iraqi army along with militias are fighting their might out to save Mosul and invariably Iraq from the hands of this group. Similarly, the international coalition, rebels and the Syrian regime are also battling the group in Syria to take over cities and regions back. Though they will continue to pose a major threat to peace and stability in the region and across the world, do we as the world need to do much more than military might to curb the potential of their revival once again? Think.