Review of 2014: Islamic State’s reign of terror – Irish Times
Islamic State’s dramatic conquest of Mosul, Iraq’s second city, on June 10th and the brutal beheading of five westerners shocked other countries into recognising the threat posed by the ruthless militarised Sunni cult.
Islamic State has thrived on international indifference, widespread Muslim anger against the “crusading” Christian West, the politicomilitary vacuum caused by the conflict in Syria, and the Sunni struggle for rights in Iraq.
Little notice had been taken in August 2013 when Islamic State occupied the strategic Syrian city of Raqqa, which it made the capital of its caliphate. The world powers also ignored the group when, in January 2014, its fighters occupied the Iraqi city of Falluja and half of Anbar’s provincial capital, Ramadi, an hour’s drive from Baghdad.
Islamic State is headed by the self-proclaimed Caliph Ibrahim, whose nom de guerre is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Born in the Iraqi city of Samarra, in 1971, the canny warrior assumed the leadership of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), an al-Qaeda affiliate, after the assassinations of its founder Abu Massab al-Zarkawi and his successor Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.
After the 2003 US occupation of Iraq, ISI took root in seven Sunni-majority provinces but was rejected by Iraqis following bomb outrages against civilians and suppressed when Sunni tribesmen joined US forces in the 2007-8 surge to halt sectarian warfare.
ISI survivors continued to mount vehicle and suicide bombings, mainly against Shias, escalating these attacks after US troops withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011. At that time Baghdadi dispatched fighters under the command of Abu Mohammed al-Julani to Syria. The group formally announced its existence in January 2012, under the name of Jabhat al-Nusra, the Support Front for the People of Syria, and made a reputation for deadly bombings and ferocity in battle.
In April 2013, ISI, rebranded as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis), expanded its own operations into Syria and announced a merger with Jabhat al-Nusra. It rejected the takeover, which was condemned by the Pakistan-based al-Qaeda central chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. He eventually expelled Isis from al-Qaeda.
Thanks to infighting among Syrian rebel factions, Isis established itself as the premier force in Syria and secured support from Arab governments and wealthy individuals.
In August 2013 Isis drove the Jabhat out of Raqqa and proclaimed an Islamic state. Since then Islamic State has transformed itself and attracted tens of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian recruits, as well as 15,000 foreigners from 80 countries, including Ireland, Britain, France, the US and the Russian Caucasus.
Many have been drawn to Raqqa by the desire to live in an Islamic state governed by Islamic law and conservative social practice.
Brutal, puritanical police state
Raqqa has been transformed into a brutal, puritanical police state ruled by Caliph Ibrahim. Most Islamic State fighters in Raqqa are Iraqis and Tunisians, although there are some westerners. Many bring women and children to settle there.
Under the Islamic State reign, based on Saudi Wahhabi doctrines, men are compelled to grow beards. Women must wear all-concealing clothes and veils and remain at home, circulating only in the company of male relatives. Girls are forced to marry Islamic State fighters by fathers seeking money or political advantage.