ISIS Explained

Sunni militants have terrorized Iraq and Syria in their bid to implement an Islamic state

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The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), has terrorized large swaths of Iraq and Syria in its drive to establish an Islamic state in the Middle East ruled by strict shariah law. The militant group is made up of fundamentalist Sunni Muslims and foreign jihadists. Branches of ISIS have sprung up in Egypt and Libya, and in March 2015, the Nigerian-based Islamist sect Boko Haram pledged allegiance to ISIS.

ISIS is believed to have some 30,000 fighters in its ranks, with about 10% of them from the West. Western nations have stepped up security to prevent citizens from traveling to Syria and Iraq to join the fight.

The group, formerly known as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), is headed by Iraqi-born Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badry, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Baghdadi is also the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic world. He was associated with Al Qaeda as a religious figure early in the U.S.-led war in Iraq, and became the leader of AQI in 2010. (In April 2013, Baghdadi changed the name of the organization from AQI to ISIS.) U.S. troops arrested him in Falluja in 2004 during the uprising there by Sunnis. Not considered a serious threat, he was released after a few months in detention. (Some reports say he was held for several years.) Baghdadi was a follower of Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of AQI who was killed by a U.S. airstrike in 2006. He is believed to have been born in Iraq in 1971 and earned a Ph.D. in Islamic studies in Baghdad. He has intentionally shrouded details of his life in secrecy, and little else is known about him. Al Qaeda distanced itself from ISIS as it grew increasingly violent and intolerant even of Muslims.

Executions Illustrate Group's Brutality

ISIS has no boundaries in regard to its savagery. In late August 2014, members of the group beheaded American journalist James Foley in apparent retaliation for U.S. airstrikes that targeted ISIS. Foley, who worked for GlobalPost, went missing in Syria in November 2012. ISIS released a graphic video of his killing. After his death, the U.S. announced that troops had attempted to rescue him and other U.S. hostages in July, but they were unable to locate them. ISIS said Steven Sotloff, another kidnapped American journalist, would be killed if the airstrikes continued. President Barack Obama referred to ISIS as a "cancer."

"The United States of America will continue to do what we must do to protect our people," Obama said. "We will be vigilant, and we will be relentless." Two weeks later, ISIS released a video showing the beheading of Sotloff, 31, who worked for Time and other news outlets. He was abducted in 2013 in Syria. ISIS beheaded a third victim, 44-year-old British aid worker David Cawthorne Haines, on Sep. 13, 2014. Alan Henning, a British taxi driver who delivered aid to Syrian refugees, was killed by ISIS in early October.

In November 2014, ISIS beheaded Peter Kassig, a 26-year-old American who served with the U.S. Army Rangers in Iraq. He established the Special Emergency Response and Assistance program to help civilians escaping the civil war in Syria. He was held captive by ISIS for just over a year. Kassig was the fifth westerner beheaded by the militant group.

The group treats women and girls with particulary brutality. According to several news reports, militants gang rape women prisoners and marry off young girls to fighters. In September 2014, ISIS militants kidnapped and tortured Iraqi lawyer and women's rights advocate Sameera Salih Ali al-Nuaimy before executing her in public. Several other women were executed for speaking out against the group.

On Jan. 9, 2015, two days after 12 people were killed at Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly magazine in Paris, Amedy Coulibaly took several hostages at a kosher supermarket in Paris. Police killed Coulibaly, but four hostages also died. In a video released after his death, Coulibaly said he had pledged allegiance to ISIS.

In February 2015, militants immolated Muath Kasasbeh, a Jordanian flight lieutenant pilot who they captured during U.S.-led attacks. In response, the Jordanian government executed two terrorists and vowed revenge. That execution followed the murder of two Japanese hostages, Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto. Also in February, ISIS announced that its last U.S. hostage, Kayla Mueller, 26, had been killed when a building, which was hit by a Jordanian airstrike, collapsed. The White House and Mueller's parents confirmed her death, but said the cause was unknown.

Group Takes Advantage of Civil War in Syria

As government troops began to overtake the opposition in Syria during the intractable civil war there, ISIS, flush with weapons and cash, moved in and took control of several towns in northeast Syria. As it turned its focus on instituting its strict brand of Islam over ousting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, ISIS started to face backlash from other rebel groups, which expressed disdain for ISIS's brutality. Indeed, ISIS militants were accused of executing leaders of both the Free Syrian Army and Ahrar al-Sham, another rebel group. In January 2014, the Nusra Front joined with other rebels groups to drive ISIS from several cities, dealing the group a significant defeat. However, ISIS recovered and by late summer, it had taken over areas in Aleppo province previously held by the rebels. Al Qaeda distanced itself from ISIS because of the group's merciless attacks, including those against Muslims. With support on the wan in Syria, ISIS turned its focus to Iraq.

Some have speculated that if the Obama administration had armed the rebels in Syria, then ISIS may not have had an opening in Syria. "I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if we had committed to empowering the moderate Syrian opposition last year," said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) in August 2014.

U.S. Begins Airstrikes in Syria

President Barack Obama said in September 2014 that he had authorized airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and would work with allies in the region to retake areas under ISIS control and decimate the terrorist group. (Attacks on ISIS in Iraq had already begun.) Obama was clear that he does not plan to deploy ground troops in the fight against ISIS. He also asked Congress to authorize money to fund and train moderate rebel groups in Syria to aid in the fight, which it did in late September. Obama authorized the airstrikes under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force law, which allowed President George W. Bush to use "necessary and appropriate force" against those involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East—including American citizens, personnel and facilities," Obama said. "If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States. While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies." The White House uses the name Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Airstrikes began in Syria on Sept. 23, 2014, with Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates joining the U.S. in its campaign against ISIS bases and training camps in Raqqa, which is considered the group's capital, and four other provinces. About 60 countries in total joined the fight against ISIS.

In September and October, ISIS laid seige to to Kobani, a Kurdish-dominated town in north-central Syria that borders Turkey, causing about 130,000 Kurdish refugees to flood into Turkey. The U.S. launched airstrikes on Kobani in early October, trying to prevent ISIS from taking over the strategically located town and gaining additional smuggling routes to arm fighters. The influx of refugees created a humanitarian crisis, and prompted Turkey to seal the border with Syria. More than 1 million refugees had already entered Turkey from Syria.

After five months of fighting, in January 2015 the Kurds—backed by 700 U.S.-led airstrikes—liberated Kobani from the grip of ISIS. The victory came at an enormous cost, as the city was devastated by ISIS militants and the airstrikes. Some 400 Kurdish fighters were killed, and ISIS reportedly lost 1,000 jihadists in the fighting. Iraqi Kurds, called the pesh merga, and Turkish Kurds who are members of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), joined Syrian Kurds in defending Kobani.

Obama Asks Congress for Authority to Fight ISIS

In February 2015, President Obama formally sought authorization from Congress to conduct a three-year campaign against ISIS. The request covered airstrikes and limited ground troops. It specifically said the U.S. would not "engage in enduring offensive ground combat operations."

ISIS's Involvement in Iraq

In early January 2014, ISIS took control of Falluja and most of Ramadi, both cities in Anbar Province that are Sunni strongholds and were major battlegrounds during the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Government troops resumed control of Ramadi, but the militants held on to Falluja and maintained their control over much of Anbar Province throughout the year.

Members of ISIS seized control of Mosul, in northern Iraq in early June 2014, dealing the government an enormous—and unexpected—blow. The militants released Sunni insurgents from prison, looted banks of about $425 million, and occupied an airport, several government and military buildings, and a police station. Government troops abandoned the fight in droves and joined civilians fleeing the city. As many as 500,000 people fled Mosul. Mosul is the second-largest city in Iraq and an important hub in the country's oil industry.

The militants, who were joined by other Sunni groups, pressed on after seizing Mosul, taking Tikrit and assuming control of the country's largest oil facility, located in Baiji. As the militants expanded their areas of control and the stability and future of Iraq grew even more dire, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country's senior Shiite religious leader, in June 2014 called on all Iraqis to fight the militants, saying it is "the legal and national responsibility of whoever can hold a weapon to hold it to defend the country, the citizens and the holy sites."

Thousands of Shiites heeded Sistani's call and joined the fight. The untrained fighters were met with brutal attacks from ISIS, and hundreds of Shiites were reportedly massacred after taking up arms. ISIS continued to seize more territory in the north and west, putting pressure on the U.S. and other nations to consider a military response. On June 21, President Barack Obama said 300 military advisers would be sent to Iraq but said combat troops would not be deployed.

By early July 2014, ISIS changed its name to the Islamic State and declared the territory under its control—Anbar province (west of Baghdad) and most of Nineveh (north of Baghdad)—a caliphate. In early August, the militants threatened to kill all Christians in Mosul who didn't convert to Islam. Nearly all of the city's Christians, who numbered about 60,000 ten years ago, fled, leaving with little more than the clothes on their backs. The militants looted the homes of those who fled, stealing money, jewelry, and other possessions. ISIS fighters also took over three towns in northern Iraq, Sinjar, Zumar, and Wana, after fighting brutal battles with Kurdish forces known as the pesh merga. ISIS threatened to exterminate members of the Yazidi minority who live in Sinjar, and 40,000 members of the group fled to Mount Sinjar. They were stranded in the heat without food, water, medicine, or other supplies. Yazidis practice a religion based on Zoroastrianism, and ISIS considers them heretics.

The U.S. again became militarily involved in Iraq, with President Barack Obama authorizing airstrikes in August 2014 to protect Americans and American facilities in Iraq, particularly in Erbil. The U.S. military also dropped food and medicine to the thousands of Yazidis stranded on Mount Sinjar. The first airstrike was launched on Aug. 8 and targeted militants near Erbil. Obama said the airstrikes could last for months.

In August 2014, ISIS militants took control of the largest dam in Iraq, which is located in Mosul. The dam provides electricity for all of Mosul and is the water supply for the city and much of the surrounding area. The UN has declared the dam is unstable and is vulnerable to collapse. The Kurdish security force, the pesh merga, recaptured the dam.

In early September, a coalition of Shiite militias delivered ISIS its first major setback in Iraq. ISIS had been surrounding and attacking Amerli, a town between Erbil and Baghdad that is home to Shiite Turkmens, for about three months before the militias, aided by U.S. airstrikes, beat back ISIS, ending the siege.

Following Obama's speech in September 2014 in which he authorized airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, the U.S. intensified its attacks on areas taken over by ISIS. The strikes targeted areas near Baghdad and regions in the north. While the U.S.-led attacks stopped ISIS from taking over Baghdad, they did little to thwart the advance of ISIS in the north. Indeed, the group continued to expand the area under its control, running schools using strict Islamic curriculum and operating a police force under the name "the Islamic Police of the Islamic State of Iraq." France approved airstrikes in late September and immediately began attacking strongholds in the north. The tide began to change in the north at the end of September, when pesh merga troops, backed up by U.S. and British airstrikes, took control of a Syrian border crossing in the Rabia district from ISIS fighters. The pesh merga forces made gains in other areas, including Daquq, south of Kirkuk, and several other towns.

The airstrikes targeted not only the militants and their strongholds but also oil installations under control of ISIS, cutting into the group's source of revenue.

By the end of October 2014, ISIS maintained its hold on many cities in the largely Sunni Anbar Province, as U.S.-led airstrikes proved largely ineffectual without the support of Iraqi troops on the ground. The Iraqi military remained weakened by desertions, diminished morale, and mistrust of the new government. Prime Minister Abadi made conciliatory gestures toward Sunnis in an attempt to encourage them to join the fight against ISIS. His efforts bore fruit, and some Sunni groups and Shiite militias made progress in beating back ISIS. In January 2015, they forced militants out of their stronghold in Diyala province.

The Iraqi military, aided by Iranian-backed Shiite militias and Iranian troops and advisers, began a major campaign in March 2015 against ISIS in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, which ISIS captured in June 2014. Fighters from Shiite militias comprised the bulk of the force, some 20,000 men, while Iraqi troops numbered only about 3,000. A small number of Sunni fighters joined the battle. They drove ISIS out of Tikrit, handing ISIS a significant defeat. The operation was conducted without the backing of the U.S.-led coalition, handing the Iraqi forces a symbolic as well as strategic victory.

Group Expands in to Egypt and Libya

In November, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, the most virulent militant organization in Egypt, pledged allegiance to ISIS. The move not only expanded the reach of ISIS into Egypt, it also increased the resources available to Ansar Beit al-Maqdis to wage war against the government.

As Libya descended into political chaos in late 2014 and into 2015, at least three militant groups, one in each of Libya's three regions, pledged allegiance to ISIS. In February 2015, a group of the militants aligned with ISIS beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians who had been kidnapped from Sirte. Egypt responded by launching airstrikes on weapons Derna, a militant stronghold in eastern Libya. In May, ISIS militants shot or beheaded at least 20 Ehtiopian migrant workers, most of whom are believed to be Christian.

ISIS Uses Technology as Recruiting and Propaganda Tool

ISIS has proved to be skilled at using social media, high-quality videos, and an online magazine, Dabiq, as both recruiting and propaganda tools. It has released videos glorifying its brutal assassinations and attacks on U.S. troops. The group uses social media outlets such as Twitter, WhatsApp, and Facebook to promise new recruits material rewards, such as free housing and a steady salary. According the the U.S. State Department, ISIS releases about 90,000 tweets a day. The group appeals to the religious fervency of young, impressionable Muslims and lures them to Syria and Iraq to become radicalized and fight for the cause. Members of ISIS took credit for the January 2015 hacking of the Twitter and YouTube accounts of the U.S. Central Command.

Here are answers to frequently asked questions about ISIS.

Who makes up ISIS? Many of ISIS fighters come from the ranks of the Baath Party of Saddam Hussein. Several of Baghdadi's lieutenants were officers and intelligence officials in the party. Estimates about 12,000 foreigners—as many as 3,000 Westerners—have joined ISIS.

Where does ISIS get its money? ISIS makes more than $10 million each month through extortion, the collection of taxes and fees in areas under their control, selling oil from fields it controls, and through looting the homes of people who fled under threat of the militants.

Who supplies ISIS with weapons? ISIS has armed itself with weapons seized from the battlefield in Iraq and Syria. The group has also reportedly received funding from wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey, and Qatar and then used the money to buy arms on the black market. These nations support ISIS because both consider Iran and Syria a threat, share anti-Shiite sentiment, and want to protect fellow Sunnis from violence sanctioned by Assad and Maliki. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar have passed legislation banning such aid, but the governments have done little to enforce the laws. According to a Dec. 2013 study by the Brookings Institution, donations are funneled through Kuwait and make their way to militant groups. "Today, there is evidence that Kuwaiti donors have backed rebels who have committed atrocities and who are either directly linked to al-Qa’ida or cooperate with its affiliated brigades on the ground," the report said.

Former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has publicly accused Qatar and Saudi Arabia of supporting the militants. "I accuse them of inciting and encouraging the terrorist movements. I accuse them of supporting them politically and in the media, of supporting them with money and by buying weapons for them," he said in March 2014.

ISIS prefers portable weapons that are easy to conceal and transport, such as shoulder-launched, surface-to-air missiles.

—Beth Rowen
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