In light of the global attacks of the last few months, most people are somewhat familiar with the group ISIS. The acronym has become synonymous with violence, terror and bloodshed. As they continue to advance their cause in the Middle East and beyond, we need to better understand who they are.
ISIS stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and is also known as ISIL or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. By the end of June 2014, ISIS renamed itself the “Islamic State” as it proclaimed the creation of a global caliphate.1 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, their leader since 2010, declared that he was the new caliph and as such, was now ruling all Muslims. To date, the introduction of a new caliphate has been far from welcome by various Muslim countries. ISIS, ISIL and IS are all mostly synonymous.
ISIS was founded in 1999 by the Jordanian extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Within five years, al-Zarqawi’s new group chose to associate themselves with Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. They are considered to be Islamic extremists, Islamists or Jihadists, closely linked to the concept of Jihad or “struggle.” Various similar groups, such as the Taliban, Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah have also made the news for decades, but ISIS appears to be in a league of its own.
By early 2014, Al-Qaeda officially dissociated itself from ISIS, and the new group became a self-sustained entity. Al-Qaeda refused to be held responsible for ISIS’ actions which they deemed to be “too extreme” in some cases.2 ISIS has proven to be a growing force to be reckoned with. They have lived up to their barbaric reputation. They continue to advance in the Middle East, spreading their grip on a terrified, ill-prepared region.
ISIS follows a very extreme form of Islam known as Salafism (in Arabic al salaf al salih means the “pious forefathers”). It promotes violence and bloodshed to establish and maintain qur’anic hegemony through a very strict adherence to the Qur’an and Shari’a law. ISIS adheres to an apocalyptic theology and believes that the Mhadi or “guided one” will soon arrive and redeem Islam. ISIS has declared jihad against all infidels. That includes westerners, Christians and Jews. But it also includes any other “Muslims” who do not pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the new caliph, such as Hamas.
ISIS has taken less than 18 months to establish their barbaric reputation.
While they are still described as a terrorist organization, they are also known as a militia that is well trained in guerrilla warfare. They have shown great organizational skills from a military standpoint. This is unusual for a group of this sort where corruption, chaos and military inadequacy are usually the norm.
Their recent beheadings, rapes and live burnings are done to intimidate and almost paralyze the world into an inability to respond appropriately. Additionally, they are very astute in using the social networks and the internet to spread their propaganda of terror, as well as recruit fighters all over the world.
ISIS represents a brand of Islam that knows no boundaries to its violence. It continues to attract members in various countries around the globe who go to the Middle East to train and then return to their respective countries to attack their own communities. The lack of moral equivalence between a group driven by an ideology worshipping death and a world valuing human life is always going to be a challenge.3
1 A caliphate (Arabic: خِلافة khilāfa) is a form of Islamic government led by a caliph (Arabic: خَليفة khalīfah –– a person considered a political and religious successor to the prophet, Muhammad and a leader of the entire Muslim community. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caliphate