On September 11th, 2001 the world was changed forever. As terrorists flew two civilian airliners into the Twin Towers they not only changed the lives of millions of Americans, but also marked the beginning of a seemingly endless war that has affected the lives of millions of people from all over the world, and redefined international politics. In the following paper I will begin by explaining the origins of the Islamic State and the events that have led this organization to becoming the most powerful terrorist group the world has ever seen. I will then explain the major players in the conflict against IS, and analyze the multiple factors that have fueled this group’s acts of political violence. Finally, I will conclude by explaining the actions that the U.S. government has taken to deal with IS and I will conclude by providing my own thoughts on this ongoing issue.
In the beginning of the global war on terror, Osama Bin Laden and his group known as al-Qaeda practically became the face of evil to most of the western world. Aside from the attacks on 9/11 al-Qaeda and it’s affiliates have conducted attacks on Australians in Bali, Israelis in Mombasa, Spaniards in Madrid, attacked India’s parliament in an attempt to kill Prime Minister Vajpayee, wreaked havoc throughout the middle-east, and caused pain to countless people across the globe (Riedel, 2011). On May 2, 2011, many believed that the war on terror had finally taken a turn for the best when President Obama announced that SEAL Team Six had conducted a secret operation on a compound in Pakistan, which resulted in the death of Osama Bin Laden (CNN Library, 2014). Unfortunately this victory was short lived, and the hope that the war would soon be over could not have been further from the reality of the situation. Soon after the US had pulled out of Iraq, a new threat seemingly emerged out of nowhere. The a terrorist group know as ISIS, and it’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have taken the place of al-Qaeda and Bin Laden as the most feared terror group in the world. ISIS has since changed it’s name to the Islamic State (or “IS” for short) and has proven to be an even more powerful, and much more brutal adversary than any terrorist group the world has seen before.
In order to understand how the Islamic State rose to power it is necessary to first understand its origins. IS began as an al-Qaeda offshoot in Iraq known as al-Qaeda in Iraq or AQI. The AQI began in 2004 under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. This Sunni Muslim Jihadist group began it’s reign of terror by first attacking the UN HQ in Iraq, then by attacking US forces, and then began targeting the Shia Muslim majority (Robbins & Riedel, 2014). The group became infamous, even among other terrorist groups for using brutal tactics such as suicide bombings, be-headings, and deliberately targeting civilians. These brutal tactics eventually caught up with the group, causing them to loose significant levels of public support. After an U.S airstrike killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006, the group renamed itself the Islamic State of Iraq in an attempt to regain public support (Alfred, 2014). While the group was largely forced underground during the U.S. occupation of Iraq, it began regaining power after U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011. Under the command of it’s new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISI began focusing on taking over an area of Iraq to form a Sunni Caliphate. In 2012 al-Baghdadi made his next big move by creating an offshoot group in Syria known as the al-Nusra Front and by 2013 he attempted combined the two groups into a single entity known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, better know as ISIS. While ISIS did managed to branch off into Syria the initially planned merger of the two groups was rejected by the al-Nusra Front and also by al-Qaeda’s top chief Ayman al-Zawahri, who also demanded that ISIS restrict it’s focus to only Iraq. Al-Baghdadi rejected the order to only remain in Iraq, which resulted in ISIS being the first local branch to have been kicked out of the al-Qaeda network and eventually led to intense fighting between ISIS and the Nusra Front (Alfred, 2014). In June of 2014 ISIS caught the attention of the entire world when it conquered Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and armed itself with the U.S. weaponry left behind by the fleeing Iraqi army. In the same month ISIS changed it’s name to the Islamic State and began challenging al-Qaeda for the position of the premier terror network in the world (Alfred, 2014).
After the IS conquered Mosul it then proceeded to take over vast amounts of area in both Iraq and Syria and has declared that it’s overall goal is to take over the rest of the middle-east, and then the world. They have even claimed that they will raise their flag in the White House (VICE News, 2014). While other terrorist organizations have claimed similar goals, the IS has achieved more than any group before it, but it is also very different from any other terrorist organization. One of the factors that makes the IS unique was how quickly it was able to take over large amounts of territory. The Islamic State’s members call this area their Caliphate and have been able to hold most of their territory despite ongoing airstrikes from coalition forces (Evans & Holmes, 2014). In addition to holding thousands of square miles worth of territory, the Islamic State is also unique because it has set up government services throughout it’s Caliphate. Some such services include police forces, courts, sewer systems, and even schools. While the Islamic State does provide beneficial services and stability to the communities under its control, the Islamic State also stands out due to its extreme level of brutality against its enemies as well as the brutal punishments subject on any citizens who violate the strict Sharia law that is implemented throughout the entire Islamic State (Vice News, 2014). In fact, the Islamic State has been criticized by other terrorist groups such as as-Qaeda for the level of brutality that they use to achieve their goals (Alfred, 2014).
Despite having some characteristics of a legitimate State, the Islamic State’s actions make it clear that it is nothing more than an extremely brutal, yet powerful terrorist group. Unlike legitimate States which do their best to conceal acts of violence, the Islamic State goes out of it’s way to share images of their atrocious acts whenever possible. In June of 2014 IS members shared images over social media that showed the execution of dozens of captured Iraqi soldiers. According to an article from the Washington Post: “the photos showed men in civilian clothes lying with their face down, shoulder to shoulder and with their hands bound, in a ditch surrounded by yellow fields, as a row of masked fighters fired into the ditch. Photographs taken before the execution show the men said to be Iraqi soldiers lining up before they are piled onto pickup trucks and then led to an open field… the group boasted on Twitter that it had killed as many as 1,700 soldiers, which, if true, would make Sunday’s execution one of the worst atrocities in the region in the past few years.” (Kaphle, 2015). This event took place north of Bagdad after IS fighters took over the Salahuddin province. The Islamic State likely committed these gruesome executions to instill fear in others who oppose them in the region. Just like other terrorist organizations the Islamic State relies on fear to achieve their goals. In addition to terrorizing those who oppose them, they may have also done this for strategic purposes. Even though the Iraqi soldiers were not armed at the time, it is possible that if they were set free they may have regrouped with other Iraqi forces and challenged the Islamic State during a future battle.
While the executions of the Iraqi soldiers were likely primarily aimed at striking fear in the hearts of military forces in the region, it only had a limited impact on the western world. When U.S. led coalition forces began bombing Islamic State forces in Syria, the terrorists decided to send the U.S. a message by beheading a captured American journalist named James Foley. In August of 2014 the Islamic State posted a video titled “A Message to America.” The video shows James Foley on his knees in the desert with an English speaking IS fighter standing at his side. Foley was wearing an orange jumpsuit, which according to the article was “an apparent reference to the uniforms worn by prisoners at the American military detention camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.” As the IS fighter pulled out his knife he declared that “Mr. Foley’s execution is in retaliation for the recent American airstrikes ordered by President Obama against the extremist group in Iraq.” Before his death Foley made the a statement saying: “I call on my friends, family and loved ones to rise up against my real killers — the U.S. government — for what will happen to me is only a result of their complacent criminality,” and also claimed that the U.S. soldiers that dropped the bombs had “signed my death certificate”(Callimachi, 2014). The motivation behind this atrocity was very clear. The Islamic State used the beheading of Foley as an attempt to strike fear in westerners and also as a type of retaliation against the U.S. led airstrikes. It is also possible that these events, as well as all of the other acts of violence that the Islamic State broadcasts are used as an attempt to gain recruits, and to legitimize their terrorist organization.
Although there is no excuse that could justify the atrocities that the Islamic State is known for, there are a few factors that have likely led to the existence and nature of the IS. One such factor is the perceived loss of power that the Sunni minority was subject to after the fall of Saddam Hussein. While Saddam was the dictator of Iraq he ruled with an iron fist. Despite the oppression that the citizens were subject to, he was able to keep the country relatively stable. After Saddam was removed from power Iraq became unstable, and the ideal environment for groups such as the IS to form. After Saddam was executed the U.S. sought to replace the previous regime with a government under the Shia majority. Many Sunni groups and individuals that felt that they were losing their previously held power and increased their resentment of the U.S.A and the Shia majority.
Another factor that has possibly contributed to the rise of the Islamic State was the U.S. involvement in the middle-east, and the policies that the U.S. has used to deal with terrorism in general. When the U.S. invaded Iraq to remove Saddam from power they managed to destabilize the region. In addition to creating the environment for IS to form, they also unintentionally helped the terrorists recruiting efforts. As U.S forces invaded Iraq they created chaos, caused many civilian casualties, and destroyed the country’s infrastructure. This resulted in many Iraqi civilians who were not already terrorists, to become terrorists. In addition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, leaked videos and pictures of U.S. troops abusing Muslims have gained the Islamic State supporters from all over the world. It has been reported that many individuals from all over the world have been flocking to the middle-east to join the Islamic State. Even though these individuals were not directly affected by the war, they were angered by the images of dead civilians and children left behind after some U.S. airstrikes. In addition to the offensive images coming from the battlefield, images from prisons such as Gitmo showed U.S. soldiers abusing Muslim prisoners. As Mark Banner said, “nothing like the Islamic State existed before the U.S. involvement in Iraq.” (VICE News & Danner, 2014)
In terms of political violence this appears to be a case of decremental deprivation. The people of Iraq’s quality of life dropped substantially after the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq. The people of Iraq have lost their homes, their land, have watched their friends and families get killed, and have also lost their sense of security. According the theory of relative deprivation, decremental deprivation occurs when a person’s perceived value capability drops sharply, while their value expectations remain the same. I believe that the situation in Iraq is a clear example of this.
The Islamic State has committed many individual acts of political violence, but overall their actions can be classified as a revolution. This is due to the fact that they are a very organized group that aims to overthrow the governments of the world and replace them with their own system. This revolution has resulted in a war directly involving Islamic State fighters; every group in their path, and also the U.S. led coalition forces that are actively fighting the Islamic State. Indirectly however, this revolution involves everyone because it has resulted in increased polices to protect against terrorism, because anyone could potentially fall victim to one of their terroristic attacks, and because if they succeed in their ambitions of world domination everyone that does not follow their belief system would be eliminated.
Our government has responded to this issue in the same manner that has potentially caused the problem in the first place. They have began conducting airstrikes over Syria, have sent military advisors to the battle zone, and worst of all have armed moderate rebels that have been fighting the Islamic State in Syria. In my opinion we are not handling this issue in an intelligent way. We have used the same tactics repeatedly even though they have not done much to help the situation, and possibly even make things worse. While I agree with the fact that the Islamic State is brutal and a potential threat to the rest of the world, and therefore must be stopped, I believe that if we are to actually solve this problem we must begin exploring new methods that will not result in creating more terrorists than we are eliminating.
Contributed by F.B.
Alfred, C. (2014, September 28). Al Qaeda And ISIS Had A Spectacular Falling Out. Here’s What Happened. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/28/al-qaeda-isis-timeline_n_5884802.html?
Callimachi, R. (2014, August 19). Log In – The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/20/world/middleeast/isis-james-foley-syria-execution.html
Chivers, C. J. (2014, October 5). Log In – The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/06/world/isis-ammunition-is-shown-to-have-origins-in-us-and-china.html?_r=0
CNN Library. (2014, November 10). Death of Osama bin Laden Fast Facts – CNN.com. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/09/world/death-of-osama-bin-laden-fast-facts/index.html
Evans, D., & Holmes, O. (2014, December 4). Islamic State cedes little ground despite air attacks| Reuters. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/12/04/us-mideast-crisis-islamicstate-idUSKCN0JI0EJ20141204
Kaphle, A. (2015, June 15). These dramatic images show apparent mass execution of Iraqi soldiers by ISIS – The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/06/15/these-dramatic-images-show-apparent-mass-execution-of-iraqi-soldiers-by-isis/
Riedel, B. (2011, December). The Grave New World: Terrorism in the 21st Century | Brookings Institution. Retrieved from http://www.brookings.edu/research/articles/2011/12/terrorism-riedel
Robbins, N., & Riedel, B. (2014, November 18). The Rise Of ISIS Explained In Less Than 3 Minutes [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/18/isis-origins-explainer_n_6179110.html
VICE News., & Danner, M. (2014, December 2). How the US Created the Islamic State | VICE News. Retrieved from https://news.vice.com/video/how-the-us-created-the-islamic-state
Vice News. (2014, August 15). The Islamic State (Full Length) | VICE News. Retrieved from https://news.vice.com/video/the-islamic-state-full-length