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How worried should we be about the rise of ISIS, the group “too extreme” for Al Qaeda?

“What I heard today scared the hell out of me”, one US senator said following the capture of Iraq's second city by the hardline jihadist group ISIS. So who are ISIS and how big a threat to they pose?

A burnt out military car in Mosul following the ISIS invasion. Photo: Getty.

On 10 June, Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, was seized by the brutal jihadist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria (ISIS). The fighters now control swathes of northern Iraq, as well as parts of the west of the country and large chunks of eastern Syria – and they are now hoping to move towards the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. So who are they? And how worried should we be?

ISIS was set up in April 2013, and grew out of Al Qaeda in Iraq. They are often known as the group “too extreme for Al Qaeda” after Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, publicly disavowed ISIS in February 2014. The US took a little while to catch up, and according to Foreign Policy magazine only officially designated ISIS as a terrorist organisation in February this year (although it was subject to asset freezes before that).

ISIS are certainly hardliners. Their stated goal is the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria and in the areas under their control they have instituted their own brutal interpretation of Sharia law. Music is forbidden, schools must be sex-segregated, women forced to cover their faces in public and those who break the rules face capital punishment or detention in brutal ISIS prisons. (More on which here). They have also succeeded in setting up their own functioning, if not officially recognised, state in some areas under their control, by taxing residents and setting up their own courts, schools and public services – including their own food standards authority. The group has also been behind the kidnap and killing of several journalists and aid workers in Syria.

That said, it’s not because of their brutality that they have split from Al Qaeda – that rift is due to ISIS’s battles with Jabhat al Nusra, another jihadist group taking advantage of the lawlessness caused by the Syrian civil war. ISIS announced in 2013 that it wanted absorb Jabhat al Nusra – which is affiliated with al Qaeda. Both al Qaeda and Jabhat al Nusra thought otherwise. Until this week’s offensive in Iraq, some observers had hoped that ISIS was being weakened by its regular skirmishes with Jabhat al Nusra and other opposition groups in Syria.

The leader of ISIS is Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, a shadowy figure who developed his fighting skills in Al Qaeda in Iraq and spent four years in a US prison camp before being released in 2009. He took leadership of ISIS’s forerunner in 2010. CNN reports that according to biographies posted on jihadist websites, Baghdadi holds a PhD is Islamic studies from the University of Baghdad – but he is known first and foremost as a skilled military commander rather than an ideological leader.

According to the Economist, ISIS has around 6,000 fighters in Iraq and 3,000 - 5,000 in Syria. Around 3000 of these are foreign fighters, including people from Chechnya and around 500 from the UK and other European countries. It ought to be cause for concern that such a relatively small group of fighters have managed to gain control of such a strategic stretch of Iraqi territory, and so quickly. This in itself, indicates how weak the Iraqi state currently is, and how unstable this entire region in the Middle East has become.

The capture of Mosul is a financial as well as a military victory for ISIS: it may have seized up to $480m in banknotes from the city’s banks, the Guardian reports. Looting and robbery are a key source of finance for ISIS, particularly in occupied areas. Optimists hope that ISIS might have over-stretched itself with this audacious offensive, particularly as Kurdish fighters are also joining the offensive against ISIS, and today succeeded in taking back control of military installations in Kirkuk.

And yet, the future does not looking promising. Half a million people have fled affected areas, and Human Rights Watch has voiced its concern for civilians now under ISIS control. As the Guardian reports, Senator Lindsey Graham, briefed by the Pentagon on Iraq, has said "What I heard today scared the hell out of me. The briefing was chilling … Iraq is falling apart.” The implications for this are deeply worrying, not just because they point to the unforgivable legacy of the Western invasion of Iraq, but because it will have repercussions for the whole region. According to some BBC correspondents, ISIS is at risk of surpassing Al Qaeda as the biggest global terrorist threat. Is this the new face of global terror? And can the weak, divided Iraqi state meet this new challenge?