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

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?

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.