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.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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