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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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle