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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Battle for Mosul: will this be the end of Islamic State?

The militant group's grip on power is slipping but it has proved resilient in the past.

The battle for Mosul is the latest stage in the long struggle to defeat Islamic State. The group has been around since the late 1990s in one form or another, constantly mutating in response to its environment. Undoubtedly its ejection from Mosul will be a significant moment in the group’s history, but it is unlikely to be its final chapter. The destruction of the group will only be complete when some fundamental changes occur within Iraq and the war in Syria comes to an end.

IS’s roots go back to a training camp established by the militant Islamist Abu Musab al Zarqawi in the late 1990s in Herat, Afghanistan. Founded as an army to overthrow the apostate regimes of the Levant, it fled to northern Iraq in the wake of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan post-9/11 where it re-established itself as a force alongside Ansar al Shariah, a hardline Salafi jihadi organisation.

As American attention shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq, the group was ideally placed to become one of the leading lights in the post-Saddam Iraqi insurgency. Brutally announcing itself to the world in August 2003 with successive attacks on the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, the UN headquarters and a Shia shrine in Najaf — the latter being the deadliest attack in Iraq that year with a death toll of 95 — the group grew to assume the mantle of al-Qaeda in Iraq. By 2006 this brand had become somewhat damaged through the brutal sectarian campaign the group waged, and when its founder, Zarqawi, died it sought to reinvent itself as the Mujahedeen Shura Council. This incarnation did not last long either, and eventually it assumed the title of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), alongside a more Iraqi leadership.

This was the start of a diffcult period in the group's history. Its excesses in Iraq (including indiscriminate slaughter of Shia Muslims to stir sectarian hatred and filmed decapitations of prisoners) lost it local support and led to the tribes in Sunni Iraq rising up and supporting the government in Baghdad's fight back against the group. By 2009, when the west abruptly stopped paying attention and withdrew from Iraq the group was largely perceived as in decline, with the Shia Muslim-led Iraqi government appearing to slowly assert itself more effectively across the country.

The terrorist attacks by the group continued. And the new government started to advance an increasingly sectarian agenda. These two played off each other in a downward spiral that was given a fresh boost of blood when the civil war in Syria erupted in 2011. Drawing on its existing networks (that were leftovers from when Syria was used as a staging point by the organisation to launch attacks into Iraq), the leadership sent a cell to Syria to explore what opportunities existed within the emerging fight there. This cell became the seed that grew into Jabhat al Nusrah and ultimately IS – a label the group adopted when in June 2013 IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided it was time to reveal this link between his Iraqi group and Jabhat al Nusrah. This led to divisions and the breaking up of the two organisations.

For IS, however, it was the beginning of an upward trajectory, building on this division to grow itself substantially in Syria (with Raqqa as its capital) and in 2014 taking over Iraq’s second biggest city of Mosul. We then reach the apex of IS’s success and the biggest expansion of the group yet.

It now seems that this growth had a shelf life of just two-and-a-half years. As the group appears to be losing Mosul, it is likely that we will see the beginning of a period of retraction. But this will not be its end – rather, it will flee back to the hills and the ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria from where it will continue a persistent terrorist strategy in both countries. Here it will bide its time until the moment presents itself to rise up. Waiting until the governance in Iraq and Syria fails its people again, the group can paint itself as the protector of Sunnis and once more build on that group's disenfranchisement to win supporters and occupy a space vacated by local governments.

IS's grip on power might currently be slipping but as history has shown, it has waxed and waned depending on the context it is operating in. We are now going to see a period of withdrawal, but unless attention is paid by the global community, it will expand again in the future.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Visit his website at http://www.raffaellopantucci.com