The brutal rise of Isis - a radical Islamist army
Isis, a radical, ruthless Islamist army, is brutally extending its hold in the Middle East, further destabilising an already restless region. Can it be stopped?
Atrocity: a scene from the video apparently showing Isis executing Iraqi soldiers
Over just 10 days the ruthless and brutal jihadi army that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – aka Isis – seized the Iraqi towns of Mosul, Tikrit, Fallujah, Tal Afar and Rawa. The militants partially hold the towns of Baiji – home to Iraq’s largest oil refinery – Ramadi, Saadiyah, Jalawla, Al-Qa’im and Haditha. Isis has fought Iraqi government forces at Baquba, Taji and Samarra, where Sunni extremists severely damaged the al-Askari Mosque, a major Shia shrine, in 2006 and again in 2007.
Those two years were round one of the Sunni-Shia civil war in Iraq. Round two has commenced, with the dangerous injection of thousands of Sunni Muslim fundamentalists from as far away as Europe, North America and Central Asia.
Isis follows the gruesome extremist protocal of using the internet to publicise its atrocities, posting grisly videos of beheadings and other violence. A video this week purported to show the massacre of 1,700 Iraqi soldiers. The men were shot lying face down in a ditch, their hands bound behind their backs, their bodies left soaking in pools of blood.
Isis has created the embryo of a Sunni Muslim caliphate straddling northern Iraq and Syria. With only 15,000 men, it may find it difficult to hold on to its conquests. Its base in northern Syria is like a new Afghanistan, a training ground and launching pad for violent extremism, just a stone’s throw from Nato’s southern border.
The Syrian civil war has engulfed Lebanon and Iraq in a single battlefield. The frontier traced by Mark Sykes, for Britain, and François Georges-Picot, for France, in 1916 has gone. The wave of chaos that started far to the east, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, now stretches to the Mediterranean.
Much of the violence is Sunni versus Shia, a schism rooted in a seventh-century dispute about the succession to the prophet Muhammad. The Shia followed Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali, the Sunnis his companion Abu Bakr. With the instability of once-strong nations such as Iraq, Egypt and Syria, this ancient quarrel has resurfaced.
Isis is believed to have a $2 billion war chest, mostly financed by rich Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikhdoms. In a report it published in 2013 to attract donations, Isis claimed to have carried out 1,000 assassinations and 4,000 bombings in Iraq last year, while fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad in neighbouring Syria.
Although Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, claims to have halted Isis’s advance on Baghdad, it is within 90km of the capital, and Maliki has asked Washington for air strikes. Only three years ago he refused to let the US maintain troops in Iraq.
Isis encountered little or no resistance in the Sunni provinces of Anbar and Ninevah, but it has been repelled where it has entered Shia areas. Its offensive may herald the break-up of Iraq into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish statelets.
The Islamic Republic of Iran, the main power broker in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, insists that Iraq must be kept intact. Washington and Tehran entertain the idea of co-operating to save Iraq from Isis, but Tehran remains deeply suspicious of US motives.
“Some western powers have been claiming for years that there is a war between Sunni and Shia,” says Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. “By strengthening sectarian and ethnic divisions they’re pursuing the dismemberment and fragmentation of the region.”
Does he mean the US is fomenting sectarian war? “The intelligence service of the US, in order to advance their interests, are doing this,” says Amir-Abdollahian.
The “dumb war” that President Barack Obama inherited from the Bush administration has come back to haunt him. The US lost more than 5,000 soldiers and saw tens of thousands of its servicemen and women wounded in the 2003-11 Iraq War, which has cost the country at least $1 trillion.