Review of 2014: Islamic State’s reign of terror
The conquest of the Iraqi city of Mosul and the brutal beheading of five westerners in June finally shocked other countries out of indifference to the threat posed by the ruthless Sunni cult
Displaced: a Syrian woman who has fled Raqqa wails after passing through a Turkish border gate in September. Photograph: Orhan Cicek/Anadolu/Getty
Islamic State’s dramatic conquest of Mosul, Iraq’s second city, on June 10th and the brutal beheading of five westerners shocked other countries into recognising the threat posed by the ruthless militarised Sunni cult.
Islamic State has thrived on international indifference, widespread Muslim anger against the “crusading” Christian West, the politicomilitary vacuum caused by the conflict in Syria, and the Sunni struggle for rights in Iraq.
Little notice had been taken in August 2013 when Islamic State occupied the strategic Syrian city of Raqqa, which it made the capital of its caliphate. The world powers also ignored the group when, in January 2014, its fighters occupied the Iraqi city of Falluja and half of Anbar’s provincial capital, Ramadi, an hour’s drive from Baghdad.
Islamic State is headed by the self-proclaimed Caliph Ibrahim, whose nom de guerre is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Born in the Iraqi city of Samarra, in 1971, the canny warrior assumed the leadership of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), an al-Qaeda affiliate, after the assassinations of its founder Abu Massab al-Zarkawi and his successor Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.
After the 2003 US occupation of Iraq, ISI took root in seven Sunni-majority provinces but was rejected by Iraqis following bomb outrages against civilians and suppressed when Sunni tribesmen joined US forces in the 2007-8 surge to halt sectarian warfare.
ISI survivors continued to mount vehicle and suicide bombings, mainly against Shias, escalating these attacks after US troops withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011. At that time Baghdadi dispatched fighters under the command of Abu Mohammed al-Julani to Syria. The group formally announced its existence in January 2012, under the name of Jabhat al-Nusra, the Support Front for the People of Syria, and made a reputation for deadly bombings and ferocity in battle.
In April 2013, ISI, rebranded as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis), expanded its own operations into Syria and announced a merger with Jabhat al-Nusra. It rejected the takeover, which was condemned by the Pakistan-based al-Qaeda central chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. He eventually expelled Isis from al-Qaeda.
Thanks to infighting among Syrian rebel factions, Isis established itself as the premier force in Syria and secured support from Arab governments and wealthy individuals.
In August 2013 Isis drove the Jabhat out of Raqqa and proclaimed an Islamic state. Since then Islamic State has transformed itself and attracted tens of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian recruits, as well as 15,000 foreigners from 80 countries, including Ireland, Britain, France, the US and the Russian Caucasus.
Many have been drawn to Raqqa by the desire to live in an Islamic state governed by Islamic law and conservative social practice.
Brutal, puritanical police state
Under the Islamic State reign, based on Saudi Wahhabi doctrines, men are compelled to grow beards. Women must wear all-concealing clothes and veils and remain at home, circulating only in the company of male relatives. Girls are forced to marry Islamic State fighters by fathers seeking money or political advantage.
At least two women have been stoned to death for adultery.
Order is imposed by armed fighters, spies and religious courts that follow Islamic State’s interpretation of Sharia, Muslim canon law. Crucifixions and executions of “apostates” (everyone who does not subscribe to its ideology), Syrian soldiers and rebels are commonplace, with heads displayed and corpses left in the streets to warn civilians.
About 1,200 people languish in Islamic State prisons. Schools and universities have closed; boys as young as five attend indoctrination and arms-training sessions. Older children are pressed into military service as messengers and on checkpoints and can be deployed in battle.
Islamic State is financed by kidnapping for ransom, robbing banks, imposing taxes on civilians living in areas it rules, smuggling antiquities, and selling stolen Syrian and, lately, Iraqi oil to Turkish and Iranian businessmen.
The UN estimates that Islamic State has gained between $35 million and $45 million (between €28 million and €36 million) from ransoms and tens of millions from antiquities and oil exports.
From Raqqa, Islamic State expanded its operations to Syria’s eastern oil fields and returned to Iraq.
The US-led coalition has carried out air raids on Islamic State headquarters, posts and equipment in Raqqa, and the Syrian airforce has stepped up aerial bombing. In response, Islamic State has used civilians as human shields.
Islamic State has also assumed control of the supply of food and medicine to Raqqa, tightening its grip on trapped civilians.
No excuse for ignorance
Islamic State has also imposed the Raqqa model on Mosul, adapting it to suit Iraqi circumstances. Mosul’s large Christian community was expelled and Christian homes and businesses confiscated. Islamic State attacked Yazidi villages in the area – Yazidis adhere to an ancient religion that draws on Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam – and killed or cleansed inhabitants, whom it regards as devil worshippers.
The group besieged Iraq’s main oil refinery and major Iraqi dams and slew hundreds of Sunni tribesmen who dared to resist the cult’s advance towards the capital. Islamic State forces pushed towards the Kurdish regional capital, Irbil, and the north’s main oil city, Kirkuk, and skirmished with Iraqi troops at Ramadi.
US air strikes have prevented Islamic State from seizing new territory over the past three months, but fighters no longer present themselves as targets, reducing the effectiveness of the air war of attrition.
So far, there are too few effective boots on the ground to roll back Islamic State in Iraq, the main focus of the US campaign, and Syria. But Raqqa, Mosul, Falluja and Ramadi have come under siege, making it difficult for Islamic State to defend its holdings, rule and provide for civilians who face not only a reign of terror but also destitution and hunger.