10 things you need to know about Islamic State

This week, the United Kingdom began launching military flights over Iraq to combat the terrorist organisation known as Islamic State. The arguments for and against this campaign are complex, so here are a few key points to help you understand the situation in the Gulf.

1. It’s actual name

ISIL? ISIS? ISI? IS? This organisation has undergone numerous makeovers. Different people and organisations use different names to refer to IS which further confuses the matter. For the sake of clarity, this article will refer to the organisation as the Islamic State (IS) which is how the group currently refers to itself.

The originator of IS was the terrorist organisation Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jiha, which, after it’s leader swore an allegiance to Osama bin Laden,   became known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). After merging with several other insurgent groups in 2006, the organisation changed it’s name to the “Islamic State in Iraq” (ISI). Following the insurgency’s expansion into Syria, its name changed to “Islamic state in Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL). During this time they were also known as the “Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham” (ISIS). in May 2014, the US State Department designated ISIL to be the organisation’s official name. This is why American officials, and many British officials, continue to use the name ISIL. However, following the proclamation of a caliphate in June 2014, the terrorist group again changed it’s name to the “Islamic State” (IS).

This may not be the last of the group’s many acronyms as a leading Egyptian Islamic authority, Dar al-Ifta, has recommended Muslims to refer to the group as “Al-Qaeda Separatists in Iraq and Syria” (QSIS). Dar al-Ifta say that IS is not acting in accordance   with Islamic principles and therefore it would be wrong for Muslims to refer to it as Islamic State.  So the order of acronyms goes: AQI, ISI,ISIL, ISIS, IS and possibly QSIS in the future.

2. What the Levant is.

The Levant is a geographical region which encompasses much of the Eastern Mediterranean. It includes Syria as well as Cyprus, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and part of Turkey.


3. They are rich and well equipped.

The Islamic State’s proficiency as a fighting force took the Iraqi military by surprise. The Iraqi military had been trained and equipped by Western forces and were armed with some of the most hi-tech weaponry available. When IS took Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, the Iraqi army fled and abandoned their equipment. This meant that IS captured stockpiles of weaponry, ammunition, transport vehicles and tanks.

IS is also an extremely wealthy terrorist organisation, potentially worth more than $2 billion. When IS captured Mosul, it is possible that it stole upwards of $425 million from Mosul’s central bank. It is highly likely that IS is receiving large donations from wealthy individuals and organisations across the Gulf region. Having captured numerous oil fields in Iraq and Syria, IS is currently exporting around 9,000 barrels of oil a day.

4. The IS army is large and controls a vast area

The IS army has more than 100,000 personnel spread across Syria and Iraq. IS swiftly gained a territory larger than some of the nations that are currently attacking it, for example Belgium, and only this week was within a mile of Baghdad.

This seems highly imposing, but it is worth noting the Iraqi army is more than 250,000 strong and is very well equipped.

5. What is a “Caliphate”?

Put simlpy, a Caliphate is an Islamic nation in which the government is run by a supreme religious leader and the actions of the state are governed by Islamic religious doctrine. IS has been seeking to establish a Caliphate since 2004.

6. Religious tension is helping IS

IS is a Sunni organisation and tension between Sunnis and Shias has helped to increase its support and has boosted its recruitment. The tension between Sunnis and Shias originally comes from a disagreement over who should take power after the death of the Prophet Muhammed. The Iraq War greatly exacerbated Sunni-Shia tensions. Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Shia community were persecuted and suppressed. Following the toppling of the regime, the Shias began to take their revenge.

Leaders since the fall of Saddam have been particularly tough on the Sunni minority in Iraq. Former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki made alliances with Shia militias and used anti-terrorism laws as an excuse to round up peaceful Sunni civilians.

IS has been able to use this tension as a recruiting tool.

7. A large number of Europeans are fighting alongside IS

According to the European Union’s anti-terrorism chief, more than 3,000 Europeans are fighting alongside IS. More than 500 of these European militants are British citizens. It is likely that the masked executioner of American journalists James Foley and Stephen Sotloff, known by some sections of the press as “Jihadi John”, is a British citizen.

British Jihadis have been particularly vocal on social media sites like Instagram and female British Jihadis are apparently running brothels of captured sex slaves.

8. Are they a danger to West?

It’s hard to say. Some politicians have warned that returning Jihadis will seek to carry out terrorist attacks in Britain. David Cameron has repeatedly warned that IS is a direct threat to Britain.

Some, however, are suggesting that this is a return to the unsubstantiated fear mongering that led us into Iraq in the first place. It is also arguable that seeing as what is feared is British citizens returning home to commit acts of terror, then the situation would be best handled in Britain. Also, the testified motivation of the perpetrators of 7/7, the Glasgow airport attack and the murder of Lee Rigby was the death of Muslims in the Middle East as a result of British military intervention. It is therefore possible that further British military engagement in the Middle East will only exacerbate the issue of domestic terrorism.

9. Will the airstrikes work?

It depends what you mean by work. It is highly unlikely that airstrikes alone will defeat IS. It is possible however that airstrikes will prevent further IS expansion, enabling Iraqi troops to regroup and retake land. However, the Iraqi military may not be able to retake control, which could see different regions splintering off.

General Petreus, who led US forces in Iraq from 2007-2008, said that the campaign would have to have broad local support to succeed. He has also warned of the danger of America becoming “the airforce for Shia militias”.

10. Do the views of IS represent Muslims as a whole?

No. In fact, Islamic clerics and Imams from around the world, both Sunni and Shia, have condemned IS as “evil”.

British Muslims and Imams have led the condemnation of yesterday’s execution of British aid worker Alan Henning. The Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, Dr Shuja Shafi, said “This reported murder is a despicable and offensive act…It is quite clear that the murderers of Alan Henning have no regard for Islam, or for the Muslims around the world who pleaded for his life”.

It is not just moderate Muslims who have rejected IS either, even other Islamic terrorist organisations find IS to be too extreme. Earlier this year, al-Quaida’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri cut off ties to IS and requested that they leave Syria.


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