Explainer: What is ISIS? How it is formed?

Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – the Islamic jihadist group is an unrecognized Sunni terror group based in Iraq and Syria, that made international headlines and has emerged as one of the most dangerous terror organisation like that of al Qaeda and Taliban.


Soviet Union had a long history of supporting and providing aid to Afghanistan. On April 27, 1978 a Soviet supported communist government took over the country. Many of the Afghanistan people did not like the new communist government, because many of the laws went against their Muslim religion. Anti-government armed groups were formed, and by April 1979 large parts of the country revolted. The rebels called themselves the Mujaheddin.

The government itself was highly unstable with in-party rivalry, and the president was assassinated by followers of Hafizullah Amin, who then became president. Deteriorating relations and raising of rebellions led the Soviet government to deploy the  Army on December, 1979. Arriving in the capital Kabul, they seized the power, killing president Hafizullah Amin and installing Soviet Union supporter Babrak Karmal.

The U.S, due to rivalry with Soviet Union(due to the on going cold war between USA and Soviet Union), started the “Islam-is-in-danger” story to Islamic world, especially Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. To pull out the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, the U.S. engaged the Saudi royal house and the Pakistani political and military establishment to support the Mujahidden in a war against the Soviet Red Army.

The U.S directed funds, weapons through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence(Pakistan’s Intelligence service) to the Afghan Mujaheddin who were fighting with the Soviet troops.

Young men from middle east came to join with the Mujaheddin. Many see it as a religious struggle . Among them is a well-educated young Saudi named Osama bin Laden(who formed al-Qaeda). Also a semi-literate from Jordan named Abu Musab Zarqawi(who is responsible for formation of ISIS).

Foreign mujaheddin volunteers(who came from different countries) did not play a major role in the war. Foreign mujaheddin volunteers came from 43 countries. Bin Laden played a central role in organizing training camps for the foreign Muslim volunteers.

Over the next several years the Soviet Army fought with the Mujaheddin. It was a very difficult battle. Many of the Soviet soldiers were untested for the harsh environment of Afghanistan. Also, the Mujaheddin soldiers were fighting for their homeland and their religion. They were fierce fighters and had many good places to hide in the mountains. As the war continued with little success, it became a source of embarrassment for the Soviet Union. Their army no longer seemed undefetable to the rest of the world. The Soviets also came under increasing international pressure. The war was condemned by the United Nations, the US pulled out of the SALT treaty talks, and the US boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. When Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union and he wanted the war to end. He first tried to increase Soviet troops to end the war quickly. However, this didn’t work. By 1988 Gorbachev realized the war was costing Soviet troops and hurting their economy. He signed a peace treaty to end the war. The last Soviet troops departed Afghanistan on February 15, 1989.

As the war ended, the U.S left Pakistan and Afghanistan without taking back the thousands of weapons in the hands of mujaheddin.

Having achieved victory,some foreign mujaheddin(Rebels who came from different countries to fight against Soviet) wanted to expand their operations to include Islamist struggles in other parts of the world, such as Palestine and Kashmir. These Mujaheddin moved back to different parts of the world and set up local militant groups in The Philippines(Abu Sayyaf), Indonesia(Jemmah Islamiya), Egypt(Islamic brotherhood), Kashmir(Hizbul Mujahidden, Laskar-e-Taiba), China(East Turkistan Islamic Movement in XinJiang province), and in almost all central Asian Islamic republics.

How ISIS formed:

Soviets withdraw in 1989 and Arab fighters returns home. Osama Bin Laden forms al-Qaede and Zarqawi forms his own group under the name Jamāʻat al-Tawḥīd wa-al-Jihād , but it fizzles. Osama Bin Laden and Zarqawi retrns home.

Both men later returned to Afghanistan , when it is ruled by Taliban(Taliban is also a militant group which formed after Soviet left Afghan). There is no connection between Osama Bin Laden and Zarqawi directly.

On September 11, 2001, AL-Qaeda attacked the United States, hijacking four airliners within the country and deliberately crashing two into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

The US government responded militarily. The United States, together with its allies including the United Kingdom, went to war against the Taliban in Afghanistan .Taliban was defeated and dethroned from power and Osama Bin Laden flees to Pakistan. Zarqawi , still not famous, flees to remote and lawless corner of Iraq.

In 2003 US invades Iraq(why US invaded Saddam Hussain led Iraq is a different issue). The Americans topple Saddam Hussein‘s secular, Sunni dictatorship and dispersed the Iraqi army.

Islam has undergone many splits since its founding 1400 years ago. The biggest branches are Sunni and Shia, but within each there have been many further splits. Even though Saddam Hussain is Sunni, majority of Iraq population is dominated by Shia’s.

After the US attack, thousands of Sunni Iraqi soldiers, angry and unemployed , join the rebels(So all the rebel groups are mainly Sunni’s). Jihadist groups, also Sunni, see this as a repeat of the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan and again flood in to Iraq to fight with the U.S forces. Zarqawi is one among them. Under al-Zarqawi, the group participated in the Iraqi war following the March 2003 invasion of Iraq by Western forces. Zarqawi’s group becomes Iraq’s most ruthless. He especially attacks Shia Muslims who are in majority in Iraq,deliberately sparking a Sunni-Shia civil war. By 2004 Zarqawi is Jihadist superstar. Al-Qaeda, which is isolated and weakened due to US attack on Afghanistan,attempts to regain its image joined hands with Zarqawi’s group, which becomes known as al-Qaeda in Iraq(AQI).

But in 2006,the US kills Zarqawi in air strike.

Over the next few years al-Qeada in Iraq(AQI) is largely defeated. The Americans withdraw in 2011 from Iraq that finally looks stable.

In 2011, the Arab Spring spreads across the Middle East. Arab spring refers to protests and uprisings by the people that took place in middle east and north africa challenging authoritarian government.

In 2011, the Arab Spring spreads across Middle East. In Syria, people revolted against Bashar al-Assad government. But he cracks down violently on protesters. They eventually fireback, leading to civil war. Assad fears that the foreign powers will intervene against him. So he released Jihadists from Syrian prisons. The jihadists joined the protesters and thus it became harder for foreign powers to support the protesters.

Back in Iraq, little of Zarqawi’s group, al-Qaeda in Iraq(AQI) remains. It’s now led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In early 2012, Baghdadi send a top deputy of al-Qeade to Syria to start a new al-Qeade branch which is known as “Jabhat Al Nusra“(it is a branch of al-Qaeda) . Baghdadi also attacks a series of prisons in Iraq. They free former Jihadists and recruit new ones, growing stronger. In April 2013, Baghdadi announces that he is taking control of all al-Qeade allied forces in Syria and Iraq. His group expands into Syria, becoming the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria(ISIS).

This pissed off al Qaeda, because they were already establishing a separate al Qaeda in Syria (aka Jabhat-al-Nusra front) and wanted it to remain separate. Al-Qeade rejects Bhagdadi’s power grab and in 2014 formally exiles him. After an eight-month power struggle, al-Qaeda cut all ties with ISIS by February 2014. The two groups officially separated, with al-Qaeda in Iraq(AQI) re-branding itself into the ISIS we hear about today.

Abu Bakr Al-Bhagdadi

Several Muslim nations and organisations, including radical terror outfits like Jubhat Al-Nusra (and its parent organisation, Al-Qaeda) were concerned that Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi could declare himself a caliph (chief muslim ruler,regarded as succesor of Muhhamad) and he may ask Muslims worldwide to follow his dictate.

How ISIS is growing?

ISIS grows powerful in Syria, because Assad tolerates its rise, he tolerates it because it divides his enemies(people who revolted and ISIS) within Syria and foreign powers are too focused on ISIS not to worry on Assad. By June 2014, ISIS has built an army in Syria, and it launches a military style invasion into Iraq. The Iraqi army weakened by corruption. Many Sunnis are tired of their Shia-dominated and increasingly authoritarian government and welcome or at least tolerate ISIS’s arrival. Within days, ISIS captured a third of Iraq and a big part of Syria. Thousands of Muslims mostly from Middle East and Europe , flock to join the group. Some join for religious reasons, but many are just angry and feel that ISIS offers them answers and a purpose.

ISIS has continued grabbing more land, fighting and killing Iraqis (including brutal attacks against and rape of Kurds in northern Iraq that have achieved international attention), and attempting to seize infrastructure such as the Mosul Dam (the largest dam in Iraq).

There have been widespread reports of rape, violence against women, and captured women being sold or given to militants. ISIS is also committing mass murder in Iraq and Syria.

A video apparently uploaded by ISIS appears to show captured Syrian Government soldiers being marched through the desert shortly before they were killed.

ISIS strictly follows Sharia Law in the territory they control, which means heavy punishments including whippings, imprisonment and death for not following dress code, having alcohol in your home or using drugs. They have forced non-Sunni Muslims to convert, be killed, or, in a few lucky cases, pay ‘non-Muslim’ taxes.

They have also been known to capture journalists , including James Foley, who was beheaded in a video widely distributed around the internet. A number of additional ISIS beheading have been recorded and released online.

Where does ISIS get its money?

ISIS makes more than $10 million each month through extortion, the collection of taxes and fees in areas under their control, selling oil from fields it controls, and through looting the homes of people who ran away under threat of the militants.

ISIS has taken over more and more oil fields in Iraq as their land control has grown. They load the oil onto trucks, move it into Turkey, Jordan, Syria, and other parts of Iraq, and sell it on the black market, often directly to oil refineries, for below standard oil prices. Many believe ISIS is now earning between $1 million and $2 million per day from these sales (some speculate as much as $4 million per day).
These countries appear to be enjoying the low-cost oil and are not making strong efforts to prevent the sale of ISIS goods. The United Nations Security Council sent a ‘friendly’ reminder on July, 2014, that trading with or buying oil from ISIS is illegal.

Where does ISIS gets its weapons?

ISIS has armed itself with weapons seized from the battlefield in Iraq and Syria. The group has also reportedly received funding from wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey, and Qatar and then used the money to buy arms on the black market. These nations support ISIS because they consider Iran and Syria a threat(because Iran and Syria were Shia dominated regions and Saudi, Kuwait etc are Sunni dominated regions and ISIS is Sunni group), and want to protect fellow Sunnis from violence sanctioned by Assad(Syrian president) and Maliki(Iraq president). Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar have passed legislation banning such aid, but the governments have done little to enforce the laws.

ISIS’s goal is a ‘purified‘ world — meaning, get rid of everyone who does not agree with their particular religious view. In a short, their focus is on killing or converting anyone in their way, and building up resources so that in the longer-term they may shift their focus to more ambitious targets: Europe, the United States, and the rest of the world.

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