ISIS: Who Are They?

by Gáibhin McGranaghan, contributor

Accused of “shedding protected blood” and “damaging the revolution” of al-Qaeda, ISIS has certainly asserted itself on the Middle Eastern stage.

Formed in April 2013 by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has already has provoked sharp condemnations, from the West and similar jihadist groups alike.

ISIS was born out of the ashes of the ongoing Syrian civil war, working alongside the al-Nusra Front, an Iraq-based group formed of al-Qaeda members. ISIS provided net support and funding to al-Nusra’s, Abu Muhammad al-Joulani, while ISIS expanded rapidly through Iraq, employing social media both to recruit new members and to articulate its rhetoric.

Hoping to accumulate more power and influence on a pan-Arab level, al-Baghdadi sought to expand ISIS’s operations into Syria. He announced that the al-Nusra Front would merge under the banner of ISIS – although this was swiftly rebutted by al-Joulani, who insisted al-Nusra members had not been consulted on such a merger.

The al-Qaeda leadership initially took a hands-off approach to ISIS/al-Nusra feud, preferring to focus their attention on the wider Syrian conflict. However, in January 2014, al-Qaeda General Command issued a statement distancing itself from ISIS. It emphasised that al-Qaeda “has no connection with the group called the ISIS, as it was not informed or consulted about its establishment.”

This response was only provoked after almost a year’s worth of intense street fighting between rebels, and indiscriminate abuse and execution of civilians. According to the BBC, as many as 2,300 people have been killed in the confrontations between ISIS and rebels from both Western-backed and other Islamist entities.

ISIS has since lost territory to the al-Nusra Front in Syria, but has compensated with strategic captures; namely Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. Today, its influence stretches from the Aleppo in Syria to Fallujah in western Iraq, and controls a number of key border crossings and oil fields.  By claiming such prominent locations, ISIS has asserted itself as the leading jihadist movement in the Middle East.

In contrast to al-Qaeda and al-Nusra, which actively call for the overthrowing of an opposing government, ISIS prefers to become more involved within the communities they control. In compliance with their ultimate goal of establishing a worldwide Islamic state (a caliphate), ISIS consolidates its territorial gains by setting up the conventional institutions and mechanisms typical of a state. ISIS’s mutaween (morality police) are vital components of this structure, banning alcohol, recreational drugs, gambling and prostitution.

Like its earlier Syrian-based incarnation, embraces social media, frequently posting graphic images and audio tapes of captured hostages on Twitter. Only recently, the waterboarding and decapitation of American photojournalist James Foley, posted online. It was seen as a gruesome warning to the West, with militants appearing to imitate methods used by the CIA to interrogate suspected terrorists after the 9/11 attacks.

The Middle East (source,
The Middle East (source,

At this point, the White House has not ruled out taking armed strikes against ISIS. President Obama has stated that “we will be prepared to take swift and precise military action, if and when the situation on the ground requires it.” Downing Street has conveyed similar caution, with neither David Cameron nor Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond definitively stating whether or not Britain will collaborate with the US on the matter.

As coalition forces withdraw from Iraq, efforts to clamp down on extremist movements have become increasingly difficult for the new Iraqi government. Whether the West will once again step in to ‘liberate’ the country from ISIS is remains a question of time and patience.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s