What is ISIS, A concise discussion about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria

What is ISIS: A concise discussion about the Islamic State

Our understanding of ISIS is vague and at times, misconstrued. This is reasonable. Despite occupying a territory larger than the United Kingdom, the Islamic State remains isolated from the rest of the world. Few have gone there and returned. Its leaders are reclusive and its members along with the communities at its helm are inaccessible.

However, there are some basic yet critical facts about ISIS that are important to take note, especially when discussing and providing commentaries about the group.

History of ISIS and Al-Qaeda linkage

Jordanian national Abu Musab al-Zarqawi founded the group in 1999 under the name Jamāʻat al-Tawḥīd wa-al-Jihād or The Organization of Monotheism and Jihad.

In 2004, the group swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden including his al-Qaeda and subsequently changed its name to Tanẓīm Qāʻidat al-Jihād fī Bilād al-Rāfidayn or The Organization of Jihad’s Base in Mesopotamia. Observers from the international political sphere and media called the group as the al-Qaeda in Iraq. Nonetheless, the group became part of the global militant Islamist organisation of bin Laden.

The group rebranded itself in 2006 by merging with other Iraqi insurgent groups. It called itself as the Mujahideen Shura Council. Al-Zarqawi died in June 2006 during an operation led by a United States force.

Several mergers with other insurgent factors occurred in 2006. In the same year, the group became the Dawlat al-ʻIraq al-Islāmīyah or the Islamic State of Iraq. Abu Abdullah al-Rashid al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri became the leaders. During the entire American occupation of Iraq, several top-ranking military officers of Saddam Hussein were imprisoned. The expansive American detention facility was instrumental in recruiting and nurturing these men who would later become key ISIS personnel.

Another US-led operation in Iraq killed al-Baghdadi and al-Masri in April 2010. Subsequently, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the new leader. Under this new leadership, the group expanded to Syria. By April 8, 2013, the group became the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. In 2014, al-Qaeda completely disowned the group due to its extremism. 

Pronounced purpose and commitment of ISIS

Central to the goal of ISIS is to establish an Islamic State or more appropriately, the establishment of a Worldwide Islamic Caliphate. Note that apart from occupations of certain regions in Iraq and Syria, the group has established operations in Libya, Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, other areas in North Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.

Religious indoctrination is at the heart of ISIS and its religious ideologies are rooted from Wahhabism or Salafism—a religious movement and derivative of Sunni Islam that originated in Saudi Arabia during the 18th century. Hence, central to the ideologies of ISIS is orthodoxy, conservatism, fundamentalism, or puritanism.

Even during its earlier days in 1999, the group gained notoriety for attacking Shia Islamic mosques and civilians. Both Sunni Islam and Shia Islam have divided the Muslim world and ardent followers have even resorted to violence to promote their chosen brand of Islam. The rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria also coincided with an increased violence directed toward Shia Muslims. The organisation deemed these individuals as non-Muslims or infidels.

Nonetheless, for ISIS, its intent is to subject all Muslims under a Salafi-based Sunni Islam through a Worldwide Islamic Caliphate and by eradicating Shia Muslims or infidels and other religions.. Furthermore, through this pronounced commitment to advance Islam, the group would also implement a strict interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence or the Sharia Law while also denouncing any hint of Western ideologies.

The organisational structure of ISIS

Despite its international status as a terrorist organisation, ISIS remains different from Al-Qaeda because of its stringent organisational structure and international positioning.

The caliph, a religious and political leader heads ISIS. The ideal power of the caliph is expansive because he has religious, political, and military authority over all Muslims worldwide. ISIS asserts that its occupation of a certain territory of an established state or country, as well as organizations nulls any existing sociopolitical and legal structures.

A bureaucratic structure also exists within ISIS, especially within the Islamic State and across occupied territories. Under the caliph is a cabinet of advisers. There are also councils for finance, leadership, military, and legal matters among others. The vast territory occupied by ISIS is also divided into several wilayah or provinces. There are also local governors performing executive functions in specified areas.

Without a doubt, ISIS is a de facto state. There are millions of civilians, mostly in Iraq and Syria, that are under its control. While the group has spread terror through executions and pillaging of towns, it is important to highlight the fact that like any other established state, ISIS maintains several social institutions. These include the economy, education, social services, and public works, including utility maintenance. Furthermore, the organisation has well-oil media capability that uses social media to spread ISIS propaganda.