The roots and transformation of ISIS

ISIS captured global attention by sudden advances and declaration of so-called 'caliphate' in June 2014, but it finds root in Al Qaeda of Iraq (AQI) insurgency movement formed in 2004, after US invasion of Iraq

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Updated Jul 28, 2015

Even though it captured global attention by tremendous and sudden advances in June 2014, ISIS had been operating long before the world turned their attention back to Iraq. The inception of ISIS finds root in Al Qaeda of Iraq (AQI), an insurgency movement formed in 2004, a year after the US-led coalition invaded Iraq. Since then, ISIS underwent extensive transformation and morphed into a new, unique structure. Brookings Institute’s Charles Lister and Wilson Center’s Marina Ottaway, described ISIS’ original construction as a proto-state. Currently ISIS holds control over large swaths of territory, stretching eastward from the outskirts of Aleppo city, Syria’s largest, to Western Iraq. It self-proclaimed to be a state, naming a caliph as head of state.  ISIS has a working bureaucratic structure and a steady income with which it undertakes many duties of a government, such as municipal administration, jurisdiction, social assistance; and does so arguably better than a few surrounding governments.  Reports, experts, and news mention a daily 2-3 million USD income.

From insurgency to seizure in Iraq

After the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Jordanian Abu Musab al Zarqawi and his militant group Jamaat al Tawhid Wal Jihad attracted attention in the early stages of the Iraqi insurgency. Zarqawi’s group officially pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda in 2004, changing its name to Tanzim Qaidat Al Jihad fi Bilad Al Rafidayn, also known as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The August 29, 2003 attack on Imam Ali Mosque, one of the most important religious sites for Shiite Muslims, was attributed to Zarqawi’s group.

In an attempt to expel American and British forces out of Iraq, AQI joined hands with several smaller Iraqi insurgent groups under an umbrella organisation called Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC) in January 2006. MSC united with smaller groups, and with support of some Sunni tribes, declared the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) over the territory it held.

On June 7, 2006, Zarqawi was killed in a US air strike. Few days later Abdul Monim al Badawi (Abu Ayyub al Masri or Abu Hamza al Muhajir) announced as the new leader of AQI by MSC which was run by an Iraqi named Abdullah al Rashid al Baghdadi (or Abu Omar al Baghdadi). There has been much controversy over the identity of Baghdadi, who was known as the leader of ISI after Zarqawi. He was identified as Hamed Dawood Mohammed Khalil al Zawi, a former Iraqi army officer in 2008.  

ISI’s control began to fade after American forces and the Iraqi government intensified joint campaigns. Many Sunni tribes, known also as the Awakening (Sahwa) Movement, supported this campaign. According to Bilgay Duman, an Orsam Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies specialist, “Sahwa forces, whose all needs (money, arms, ammunition, clothes etc.) are met by the US, were created by the US by coming to terms especially with the Sunni Arab tribes in 2007 within the concept of “fighting against terrorism” in Iraq, to fight against the terrorist organization Al Qaeda in the area where all tribes are in control.”

This multi-legged offensive turned out to be very effective and forced ISI to retreat north. In this era, ISI lost most of its secured territory and military bases in Anbar province and near Baghdad. During this period, the movement lost significant support from its backers too. In the following years, the US military withdrew from Iraq between 2009 and 2010. Both Abu Omar al Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al Masri were killed by an Iraqi-American joint operation in Tikrit, Iraq on April 18, 2010.

In May 2010, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi became the new leader of ISI. He was received with joy by his comrades. On June 29, 2014, Baghdadi was announced 'caliph' (spiritual leader of all Muslims) and made a global call to all Muslims to unite under his flag. A few days later, Baghdadi appeared on video while giving a sermon in Mosul.

By imitating  a representation of the whole Muslim world , ISIS aims to fortify its strength. Even though ISIS alienates all the other Islamic opinions by apostasy accusations (takfir), it paradoxically makes a plea for unification under the banner of caliphate.

ISIS’ spill-over to Syria

In March 2011, protests began erupting in Syria against the government of Bashar Assad followed by  escalating instability. This atmosphere was practically a second chance for ISI. Baghdadi began assigning his qualified fighters, already equipped for guerrilla warfare, across the border into Syria to establish and secure foothold in the region.

Around January 2012, Abu Mohammad al Golani, a known figure in ISI and Al Qaeda ranks, spearheaded a new formation called Jabhat al Nusra, more commonly known as Al Nusra Front. This group’s task was to battle the Syrian regime. In a year, the group made significant progress in Syria.

On April 2013, Al Baghdadi announced that Al Nusra Front and ISI are to merge under the name Ad Dawlah al Islamiyah fil Iraq wash Sham (abbreviated as DAESH); meaning Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) or according to some translations, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Some Al Nusra members -about a third of the group- denounced this call and chose to continue their fight against the Syrian regime under the flag of Al Nusra. This schism also uncovered Al Nusra’s affiliations with Al Qaeda and costed Al Nusra years of progress while ISIS made rapid territory gains across Northern Syria.

In January 2014, ISIS gained control of Raqqa, a Syrian citywhich they announced the capital. It was a significant step for its expanding strategy.

On February 3, 2014, Al Qaeda broke off all links with ISIS, reportedly to concentrate all effort on toppling Syrian President Assad and the regime. This showed a distinct differentiation in long and short-term goals between Al Qaeda and ISIS. Al Qaeda focuses on trans-national attacks against any entity they brand as “kafir” -infidel- such as the US and its allies. In the Syrian conflict, Al Qaeda affiliated groups still battle the Syrian regime and side with other rebel factions. Contrary to that, ISIS almost never conducted large scale attacks against areas belonging to the Syrian regime until May 2015. It prioritises targeting all other rebel factions instead and concentrates on building and defending a quasi-state. This also proves that political motivation surpasses any other on the ground.

Exploiting this unstable geopolitical climate, ISIS entered an era of lightning war in the summer of 2014 by capturing Tikrit, Fallujah and probably the most important of all, Mosul city in Iraq. The ultimate goal was to capture the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.