Portrait | Who and what is Isis?


Portrait | Who and what is Isis?

The Islamic terror organisation is but one embodiment of a larger and more dangerous idea that also thrives in various other guises, says WILLEM KEMPEN.

THE story of Isis has so many origins, crossroads and dead ends that it's almost impossible not to get lost every now and then.

It's not even always clear whether Isis is the best name to use, much less that it's a single, coherent organisation or movement. Different news media, for example, referred to the grouping that claimed responsibility for last week's terrorist attack in Moscow as Isis, Isis-K, Islamic State (or just IS) and Isil, among others. It also does not help that the translations of these names are not always consistent, nor that their activities rarely coincide neatly with modern national borders. Moreover, some of the names have changed as the leaders have extended their geographical and theological ambitions.

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This is more or less how they all fit together:

♦ The original Islamic State emerged in 2004 from the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

♦ Isis is the abbreviation for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the name the organisation took in 2013. A year later, it was changed back to Islamic State, for reasons that will become (slightly) clearer below.

♦ Isis is also known as Isil, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. (The Levant is loosely defined as the area where western Asia, the area east of the Mediterranean and northeast Africa meet, but disagreement over this is often reason enough for a war or three every 20 years.)

♦ Just to avoid any clarity, Isis (and so on) is also known by the Arabic acronym Daesh.

♦ Isis-K is the short name for Isis Khorasan, a highly active Isis affiliate that originated in eastern Afghanistan in late 2014. “Khorasan" is an ancient name for a region that includes parts of modern-day Afghanistan, Iran and Turkmenistan.

♦ In contrast to Islamic State as the name of a specific grouping, an Islamic state in its broader sense refers to a form of government based on sharia law.

Sometimes an Islamic state can have a caliphate or even be a caliphate, that is, an institution headed by an Islamic leader with the title of caliph where sharia is enforced even more strictly, if that would be possible.

The problem here is that Sunni and Shiite Muslims differ on how a caliph may be designated, and Isis is a Sunni grouping. According to one (disputed) definition, “the caliph must be the most knowledgeable person on earth at that time, he must be infallible and he must be divinely inspired. The primary role of the caliph is the religious guidance of humanity."

Despite this rather high standard, there is often more than one contender for the title, but the point is that it explains why there was such an outcry when Isis leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi proclaimed a caliphate in Iraq and Syria in 2014 and anointed himself “Caliph Ibrahim". A month later, in a sermon at a mosque in Mosul, he announced that he was not only a caliph, but the caliph; the political and spiritual leader of the entire Muslim world. At the same time, he changed Isis's name back to Islamic State to align it with its new status, but the old name is still in common use.

By then, Al-Baghdadi's organisation controlled large parts of Iraq and Syria, including major cities such as Mosul and Raqqa. Isis had become notorious for things like mass executions, hostage beheadings captured on video and widely distributed, the sexual abuse of detainees and the senseless destruction of Iraqi and other cultural treasures from antiquity.

In 2015 and 2016, Isis expanded further via a network of affiliates in at least eight other countries. Its branches, supporters and affiliated organisations increasingly carried out attacks outside the borders of the so-called caliphate. In October 2015, Isis's Egyptian affiliate blew up a Russian passenger jet with 224 people on board above the Sinai Peninsula, presumably in retaliation for Russian airstrikes in Syria and with the aim of souring relations between Russia and Egypt. On November 13, 2015, 130 people were killed and more than 300 injured in coordinated attacks in Paris, and in June 2016 an armed Isis loyalist shot and killed 49 people and wounded more than 50 in a nightclub in Orlando, Florida. (See here for a complete list and timeline.)

By the end of 2017, Isis had ceded virtually all of the territory of the earlier caliphate to Iraqi forces and a broad international coalition (including Iran and Hezbollah). On December 9, 2017, Iraq declared that Isis had been vanquished, but Isis supporters continued to carry out attacks in several countries, often without external assistance.

In 2018, the focus of the campaign against Isis shifted to eastern Syria, where the situation became completely intertwined with the civil war that began as early as 2011 with uprisings against President Bashar Al-Assad's government (there is still no end in sight).

Al-Baghdadi blew up himself and three of his children with a suicide vest on October 26, 2019 during an attack by US special forces on the house in northern Syria where they were hiding. “He died like a dog; he died like a coward. The world is now a much safer place," claimed an excited President Donald Trump.

In the weeks and months that followed, Trump declared on at least 16 occasions that Isis had been totally destroyed. Other world leaders, including Boris Johnson of Britain, warned that Isis and the idea of an international caliphate would live on long after Al-Baghdadi's death.

They were right. This article by the American Enterprise Institute, published last year on the 22nd anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, says groupings with some sort of revolutionary jihad agenda are thriving in several parts of the world, including in Africa. Groups such as a resurrected al-Queda, al-Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Taliban in Afghanistan share some ideology with Isis, even though they may have a different local agenda and organisational structures and might even clash violently with each other at times. (The jihadis in northern Mozambique are known variously as Ahlu al-Sunnah wal-Jamaah (ASJ), Ansar al-Sunnah, Isis-Mozambique and even as al-Shabaab, although they have no formal ties to the group of the same name in East Africa.)

Which brings us back to Isis-K, whose support in Afghanistan peaked around 2018 before suffering several blows at the hands of the Taliban and the US occupation forces. Isis-K nevertheless continued to attack targets inside and outside the country after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. In September 2022, it claimed responsibility for a deadly suicide bombing at the Russian embassy in Kabul, and earlier this year intercepted communication confirmed that it was also responsible for a twin bombing attack in Iran that killed nearly 100 people.

Over the last two years, Isis-K has increasingly accused Vladimir Putin and Russia of complicity in the oppression of Muslims in general, but lately it has also gained members in Central Asia who often have specific grievances against the Moscow government. Russia's war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, support for Serbia against Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s and later atrocities in Chechnya are also far from forgotten.

Along with this comes another uncomfortable truth about why Isis-K carried out the attack in Moscow — it's an effective way to recruit new members in radicalised communities who can be persuaded that there is only one definition for “the enemy": all those opposed to the dream of a new international caliphate.

♦ VWB ♦

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