Iraq crisis: What and who is ISIS?

The militant group offers a compelling proposition to would-be jihadists

June 12, 2014
Turkish assistance in tackling IS has been welcomed, but how to resolve their conflict with the Kurds?
Turkish assistance in tackling IS has been welcomed, but how to resolve their conflict with the Kurds?

ISIS: the militant islamic force now threatening to take control of northern Iraq

What is ISIS?

It is a Sunni Muslim militant group operating in Western Iraq and Syria. The name is an acronym, standing for “the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (the Levant).” The group has dominated headlines this week after launching an assault on the northern part of Iraq, conquering the city of Mosul (population 1.8m). With a reputation as ferocious fighters, they reportedly met with little resistance as professional security forces fled the city in the face of their advance. “The city fell like a plane without an engine,” a local businessman told The Guardian. “[ISIS militants] were firing their weapons into the air, but no one was shooting at them.”

What does it want?

International recognition as an independent state for the territory it controls, which spans parts of eastern Syria and western Iraq. In this area, it functions as a de facto government, operating schools and courts. It also wants to control more territory. If it can sustain and consolidate its new gains in Iraq, it will control much of the northern part of the country, and reports say it plans to mount an assault on the capital, Baghdad (its advance has been halted just short of the city). It also wants to seize control of rebel-held areas in central Syria and potentially expand into the Lebanon to the West. In both Iraq and Syria, ISIS’s enemies are Shia Muslims.

Who are its members?

Reports vary, putting the total number of recruits at anything from 3,000-10,000. According to Gareth Stansfield, professor of Middle East politics at the University of Exeter, the group tends to recruit most heavily among Syrian and Iraqi locals, but it does have some foreign fighters, mostly Chechens, Afghans, and Pakistanis, as well as some Europeans. Michael Stephens, Deputy Director, Qatar for the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), says there could be as many as 300 Britons fighting for ISIS, and a further almost 300 other Europeans. The faction began as an al Qaeda group in Iraq, called the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), but earlier this year al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri publicly disavowed the group. Zawahiri reportedly considered the group too brutal even to be affiliated with his network.

How dangerous is it?

The group is well-resourced. Its new adventure in Iraq has seen it seize military bases in Mosul. In Syria, it controls oil fields, and it may yet gain control of Iraq’s largest oil refinery in the town of Baiji. Stephens says that individual Saudi and Kuwaiti donors are giving money to ISIS, either through European financial institutions or, in some cases, by smuggling suitcases of bills across the border. It is also ruthless: the group has been blamed for a string of assassinations in Syria, including two alleged crucifixions. Most importantly, this particular militant operation is very good at recruiting people to its cause. “This idea of fighting Shia seems to be really mobilising young men to fight in a way that fighting Westerners didn’t,” says Stephens. “They [say] they’re saving Islam from itself. There’s something more nefarious about people from your own side turning against you.”