From Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, what has been the development of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in the region?
The militant group, ISIS, which at one point had more than 8 million people under its so-called caliphate, is now approaching its final days.
With the final battle ongoing to liberate the last town of Baghuz in Syria’s eastern Deir ez-Zour Province from ISIS control, the group will have lost all of the land that it once captured at its height in 2015.
With its defeat imminent, observers say we should remember the group’s origin to prevent a threat like this from developing in the future.
While the group known as ISIS, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in its longer form, gained prominence in 2014 after the militant group’s attempt to unite its Syrian and Iraqi branches, its origins stretch back earlier than that.
During Saddam Hussein’s Faith Campaign in the late 1990s, the former dictator of Iraq imported many radical preachers and scholars from nearby countries to spread a version of Islam that can be manipulated for political gains. As a result, when al-Qaeda operatives entered Iraq in 2003, they found fertile ground to spread their ideology as a result of Saddam’s previous policies. The operatives also began radicalising youth, who had previously joined Saddam Hussein’s Fidayeen, the ideological paramilitary organisation, which was meant to protect Saddam and his regime.
However, after the US invasion and the overthrow of the Saddam regime in 2003, former Baathists began to feel disgruntled with the rise of a Shia government backed by the US. Resulting in al-Qaeda preachers such as the Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden in 2004, to rally the youth.
Following his allegiance to bin Laden, Zarqawi’s organisation “Jamaat al-Tawhid Wal Jihad” (Congregation of Tawhid and Jihad) changed its name to “Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn” (The Organisation Of Jihad’s Base in Mesopotamia), which became known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
During its years of operation in Iraq (2003-2006), AQI carried out hundreds of operations against the US troops, the majority Shia population but also Sunni Muslims, both civilian and those affiliated with the Shia-led Government, despite claiming to “bring Sunni rule back to Iraq and establish an Islamic State”. The militant group then changed its name to “The Islamic State in Iraq” (ISI) in October 2006 after Zarqawi’s death in June earlier that year.
Following the death of Zarqawi, his successors Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri took over. However, the group’s activities in Iraq took a major blow after Sunni Tribal Forces began to reject the extremist ideology and eventually pushed back against ISI, forcing them to go underground and abandon their holdings in areas of Iraq such as Anbar Province. The group’s fortunes took a further turn for the worse when their two leaders were killed in 2010.
With ISI, then led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, struggling to get a foothold in Iraq in the following years, it appeared to be a spent force in the region.
But the popular protests known as the Arab Uprisings, which spread across the Middle East and North Africa after 2010, gave the group a new lease of life.
Seeking to exploit the chaos, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sent veteran Al Qaeda commander Abu Mohammed al-Jolani from Iraq into Syria to set up Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front) in 2012. The group quickly became known as a key and brutal fighting force in the Syrian Conflict, allying with other rebel groups to push back against the Syrian Regime.
Witnessing the growing strength of the Nusra Front, Baghdadi announced the establishment of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in 2013. Included in this new formation would be Jabhat al-Nusra.
However, this approach was rejected by Joulani, whose Nusra Front had already gained control over large swaths of eastern Syria and sought to retain its allegiance to Al Qaeda. The merging of the two organisations also angered Al Qaeda Central, which issued a statement saying that each jihadi group should remain within their territory. Joulani, who pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda, accepted this statement saying that each organisation should remain independent, an utterance that angered Baghdadi.
In late 2013, Baghdadi moved into Syria, clashing with the Nusra Front and taking over most of the positions gained by the group in eastern Syria.
This movement into Syria also came amidst further expansion into Iraq, with ISIS taking over Fallujah in January 2014 and the country’s second largest city, Mosul, in June 2014.
In his first public appearance in Mosul, Baghdadi announced that he had created an “Islamic State,” which included territories in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and West Africa. Following this, ISIS began carrying out operations in Turkey, France, Belgium and London, releasing gruesome videos of beheadings and executions. This instilled fear in the hearts of people and sparked international outrage.
After the conquering of Iraqi territories in 2014, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the volunteer-based Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) began launching operations to liberate land from the militant group. Furthermore, governments all around the world agreed to create a coalition led by the US to defeat the militant group militarily.
In Syria, the Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) began launching attacks on the militant group in northern Syria. This came in conjunction alongside advances by the Syrian Regime against ISIS-held territory throughout 2017.
While operations against the militant group remained in Syria throughout 2018, ISIS’ territory had shrunk considerably from its highpoint just a couple of years prior.
Today, the group is left with a handful of towns in eastern Syria, which are expected to be captured in the coming weeks by the SDF. Indeed, SDF commanders have stated that 99% of the territory that ISIS controlled in the country has been liberated.
Their defeat in Syria will mark the end of the militant group’s control of territory in the two countries and the wider region. While the group will still pose an insurgency threat, it seems like 2019 will be the year that ISIS will be finally defeated.