ISIS is front and center in the news and the acronym itself is now synonymous with fear. This terrorist organization is extremely violent, radical, and is responsible for many recent attacks which resulted in a multitude of innocent deaths. Where did ISIS come from? What do they believe? Are they any different then previous terrorist groups? I wanted answers to these questions so I read ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger. This book was published prior to the Paris and San Bernardino attacks but it eerily predicted that events like those would occur. Let’s take a journey in time and look back at the birth and development of the worlds most famous terrorist group.
Our journey begins in 2003 when former President George W. Bush commanded the United States military to invade Iraq. Bush said “We’re taking the fight to the terrorists abroad, so we don’t have to face them here at home.” This statement proved to be half true-we brought the fight but instead of decreasing the number of terrorists, the invasion became a lighting rod for jihadists. Before the invasion, Jihadist’s had a difficult time operating in Iraq and were in severe decline after the destruction of al Qaeda’s primary base in Afghanistan. Jihadists used the American presence in Iraq as a recruiting tool and Abu Musab al Suri, the jihad’s most prominent strategist, said that the war in Iraq single-handedly saved the movement. Numbers wise, following the invasion, terrorism within Iraq rose exponentially; “There were 78 terrorist attacks in the first twelve months…in the second twelve months this number nearly quadrupled, to 302 attacks. At the height of the war, in 2007, terrorists claimed 5,425 civilian lives and caused 9,878 injuries.” The US occupation would also rekindle fighting between Sunni and Shiite Muslims (think different theological beliefs like Protestants and Catholics). This created a civil war and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a little known jihadist who would use this sectarian violence to his advantage. Zarqawi would found Al-Qa‘ida in Iraq (AQI) which was responsible for several attacks on Shiites and Iraqi civilians. Osama bin Laden would chastise Zarqawi for these attacks on fellow Muslims but Zarqawi believed in a very strict interpretation of Takfir. Takfir is the pronouncement of someone as a nonbeliever and gives jihadists the permission to kill subjects as apostate (no longer believers in Muslim). Zarqawi (who hated Shiites) believed that all Muslims which did not support his beliefs were fair game to kill. This radical ideology was beyond al Queda and even bin Laden thought it was crazy.
Zarqawi’s philosophy was influenced by a few key works. The Management of Savagery, which was created by the research and analysis division of al Queda, outlined stages of jihadist struggles: Disruption and Exhaustion (keep the US fighting to destroy its image of invisibility, Management of Savagery (carry out highly visible violence intended to send a message), and Empowerment (establish regions controlled by jihadists to re-create the caliphate). A Call to a Global Islamic Resistance, cited the need for leaderless resistance and effectiveness of lone wolf attacks. Furthermore, it extensively spoke about apocalyptic prophecies (many of which supported Shiite hatred), which needed to be fulfilled. Zarqawi’s library was seriously twisted but his reign of terror would end in 2006 when the US killed him in a targeted airstrike. The Defense Department would soon post a picture of the Zarqawi’s corpse, which turned him into a martyr, and led the leader of al Queda to post a eulogy in which he encouraged the AQI to establish an Islamic state. Within a few months, a group of AQI insurgents announced the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). The new leader of the ISI was Abu Omar al Baghdadi who was eventually killed in 2010. Enter, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the second leader of ISI and the current leader of ISIS. Stay tuned for more on Baghdadi and the continuation of our fascinating story.