Dispatches from around the world on the rising global threat
More formidable than its al-Qaeda precursors in the view of many experts, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is more than a network of terrorist cells or even a militia: it’s almost a nation. In the tracts of Iraq and Syria under its aegis, ISIS collects taxes and delivers government services with one hand while slaughtering prisoners and demanding ransoms with the other. Its armies are supplied from captured arsenals and paid with money from looted banks. Thousands of violent jihadists worldwide have pledged allegiance to ISIS’s black flag. And this spring, roughly 25,000 men are set to challenge these lurid butchers’ control of Mosul, the largest city under ISIS control. In order to cover this global story, journalists in Tehran, Baghdad, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Paris, London, Cape Town and Washington contributed to TIME’s March 9 cover story on ISIS. Here is what they found.
Why the White House Won’t Call ISIS ‘Islamic’
By Michael Scherer
The detritus left behind in Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan included documents showing the former Al Qaeda leader had concerns about the terrorist organization’s brand. His worry before his death was that the world was no longer seeing the group as an Islamic one, says one senior administration official, but rather a mercenary operation. He had even considered changing Al Qaeda’s name to address the problem.
That revelation has helped to steer the White House as it plotted its response to another extremist threat in the Middle East, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. ” “They are seeking to establish themselves as the vanguard terrorist organization that is at war with the U.S. and the West on behalf of Islam,” says Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser at the White House. “Therefore they need to attract as much attention as they can.”
But President Obama is determined not indulge the ideological frame of his enemy, calling the claim that the United States is at war with Islam an “ugly lie.” Rather the Obama Administration has focused on building a coalition of Islamic states in the gulf, including many Sunni gulf states, to battle against the self-described Caliphate. This effort received a major boost last September, when Obama met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite, and representatives from the Sunni leadership of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar to discuss a united front against ISIS. “That’s when I think we had sensed that the regional balance had shifted to the point where this was the one thing everyone in the region could agree on,” Rhodes says.
But the fight will be a long one, and the danger of ISIS, or its supporters, lashing out against the United States homeland will continue, though it is presently rather different from the threat posed by Al Qaeda. “The threat to the homeland resembles what we have seen in Ottawa and Australia and Paris,” Rhodes continues. That is, “individuals who are either radicalized of their own volition taking up arms to commit those types of acts, or individuals who may have traveled to Iraq and Syria returning to create those kinds of attacks. People with guns or IEDs”—homemade bombs—“carrying out those kinds of attacks. It’s different than 9/11.”
How ISIS is its own Enemy
By Massimo Calabresi
The best diplomatic ally President Obama has in his fight against ISIS is the group itself, which has accumulated a long list of enemies inside Iraq and around the world. The question is whether Obama can rally that fractious coalition to counter the group’s progress in the real and virtual battle spaces.
From its seizure of Fallujah in Anbar province on Jan. 4, 2014 through the start of U.S. air strikes on Aug. 8, 2014, ISIS came dangerously close to destroying Iraq. That helped produce better leadership in Baghdad and brought neighbors like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan and dozens of others to the fight. ISIS’s brutality is also alienating Iraq’s Sunni tribal leaders who originally welcomed the group, the U.S. says.
The test of the 62-nation coalition that Obama has assembled will come when U.S.-backed Iraqi forces attempt to oust ISIS this spring. Eight countries in the coalition are dropping bombs on ISIS now; twelve are helping train Iraqi troops for the assault on Mosul, the largest city ISIS holds. Even the most ambitious backers of military force don’t think the U.S. and its allies will be able to put a dent in ISIS in neighboring Syria.
Countering ISIS in the virtual battlefields of social media and the Internet is even harder. The group’s brutality and its hyperbolic talk of a transnational caliphate has attracted supporters. It has no operational connection to groups outside of Iraq and Syria, U.S. officials and other experts say, but fellow travelers can be dangerous with or without direct ISIS command and control. Says a senior administration official, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS: “We can defeat Da’esh in the physical space through concerted military action, but the real victory comes when we defeat Da’esh in the information space, when we defeat their narrative.”
How the U.S. Thinks ISIS Will be Defeated
By Mark Thompson
Every U.S. military official says degrading and defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria isn’t a job that can be done by the Pentagon alone. But it also cannot be done without the Pentagon. That’s the bind President Obama finds himself in as he seeks a way to cripple ISIS without putting U.S. combat boots on the ground inside Iraq and Syria (beyond the 3,100 now there to train Iraqi forces and protect the U.S. embassy and other facilities).
So far, the American heavy lifting in the fight against ISIS has come from the skies, where U.S. warplanes have dropped more than 8,200 bombs and missiles on ISIS targets in 2,500 air strikes in Iraq and Syria dating back to August. While Syrian rebels, largely Kurdish, have been able to hold on to the town of Kobani, they haven’t regained any ground. In Iraq, the Pentagon estimates that the Kurdish pesh merga forces have retaken a scant 1.3% of the contested territory ISIS has seized in the past year.
But U.S. officials believe, with sufficient training—and continuing allied airpower—the Iraqi army, Kurdish forces and moderate Syrian rebels will be able to defeat ISIS and take back the territory it seized over the next several years.
The key test of the strategy will come as early as April, when the Pentagon hopes to launch an offensive to retake the northern Iraq city of Mosul, which ISIS seized last June after it drove out the Iraqi army in a humiliating defeat. The Pentagon estimates a 25,000-strong force made up of Iraqi army and Kurdish pesh merga units will be able to overwhelm the up to 2,000 ISIS militants believed to be in control of Mosul. The fight is so vital to validating the U.S. approach that Pentagon officials have made clear that if the Iraqis aren’t adequately trained—and if the aerial bombardment around Mosul hasn’t done enough damage—the assault could be delayed by months. → Read more here
Why Congress Hasn’t Acted Against ISIS
By Alex Rogers
After waiting six months and watching 2,300 U.S. airstrikes against Islamic militants in Syria and Iraq, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Congress doesn’t feel that much pressure to authorize the President to do what he already is doing.
“This is unusual because typically you authorize before actions are taken,” says Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, who will play an outsized role in the war powers debate on Capitol Hill. “In this case, people have been watching for six months and have a lot of questions as to whether they really are committed to dealing with ISIS. So that makes the dynamic here different than probably any authorization in modern history.”
“It’s not like anybody necessarily is going to feel a sense of urgency to act because they know it’s not going to alter the [immediate or current] operations in any way,” Corker told TIME.
The congressional war powers debate is one many members wished to avoid. Democrats, many of whom were elected on getting the U.S. out of wars like Iraq, are especially wary of approving any resolution that would authorize the President to send in troops into another Middle East quagmire. And if Republicans vote to approve what’s known as the authorization for use of military force—or an AUMF—they could open themselves up to criticism if the White House strategy fails.
But starting in late February, a few weeks after the White House sent over its war powers request, Congress will begin the solemn, politically divisive responsibility of debating the use of military action against a brutal enemy that split off from al-Qaeda a year ago. The first step will be to clarify what the role of U.S. troops should be. How long that takes is anyone’s guess.
Where ISIS Draws its Strength
Why Bashar Assad Won’t Fight ISIS
By Aryn Baker
The regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has long had a pragmatic approach to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), says a Syrian businessman with close ties to the government. Even from the early days the regime purchased fuel from ISIS-controlled oil facilities, and it has maintained that relationship throughout the conflict. “Honestly speaking, the regime has always had dealings with ISIS, out of necessity.”
The Sunni businessman is close to the regime but wants to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions from both ISIS supporters and the regime. He trades goods all over the country so his drivers have regular interactions with ISIS supporters and members in Raqqa, the ISIS stronghold in Syria, and in ISIS-controlled areas like Dier-ezzor.
The businessman has a driver who lives in an ISIS-controlled area near Dier-Ezzor. “My driver is always telling me how safe things are at home. He can leave the door to his house unlocked. ISIS requires women to veil, and there is no smoking in the streets. Men can’t wear jeans either. But there are no bribes, and they have tranquility and security. It’s not like there are killings every day in the streets like you see on TV.”
Assad does not see ISIS as his primary problem, the businessman says. “The regime fears the Free Syrian Army and the Nusra Front, not ISIS. They [the FSA and Nusra] state their goal is to remove the President. But ISIS doesn’t say that. They have never directly threatened Damascus.” As the businessman notes, the strikes on ISIS targets are minimal. “If the regime were serious about getting rid of ISIS, they would have bombed Raqqa by now. Instead they bomb other cities, where the FSA is strong.” That said, the businessman does not believe that the regime has a formal relationship with ISIS, just a pragmatic one. “The more powerful ISIS grows, the more they are useful for the regime. They make America nervous, and the Americans in turn see the regime as a kind of bulwark against ISIS.” → Read more here
How Jordan Got Pulled into the Fight Against ISIS
By Suha Ma’ayeh
The video of the killing of Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh was precisely intended by ISIS to goad Jordan, explains Abu Hanieh. “ISIS wanted to provoke Jordan into attacking it. It is important for them to create chaos in the country,” he says. “In response to any Jordanian attack, ISIS would say it is defending itself. Jordan fell halfway into this trap.”
Antipathy to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is in the DNA of ISIS. Before the killing of al-Kasabeh, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the founder of the group that became ISIS, masterminded a triple suicide bombing of Amman in 2005, killing 57 people. Zarqawi, originally from Zarqa in Jordan, was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Iraq in 2006.
Government officials estimate there are 2,000 Jordanians fighting with ISIS and officials fear these fighters could easily return to their home country to carry out attacks. ISIS returnees would find support among a significant minority in Jordan: a poll by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan conducted last year estimated that 10% of Jordan’s 6.5 million residents view ISIS positively.
ISIS sympathizers have threatened revenge for Jordan’s airstrikes on social media, and Jordan has been steeling itself for attacks for months. In June, the government extended its anti-terrorism legislation to criminalize online supporters of ISIS. And it has already fortified its borders with Iraq and Syria. Mohammad Momani, the government’s spokesman, says the country continues to strengthen its borders: “It is the sovereign right of countries to move troops as necessary.”
Not all Jordanians believe that attacking ISIS will solve Jordan’s security problems. Oudeh Hamaydeh, a retired intelligence officer, says that Jordan has to embrace political reform to reduce the alienation that feeds extremism. “Authorities use fighting terrorism as a pretext to avoid reforms but the only way to defeat terrorists is through adopting real reforms and engaging the youth in political life.” → Read more here
How ISIS Unites Divisive Factions
By Rebecca Collard
Since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad started almost four years, the Lebanese have feared the conflict would creep across the 230-mile border they share with Syria.
Now both the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front are occupying part of this border and thousands of Lebanese have gone into Syria to fight, many of them for the Shiite militia Hizballah.
The border pressure has raised tensions in Lebanon, which has endured bombings and suicide attacks against both Sunni and Shiite targets, but the country has not crumpled under the pressure.
When Hizballah admitted last year that its fighters were in Syria, many Lebanese accused the Shiite militia of dragging Lebanon into Syria’s war. This increased divisions between Hizballah and Sunni factions such as Saad Hariri’s Future Movement and the March 14 alliance. Tensions were rising as Lebanese, both the government and the people, sat on opposite sides of Syria’s civil war, some supporting Assad’s regime and others the Sunni rebels fighting against him.
But now the conflict and the threat of ISIS has actually seen rival Lebanese factions move close together, says Yezid Sayigh, a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center, a think tank in Beirut.
“Ironically,” Sayigh says, “it’s sort of making the Lebanese state a bit more organized, responsible or proactive, which is not typical of Lebanon.” → Read more here
Why Iran Believes ISIS is U.S. Creation
By Kay Armin Serjoie
Iran has taken a lead role in defending the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and strengthening the Baghdad government in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). But that doesn’t mean Iran views the United States as an ally in that war, even if they share a common enemy in ISIS.
Abdullah Ganji, the managing-director of Javan newspaper, which is believed to closely reflect the views of the government and the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guards, says that U.S. support for ISIS is in fact a way of ensuring Israel’s security and disrupting the Muslim world in the cause of advancing Western interests.
“We believe that the West has been influential in the creation of ISIS for a number of reasons. First to engage Muslims against each other, to waste their energy and in this way Israel’s security would be guaranteed or at least enhanced,” says Ganji. “Secondly, an ugly, violent and homicidal face of Islam is presented to the world. And third, to create an inconvenience for Iran.”
Iran’s relations with the U.S. have been strained since the 1979 Islamic Revolution ousted the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran and negotiations are currently underway between Iran and Western nations, including the U.S., to ensure the Islamic Republic does not produce nuclear weapons.
Ganji went on to say that much of ISIS — its propaganda, structure and weapons — were all the work of the West. “A group that claims to be an Islamic one and has no sensitivity towards occupied Muslim lands in Palestine but is bent on killing Muslims as its first priority, it’s not a movement with roots in Islamic history. Not only many of its weapons but its methods of operation, its propaganda methods and many of its internal structures are Western, that’s why we are distrustful of the roots of ISIS,” he says. → Read more here
How ISIS Sprung up in Libya
By Vivienne Walt
The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) flourished in the vacuum created by the civil war in Syria. More recently it has found a similarly fertile environment in Libya.
The elected government in Tripoli collapsed last August after a coalition of militias called Libya Dawn drove it out of the capital and took control. The deposed government fled to Tobruk, 800 miles to the east, close to the Egyptian border. The rival governments in Tobruk and Tripoli, supported by regional militias, have fought a civil war ever since.
Many veterans of Libya’s first civil war against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi travelled on to join the uprising against Bashar Assad in Syria in 2011. An estimated 1,000 and 3,000 Libyans fought with a variety of rebel groups, but many have since joined ISIS.
Last year, a group of around 300 Libyan ISIS veterans returned to Derna on the country’s Mediterranean coast as the civil war continued. In October, ISIS took over most of the city and declared its allegiance to the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They were joined in their pledge by Ansar al-Sharia, the extremist group that killed U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens on September 11, 2012.
As long as there is civil war in Libya, ISIS will be able to maintain a foothold in the country. Bassam Ghellal, the Libyan managing director of Whispering Bell, a Dubai-based security risk consultancy, believes that unless talks—so far floundering—between Libya Dawn and the elected government succeed, tackling ISIS’s growth in Libya will be very difficult, for example through foreign intervention. “There are two options for Libya, and I don’t believe there is a third one: To have two opposing governments work together. Right now, we are in a state of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend.’ So that will allow these groups to thrive.” → Read more here
Why ISIS Faces a Difficult Landscape
By Omar WaraIch
Pakistan is an attractive breeding ground for ISIS, but also one that is so crowded out by entrenched terror groups that they may struggle to break into the market. “It’s an already busy landscape for militant groups,” says Simbal Khan, Pakistan scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington. “There’s no vacuum for a new group.”
That doesn’t mean they are not trying, and in some cases, already finding success. The Pakistani government has issued reports warning that “ISIS” or “Da’esh” (as it is known by its Arabic acronym) has collaborated with sectarian militant groups, like Jundallah and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, along the border with Iran. Elsewhere, in November 2014, a series of former Pakistani Taliban militants announced their allegiance to ISIS and al-Baghdadi.
After the Peshawar massacre, where Taliban soldiers slaughtered nearly 150 people at a public school, there appears to be greater clarity among Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership about the need to fight terrorism. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced near the end of 2014 that there would no longer be any distinction made between “good militants” and “bad militants.” The policy of backing militants who attack Afghanistan and India while only fighting those who launched terror attacks at home in Pakistan would be reversed.
While the jury is still out on whether this will become official and lasting policy, the army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif—the most powerful man in Pakistan—has said that he will not allow a group like ISIS to establish a base inside Pakistan. They are watching events in the Arab world with mounting anxiety, but Pakistan and Afghanistan’s focus remains very much local for the moment. “The Pakistani leadership, in civvies and in uniform, are on one page,” says Khawaja Asif, Pakistan’s Defense Minister. “We must fight for our existence, and the existence of all humanity.” → Read more here
How ISIS Threatens Europe
By Charlotte McDonald-Gibson
The threat posed to Europe by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) came closer to home on Feb. 15 when the group released a video showing ISIS militants killing 21 Egyptian Christians on the Libyan shores of the Mediterranean — the same coastline from which each week hundreds of people set sail for Europe. One of the militants points across the sea at the heart of Europe and says: “We will conquer Rome, by the will of Allah.”
The spread of ISIS across the Middle East has already had a significant impact on Europe. Unrest has forced record numbers of people to flee the fighting in Syria and Iraq and embark on dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean. In 2014, 200,000 people attempted the sea journey to seek sanctuary in Europe compared to 60,000 the previous year, according to statistics from the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.
The chaos engulfing Libya this year has led more people to sea, with 5,600 attempting the journey in the first two months of this year, up 50 percent on the same period in 2014. This is putting a political and economic strain on nations where the migrants who survive the journey come ashore – and raising concerns that ISIS could be sending fighters to Europe hidden among the refugees.
A far more effective ISIS strategy appears to be cultivating an army of home-grown soldiers living within the European Union borders who are radicalized either online or on the battlefield.
Last year, Belgium became the first E.U. country to experience an attack by a fighter returning from Syria when a Frenchman – Mehdi Nemmouche – opened fire in a Jewish museum in Brussels, killing four people. In January, police killed two young Belgian men when they raided a house to disrupt a plot to attack police officers on the streets of Belgian cities. The men – and many of the people arrested in connection with the investigation – had travelled to Syria. Belgian media reported that one of the suspects appeared in an ISIS video in which he is seen driving a car dragging dead bodies through the Syrian desert. → Read more here
How ISIS Found Its Most Ardent Defender in Britain
By Conal Urquhart
For Anjem Choudary, the events unfolding in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere are far more than just bloodshed and brutality, they are foretold stages that herald the Day of Judgement.
The 48-year-old Londoner says he is a student of Islam not a spiritual leader but he has been described by Hope Not Hate, an anti-extremism organisation, as “a serious player on the international Islamist scene” and “the single biggest gateway to terrorism in recent British history”.
Choudary has not been convicted of any terrorism offense although he is currently under police investigation and has surrendered his passport, which means he cannot fulfil his desire to travel with his wife and four children to live in the Caliphate that the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has established.
Instead he spends much of his time defending ISIS and justifying the more brutal things they do because he believes that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is as legitimate a Caliph as Abdülmecid II, who was the last Caliph of the Ottoman Empire until the role was abolished by Turkey in 1924.
Choudary is certain that his world view cannot be contradicted. “I don’t think there is something called defeat. Because it’s victory or martyrdom. There’s something called the divine victory and the worldly victory. The worldly victory is to see the conquest of the land and the implementation of sharia. The divine victory is to obtain paradise. If someone dies on the battlefield that’s what he wants,” he says.
Even if the Caliphate was to lose territory and be eradicated, that would not constitute complete defeat. “That would be a defeat in terms of a battle,” he says. “You can lose battles but ultimately victory is with the Muslims. One day victory is yours, one day it is mine. We may lose a city, a town but the Muslims always win.” → Read more here