TIME Iraq

Obama Pushes Back on ISIS Criticism

The President pushed back on critics of his stance towards ISIS during a recent television appearance

President Obama pushed back against critics of his handling of ISIS militants in Iraq on Meet The Press Sunday, as the first guest of new host Chuck Todd.

“Number one, this is a serious threat,” Obama said. “We have the capacity to deal with it.”

The President added that he plans to announce a more detailed strategy in a speech this week.

“This is not going to be an announcement of ground troops. This is not the Iraq war,” he said. “It’s similar to the counterterrorism campaigns we’ve been doing for the past 5-6-7 years.”

TIME foreign affairs

Iraqi Refugee: ISIS Wouldn’t Exist Under Saddam

A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Syria waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa, Syria on June 29, 2014.
A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Syria waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa, Syria on June 29, 2014. Reuters

"It is my worst nightmare that an extremist group like the Islamic State has support in Iraq"

When people ask me how I feel about the latest events in Iraq, I tell them I feel sad. All these people—both Americans and Iraqis—have died since 2003 for nothing. As the Islamic State insurgency unfolds, I’m mourning not just those who have died over the past decade, but for a country that I haven’t been able to recognize for a very long time.

I grew up in Baghdad in a middle-class family. My father served in the Iraqi Air Force and traveled often internationally; my mother was a math teacher; my siblings all attended college. I graduated from the most prestigious high school in Baghdad before getting my degree at pharmacy school.

I grew up reading Superman and Batman comics, playing with Legos, and swimming at the pools of the fancy clubs where my parents were members. I was 12 during the first Gulf War in 1990. And until then, my childhood was uneventful: I was a happy kid.

Until 1990, I never heard a mosque call for prayer. I almost never saw a woman covering her hair with a hijab. My mom wore make-up, skirts, blouses with shoulder pads, and Bermuda shorts.

Since moving to Los Angeles in 2009, I’ve realized that most Americans don’t understand that Iraq used to be a Westernized, secular country. From the 1930s to the 1980s, Iraq’s neighbors used to look to it as the example. The country had an excellent education system, great healthcare, and Iraq was rich—not the richest, but rich.

Of course, Iraq is not like this today.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait, 24 years ago last month, the United States destroyed most of Iraq’s infrastructure during the Persian Gulf War. Bridges were bombed, along with power stations, railroads, dams, and oil refineries.

I remember that we would turn on the faucet, and barely any water would come out. In order to take showers, we had to rely on water tanks on the roof, which supplied extra water to our home. The water would come out boiling hot because it had been sitting in the sun. We also had limited electricity—which remains a problem, even 20 years later. Sleeping was difficult. You would wake up, sweating, in the middle of the night.

In 1990, an embargo was imposed, which prohibited Iraq from exporting oil. Iraqis suddenly found themselves poor. People’s values changed after 1990, too. Robberies increased. If you parked your car by the street—even for just three minutes—you risked your hubcaps being stolen.

Neither of the United States wars changed life in Iraq the way the U.S. government had intended.

I think the United States wanted Iraqis to revolt against Saddam Hussein and depose him. That wasn’t going to happen.

The notion of democracy is foreign to the Arab world. Although the West saw the “Arab Spring” protests as movements for democracy, they were really uprisings against various dictators, which are not the same thing. What we know is that for countless generations, we’ve lived in a society of hierarchy. It’s not about individualism or personal freedoms. It’s about following your father, your family, and your tribe. There’s no culture of respecting different opinions.

So, when Iraqis were given their freedom, instead of turning to democracy, they, like many other in the region, turned to religion—and religious leaders for guidance, and political advice.

Shiites voted for Shiite candidates. Sunnis voted for Sunnis. The Shiites came to power because they were the majority.

What’s happening in Iraq today is merely a continuation of the failure of democracy. And a failure of the United States to understand the psyche of Iraqis.

The people who might have been able to change Iraq—the educated, the artists, the moderates—began leaving in 1990, mostly illegally, after the embargo was imposed and their comfortable lifestyles came to an end.

In 2003, Saddam Hussein fell and the floodgates opened up, with even more leaving the country for good at a time when they were most needed. Until that year, I was barred from traveling along with other pharmacists, doctors, and certain professionals.

I wanted to leave, but what would I do? Where would I go? Only a handful of countries even allowed travel on an Iraqi passport. My parents and siblings fled to Syria, and later to Jordan. I stayed in Baghdad.

With my friends and family gone, I felt very isolated and alone. It also became unsafe to move around—even to do simple things like go to a restaurant or to the market.

In 2009, I managed to come to the U.S. as a refugee, and I was happy to leave Iraq behind. But even though I’d given up on my country, I had hope that things would not get as bad as they have today. It is my worst nightmare that an extremist group like the Islamic State has support in Iraq and, though it pains me to say this, the aftermath of the U.S. invasions has brought us to this point.

I despised Saddam, but I don’t think an extremist group like the Islamic State would exist under his rule. Even if Saddam had gone crazy and killed a bunch of people, it wouldn’t be anywhere near the number of people who have died since he was overthrown. I see a civil war coming, and an Iraq divided into states.

So as I read the news on CNN Arabic and the BBC while pacing around the house, I feel as if I’m experiencing a death in the family. I’m going through the stages of grief—denial, anger, depression. Lately, I’ve even tried to avoid reading the news at all.

Sometimes, I watch old YouTube videos that show the way Iraq used to be. The Iraq I loved and was proud of—the country I lived in before 1990—doesn’t exist anymore. And I don’t see that changing in my lifetime.

Saif Al-Azzawi lives in Los Angeles. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Iraq

Iraq’s Battleground Dams Are Key to Saving the Country from ISIS

Tribal fighters seen during a battle with ISIS militants, in Haditha, Iraq, Aug. 25, 2014.
Tribal fighters seen during a battle with ISIS militants, in Haditha, Iraq, Aug. 25, 2014. Osama Al-Dulaimi—Reuters

U.S. airstrikes prevent ISIS from seizing control of Iraq's water supply—but now the Kurds control a major dam, complicating Iraqi politics

When militants in Iraq made their recent assault on Haditha Dam, it pushed the U.S. to strike in this part of western Iraq for the first time since August. The Iraqi national army and allied Shi’ite militia have been battling the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) for months in Anbar province, but until yesterday, Washington had shied away.

“The potential loss of control of the dam or a catastrophic failure of the dam—and the flooding that might result— would have threatened U.S. personnel and facilities in and around Baghdad, as well as thousands of Iraqi citizens,” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said in statement Sunday, justifying strikes which seem to fall just outside of the American mission’s mandate.

The facility, wedged in the Euphrates River, is the country’s second-largest dam, and along with its big brother the Mosul Dam, on the Tigris River, it has been a strategic target of the expansionist Sunni militants. Over 95 percent of Iraq’s water comes from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, making it easy for anyone controlling those dams to put a stranglehold on the country’s water.

“If these dams—Mosul and Haditha— are outside of the control of the Iraqi state, it would be a national catastrophe,” says Shirouk al-Abayachi, a member of the Iraqi parliament and previously an adviser to the Ministry of Water Resources. “This is the ultimate danger.”

Given that ISIS’s stated goal is the end of the Iraqi state, to be replaced by a new, flourishing Islamic Caliphate, it’s no surprise that the terrorist group has focused on the country’s dams. The power to dry-out Baghdad and the Shi’ite farmlands south of the capital—along with the ability to provide water and the electricity produced by these facilities to their new subjects—could put ISIS in the driver’s seat.

“Military decision makers should take into consideration that these dams are the most important strategic locations in the country,” says al-Abayachi. “They should be very well protected because they affected everything—economy, agriculture, basic human needs and security.”

For all the talk that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was primarily about oil, even in the early days of the offensive, significant military resources were put into controlling water and electricity facilities. In fact, this weekend wasn’t the first time U.S. forces were employed to keep the Haditha Dam out of unwanted hands. In June 2003, the U.S. carried out air strikes near Haditha to allow collation forces to seize the facility from Saddam Hussein’s army. But while al-Qaeda—which essentially gave birth to ISIS—and other militant groups repeatedly targeted infrastructure in Iraq during the chaotic years that followed the invasion, none dared to attempt ISIS’s blatant grab for control of these resources.

From January to April this year ISIS used its control of the Fallujah Dam to flood adjacent lands, and cut water to south and central Iraq. But the impact was nothing compared to what the militants would be able to do with control of the Mosul or Haditha Dams.

However, ISIS may not be they only group that wants strategic control over the taps in Iraq. In February, as Baghdad halted transfer payments to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil, the Kurds shut off the water to Iraqi farmers from Kurdish-controlled dams.

“Let them endure a water shortage; that’s their problem,” Akram Ahmad Rasul, general director of dams and water storage in the KRG told the local news agency Rudaw of the farmers outside the Kurdish region.

Since then the stakes have been raised. Kurdish peshmerga fighters led the ground offensive to retake the Mosul Dam from ISIS, as Iraqi national forces had already proved they were incapable of holding the position. Now the Kurds control the dam, and amid the chaos in recent months, they have intensified their calls for complete independence from Baghdad. “If the Kurds keep control of the Mosul Dam…they will have about 80 percent of Iraq’s water, which is tremendous leverage for them,” says John Schnittker, who served as a U.S. advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture. “They will essentially have a vital lock on the water supply for central and southern Iraq. It just leaves the government of Iraq in a very weakened position in negotiating with the Kurds.”

While the U.S. strikes seem to be the only way to keep these facilities out of the hands of ISIS militants, Schnittker said the attacks may have effects not necessarily intended by Washington. “The Kurds are in a really strong position to leverage Baghdad,” says Schnittker. “And my real concern is that the U.S. would be kind of complicit in a Kurdish land and water grab.”

TIME Congress

Cruz Floats Bill to Revoke Citizenship of Americans Who Fight for ISIS

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, pauses as he addresses attendees at the 2014 Red State Gathering on Aug. 8, 2014, in Fort Worth, Texas.v
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, pauses as he addresses attendees at the 2014 Red State Gathering on Aug. 8, 2014, in Fort Worth, Texas. Tony Gutierrez—AP

As westerners traveling to fight with the group raise alarm

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) will introduce legislation Monday designed to strip U.S. citizenship from Americans who join Islamist militants in Syria and Iraq.

The new legislation, titled the Expatriate Terrorists Act, would change the conditions for stripping U.S. citizenship to include becoming a member of, fighting for, or providing “material assistance” to a “designated foreign terrorist organization” that the citizen has reason to believe will terrorize the United States. The militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has captured broad swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, has publicly beheaded Western journalists and has also attracted some western fighters to its side.

“Americans who choose to go to Syria or Iraq to fight with vicious ISIS terrorists are party to a terrorist organization committing horrific acts of violence, including beheading innocent American journalists who they have captured,” Cruz said in a statement. “There can be no clearer renunciation of their citizenship in the United States, and we need to do everything we can to preempt any attempt on their part to re-enter our country and carry out further attacks on American civilians.”

President Barack Obama has intensified U.S. airstrikes against the group’s fighters in Iraq and indicated Sunday that he thinks he has the executive authority to increase American military efforts against the group in Syria.

Obama will meet with top congressional leaders on Tuesday to discuss his options to counter ISIS, and will outline his plans to the public on Wednesday.

TIME Military

U.S. Strikes in Iraq Against Jihadists, Moving West Toward Syria

A Kurdish peshmerga fighter takes up position at the front line against the Islamic State, in Khazir
A Kurdish fighter primed for action against ISIS in the northern Iraq town of Khazir on Sunday. Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters

It looks increasingly like the U.S. will start attacking targets there

The U.S. military took a unilateral giant step toward bombing targets inside Syria over the weekend as it swung its crosshairs west and began bombing Islamic militants in the western Iraq province that borders Bashar al-Assad’s war-ravaged country.

President Obama said Sunday he will detail his plans for destroying the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in a speech to the nation Wednesday. “The next phase is now to start going on some offense,” he said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “And ultimately we’re going to defeat them.”

He made clear—twice—that international borders won’t hamper U.S. efforts. “We will hunt down [ISIS] members and assets wherever they are,” he said. “I will reserve the right to always protect the American people and go after folks who are trying to hurt us wherever they are.”

Wherever. That means only one thing: Syria is the next stop on the road to defeating the Islamic jihadists.

“You don’t want to give them sanctuary at all,” says Anthony Zinni, former chief of U.S. Central Command, which oversees the region. “You can’t have a Pakistan,” where U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan have been frustrated by enemy forces who could scoot across borders to escape U.S. attacks. “They’ll simply regroup inside Syria and then re-attack—that’s stupid” if allowed to happen, the retired Marine general says.

The nation’s top military officer has already said rooting out ISIS’s Syrian haven is required for success. “Can they be defeated without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria?” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Aug. 21. “The answer is ‘no’.”

The challenge of any U.S. military action in Syria is to hurt ISIS without helping the government of dictator Assad, whose civil war against several rebel groups, including ISIS, has killed nearly 200,000 people over three years. “We are supporting the Syrian moderate opposition,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Sunday in Tbilisi, Georgia.

The strikes launched Saturday and Sunday marked the first acknowledged time in a month-long U.S. bombing campaign of nearly 150 strikes against ISIS that U.S. munitions hit targets in western Iraq’s Anbar province. Prior American attacks had been limited to northern Iraq.

Like earlier strikes, the Pentagon justified the weekend’s action as part of Obama’s two-pronged ISIS effort to protect U.S. interests in Iraq and prevent humanitarian disasters against the Iraqi people. Earlier strikes were needed to defend the Mosul dam from an ISIS takeover, the Pentagon said, due to fear that the militants might sabotage it and send a 60-foot cascade of water down the Tigris River, threatening residents of Mosul.

The U.S. military used a similar justification for the weekend’s strikes on ISIS units near Anwar’s Haditha dam on the Euphrates River. “The potential loss of control of the dam or a catastrophic failure of the dam—and the flooding that might result—would have threatened U.S. personnel and facilities in and around Baghdad, as well as thousands of Iraqi citizens,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement.

The attacks in Anbar—even if from the sky— mark a watershed return for the U.S. to the Sunni-dominated province where American forces fought several of the Iraq war’s most deadly battles before leaving the country nearly three years ago. It’s a tacit acknowledgement that the U.S. withdrawal—aided and abetted by a recalcitrant Iraqi government—was premature.

The Anbar action comes nine months after ISIS forces took control of Fallujah, one of its main cities and the site of some of the 2003-2011 war’s bloodiest battles between U.S. forces and Iraqi insurgents. Some U.S. military officers believe Washington should have begun stepped-up military action back then.

Military experts are divided on how well the Obama Administration has handled the ISIS threat. Lawrence Korb, a former assistant defense secretary in the Reagan Administration, praises the President’s methodical approach. “You make it clear we’re going to get these guys,” says Korb, now with the Center for American Progress think tank, “just like we got [Osama] bin Laden.”

Others suggest partisanship at home has hobbled the U.S. effort to deal with ISIS. “Our nation is suffering this current distraction because of our inability to reach a consensus on how to deal with the crisis in Syria over a year ago,” says Jerry Hendrix, a naval flight officer who went on to serve as the Navy’s top historian before retiring from the service as a captain two months ago. Hendrix, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, blames “the hyper-partisan atmosphere and the continuous election campaign we find ourselves in” for the delay.

For his part, Zinni finds what he sees as Obama’s foot-dragging distressing. “The President’s job is not to put his finger up and test the political winds,” he says. “It’s to make a decision based on threats to our people and interests, and then explain to the American people why he’s doing it.”

Obama gets his chance Wednesday, the eve of the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

TIME Iraq

U.S. Launches New Air Strikes in Iraq to Protect Dams

The U.S. has conducted 138 airstrikes in Iraq so far

Updated 10:31 a.m.

The U.S. launched a series of airstrikes against Islamic militants in western Iraq this weekend to protect vital dams, the Pentagon said. The new airstrikes targeted fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) operating near western Iraq’s Haditha Dam and Mosul Dam.

“At the request of the Government of Iraq, the U.S. military today conducted coordinated airstrikes against [ISIS] terrorists in the vicinity of the Haditha Dam in Anbar province,” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said in a statement. “We conducted these strikes to prevent terrorists from further threatening the security of the dam, which remains under control of Iraqi Security Forces, with support from Sunni tribes.”

National Security Council Spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said the Haditha strikes were carried out “at the direction of the President and in coordination with the Government of Iraq.”

The Pentagon said in a separate statement that “additionally, an attack aircraft conducted one airstrike against ISIL near Mosul Dam on Saturday in support of Iraqi security forces protecting Mosul Dam.” The U.S. had previously carried out airstrikes to protect the Mosul Dam, but the operations near the Haditha Dam were new.

The Pentagon said it ordered the strikes to protect U.S. personnel and support Iraqi security forces. “We will continue to conduct operations as needed in support of the Iraqi Security Forces and the Sunni tribes, working with those forces securing Haditha Dam,” Kirby said.

This weekend’s strikes brings the total number of recent U.S. bombings in Iraq to 138.

TIME isis

How ISIS Is Recruiting Women From Around the World

Mideast Syria Rebel Attrition
Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria marching in Raqqa, Syria, on Jan. 14, 2014 AP

How the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria recruits female converts, and why

Even as the world expressed its horror at the beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by the radical militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), there were those who exulted on social media. Self-proclaimed Western jihadists and ISIS supporters in Syria, these people proclaimed victory and promised more killings to come. “I wish I did it,” noted one on a Tumblr blog. Another asked for links to any videos of Foley’s execution and cackled, in a slang-filled Twitter post, that the “UK must b shaking up ha ha.”

They were both women. The Twitter personality, Khadijah Dare, whose handle Muhajirah fi Sham means “female immigrant to Syria,” declared her desire to replicate the execution: “I wna b da 1st UK woman 2 kill a UK or US terorrist!” Her statement may be pure jingoism, but as ISIS attracts more female adherents, the likelihood of seeing a woman brandishing a knife in the terrorist group’s name only increases.

Women have always played a role in war, if not in actual combat then in the vital areas of intelligence gathering, medical care, food preparation and support. ISIS’s vicious campaign to carve out a state ruled by a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law is no different, though its strict laws prohibiting mixing between genders has limited women’s presence on the front lines. Instead, women are drawn — or recruited — into vital support roles through effective social-media campaigns that promise devout jihadist husbands, a home in a true Islamic state and the opportunity to devote their lives to their religion and their God.

The exact number of women who have joined jihadist groups in Syria is impossible to ascertain, but terrorism analysts at London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation estimate there are some 30 European women in Iraq and Syria who either accompanied their jihadist husbands or have gone with the intention to marry members of ISIS and other militant groups. That may be less than 10% of the number of Western men currently estimated to be fighting in Syria and Iraq, but the fear is that the number of women involved may grow more quickly. A recently established French hotline for reporting signs of jihadist radicalization has seen 45% of its inquiries involve women, according to the Interior Ministry, and there have been several cases of women, one as young as 16, arrested at France’s airports under suspicion of trying to travel Syria to join Islamist rebels.

Two Austrian girls, ages 15 and 16, went to Syria in April, and in May, 16-year-old British twin sisters followed their older brother to Syria so they could marry jihadists, according to Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper. Nineteen-year-old American convert to Islam Shannon Maureen Conley was arrested by the FBI in April as she prepared to fly to Turkey with Syria as her ultimate destination. She has been charged with conspiring to help a foreign terrorist organization. At least one Canadian woman and two teenage Somalis from Norway are known to have joined jihadist groups in Syria as well. Most of the women are drawn to ISIS, which actively seeks out Western recruits as part of its strategy to expand internationally.

At the beginning, ISIS actively discouraged women from joining. Members active on social media urged their female followers to support jihad with fundraising and by asking their menfolk to join the fight. Women had no place in war, they said. But as the group came closer to its goal of establishing an Islamic state, exceptions were made. Women are necessary for a state to function, says Shiraz Maher of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation. Calls went out for female doctors, nurses and engineers. When ISIS took over the Syrian city of Raqqa in 2013, it required a female security force to ensure that local women complied with Islamic laws of dress and conduct. It needed female police to check women passing through checkpoints, in case they were carrying arms for the opposition. Most of all, the Islamic State needed families to grow.

ISIS’s social-media campaign to recruit women isn’t nearly as developed as the one that calls for fighters, but it doesn’t have to be. Western women inspired by fighters’ postings can find like-minded women among the followers, and build a community. From there they easily find the Twitter pages and Tumblr accounts of women who have already made it to Syria — women like al-Khanssa, whose Tumblr photo blog is full of guidance for would-be female jihadists. She offers advice on what to bring (warm clothes, a hair dryer) and what not to bring (coffee and tea — easy to find) interspersed with Quranic verses, religious instructions culled from Islamic websites and photos of Osama bin Laden’s mentor, Abdullah Azzam.

Umm Layth, another Westerner in Syria with a large social-media following, tells her followers that the most difficult part about joining the fight is opposition from family back home. “The first phone call you make once you cross the borders is one of the most difficult things you will ever have to do … when you hear them sob and beg like crazy on the phone for you to come back it’s so hard,” she writes on her Tumblr blog. British authorities believe that she is 20-year-old Aqsa Mahmood, who was reported missing from her Glasgow home by her family in November.

But for any woman who thinks coming to Syria and joining ISIS might bring new opportunities or equal rights, al-Khanssa is clear. “The main role of the muhajirah [female migrant] here is to support her husband and his jihad and [God willing] to increase this ummah [Islamic community].” She follows with a quote culled from a Salafist website: “The best of women are those who do not see the men, and who are not seen by men.” ISIS’s recruitment may take place with 21st century technology, but when it comes to women, its ethos is firmly ground in the seventh.

TIME Terrorism

Why Westerners Are Fighting for ISIS

A growing number of Westerners are joining the Islamist militant group— but why?

The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is gaining notoriety for its barbaric methods, after videos showing beheadings and mass killings surfaced online.

Meanwhile, the group has been attracting an increasing number of foreign fighters from the West, analysts say. But why are so many foreigners joining ISIS’s fighting ranks? Among a range of explanations, one of them is that, compared with other jihadist groups like al-Qaeda, ISIS is extremely welcoming to foreigners, says Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma.

“The biggest reason for that is that ISIS philosophically has welcomed all Muslims as equals, as it’s building an Islamic state which does not have particular Syrian angle,” Landis says. “Also, ISIS’s leadership is made of people with very prominent roles that are foreigners so you’re not going to be discriminated against philosophically if you’re foreign.”

Social media also plays a significant role.

While in the past jihadist groups operated in secretive online forums, ISIS spreads its message — both in English and Arabic — on Twitter and Facebook, which are inherently open to the public. With its sleekly produced propaganda videos, ISIS reaches young, restless Muslims or other devotees around the world with a cause that they see is worth fight for, experts say.

“For many people who are lacking a strong sense of identity and purpose, their violent radical global narrative provides easy answers and solutions: it can be very powerful message for people who are looking for answers,” says Matthew Levitt, the director of counterterrorism and intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Their online material shows capturing territory, establishing states, beheading enemies: they show that they are the sexiest jihadi group on the block.”

The U.S. State Department estimates that about 12,000 foreigners have traveled to Syria from at least 50 different countries to fight with a number of different groups, including ISIS. Marie Harf, a deputy spokeswoman for the State Department, told CNN that officials estimate the number of Americans fighting with Syrian-based groups ranges from several dozen to 100.

For more on ISIS’ recruiting techniques, watch the video above with TIME editor Matt McAllester.

TIME foreign affairs

ISIS Is Not Just Un-Islamic, It Is Anti-Islamic

ISIS Militants Raqqa Syria
Militant Islamist fighters take part in a military parade along the streets of the northern Raqqa province in Syria, June 30, 2014. Reuters

If we want to stop ISIS, we must deny it any claim to represent Islam and starve it of the fuel of injustice

Despite misappropriating and misusing the name “Islamic State,” ISIS is little more than a criminal gang that attaches itself like a leech to revered symbols of Islam. It exploits counterproductive Western policies driving desperate people into its fold and uses injustices in the Muslim world as a smokescreen to cover its own cruelty.

When ISIS uses the Islamic declaration of faith, the Shahada, and the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) seal on its flag, it quite literally – and falsely – claims to uphold the banner of Islam. When ISIS says it is establishing a “Caliphate,” an historic term that resonates with Muslims worldwide, it does so to fool those who have experienced nothing but injustice and oppression into believing past glories will be restored.

Unfortunately, the media, political analysts and public officials – really all of us – are unwilling participants in ISIS’s public relations branding campaign.

Every time we refer to ISIS as the “Islamic State,” call its members “jihadists” or in any way grant it the religious legitimacy that it so desperately seeks, we simultaneously boost its brand, tarnish the image of Islam and further marginalize the vast majority of Muslims who are disgusted by the group’s un-Islamic actions.

Islam prohibits the extremism exhibited by ISIS. An essential part of the faith is moderation.

As the Quran, Islam’s foundational text, states clearly: “We made you to be a community of the middle way, so that (with the example of your lives) you might bear witness to the truth before all mankind.” (Quran, 2:143)

The Quran also states: “O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for God can best protect both.” (Quran, 4:35)

Literally, jihad means to struggle, strive and exert effort. It is a central and broad Islamic concept that includes struggle against evil inclinations within oneself, struggle to improve the quality of life in society, struggle in the battlefield for self-defense (e.g., having a standing army for national defense), or fighting against tyranny or oppression.

While Islam allows legitimate self defense, it prohibits the killing of non-combatants, even in times of war or conflict. Aggression is never permitted. “And fight in the cause of God those who fight against you, and do not commit aggression. Indeed God does not love those who are aggressors,” (The Quran, 2:190).

Extremist Muslims who commit crimes like those carried out by ISIS should be called criminals. We must not legitimize their actions by calling them jihadists.

The American Muslim community and Muslim scholars around the world have repudiated and rejected ISIS’s twisted ideology, calling it not just un-Islamic, but “anti-Islamic.”

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the “Muslim U.N.,” said ISIS has “nothing to do with Islam,” and has committed crimes “that cannot be tolerated.”

Along with denying ISIS religious legitimacy and severing its links to revered Islamic symbols and terms, we can deny it a smokescreen for its injustices and stop driving suffering people into its arms by changing our own policies.

There would be no ISIS in Syria if we had fully supported the struggle for freedom in that nation since 2011. It was only the political vacuum created by our lack of support for the mainstream opposition to the brutal Syrian regime, and the resulting slaughter of more than 200,000 people and the displacement of millions more, which gave ISIS space to form and grow.

We need to support the mainstream Syrian political and military opposition seeking freedom and democracy. A free and democratic Syria and region is the long-term guarantee for the defeat and marginalization of groups like ISIS.

We also need to support democracy and human rights in Iraq, Egypt, and throughout the region. The fanaticism and barbarism of ISIS and other terror groups is fueled by the brutal repression of dictatorships that are sadly often supported by the United States. Religious fanaticism and political oppression are mirror images of each other and lead to the same bloody results.

ISIS was only able to penetrate Iraq because we for too long backed a government that completely marginalized the Sunni Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities. Iraqis who faced being shot at a government checkpoint for being a member of the “wrong” sect found out too late that ISIS was a worse alternative.

If we want to stop ISIS, we must deny it any claim to represent Islam and starve it of the fuel of injustice.

It is up to our political leaders to take the lead through a comprehensive international strategy, not in the number of bombs that can be dropped, but in the establishment of the freedom and justice that will spell the end for ISIS and its ilk.​

Nihad Awad is national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization.

TIME Iraq

U.S. Forms Anti-ISIS Coalition at NATO Summit

Petro Poroshenko, John Kerry
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, third right, meets with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, second left, on the sidelines of the NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. Virginia Mayo—AP

Secretary of State John Kerry urged France, UK, and others to support the fight against the Islamist group in Iraq

Updated 8:43 a.m.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry got diplomats from 10 countries at a NATO summit to agree Friday to join forces to fight an Islamic militant group that has seized territory across Syria and Iraq.

Seated alongside U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Kerry pressed representatives from the UK, France, Australia, Germany, Canada, Turkey, Italy, Poland and Denmark to lend military and financial support the fight against the Islamic State of Greater Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The NATO allies agreed to support anti-ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria via supplies and air support, according to a joint statement statement from Kerry and Hagel.

“This morning we had a meeting with some of our key allies and partners on the serious threat that [ISIS] poses to Iraq, the entire region, and the international community,” reads the statement. “We and the Ministers agreed here today that there is no time to waste in building a broad international coalition to degrade and, ultimately, to destroy the threat posed by [ISIS].”

Kerry’s call to arms echoed an op-ed the Secretary of State published last week, in which he called on the global community to unite against ISIS. U.S. airstrikes launched against the group have played a key role in allowing Kurdish and Iraqi forces to stall and push back against the militants’ advance.

“We have the technology, we have the know-how,” Kerry said. “What we need is obviously the willpower to make sure that we are steady and stay at this.”

Kerry said the countries present at the NATO summit need to form a coalition and come up with a plan by the time the United Nations Security Council convenes in two weeks.

“We need to have this coalesce,” he said.

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