A brutal armed group seized control of parts of Iraq last week. Who are they? And will it lead to the break-up of the country? Simon Wilson reports.
What is Isis?
Isis is the world’s most extreme, brutal and currently successful group of Sunni jihadist militants, whose very name – the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham – points to its self-confidence and ambition.
Unlike al-Qaeda, which has no explicit territorial ambitions, Isis’s aim is to create a vast Sunni caliphate: the ‘al-Sham’ part of the name is a historically loaded term that can mean simply ‘the Levant’, but in this context means ‘Greater Syria’ – a term encompassing the lands as far south as northern Arabia and the Sinai, as far north as southern Turkey, and as far east as Kuwait and western Iran.
Is it succeeding?
For a group that numbers no more than 10,000-15,000 fighters, Isis has made astonishing progress. After sweeping through central Iraq last week, it now controls territory from the eastern edge of Aleppo (in northern Syria) to Fallujah, Mosul and Tikrit (in Iraq).
The group appears extremely well organised, led by an Iraqi known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who is a fighter and tactician rather than a theological scholar – and with the cool confidence to publish a corporate-style “annual report” online detailing its terrorist activities.
In 2013, it claimed nearly 10,000 operations in Iraq, including 1,000 assassinations, 4,000 improvised explosive devices planted and hundreds of radical prisoners freed.
Is it part of al-Qaeda?
No. Although Isis is often described as being an “al-Qaeda splinter group”, its relationship to al-Qaeda has always been loose and contested. Isis’s original incarnation, Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, or the Organisation of Monotheism and Jihad, emerged in Iraq as a reaction to the US-led invasion of 2003.
Following a series of mergers, it adopted the name Islamic State of Iraq in 2006. Then in April 2013, after the group expanded in Syria, it adopted the name Isis.
Right from the start, however, two features of Isis have been constant: its extreme brutality and its strategy of terrorising Shia civilian populations in order to provoke a wider Muslim civil war that would enable the emergence of a transnational Sunni caliphate.
Why the schism?
The schism dates back to the seventh-century dispute over Mohammed’s legacy: Sunni simply means those who adhere to the Sunnah, the sayings of the Prophet, whereas Shia is a contraction of “shiat Ali” – the friends and followers of Ali, Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law.
The key practical difference, however, is that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims are Sunni (about 89%): Shia are seen by Sunni extremists such as Isis as worse than infidels or apostates, and their history has been one of persecution and defeat.
However, there are two big countries where Shia are in the majority: Iraq and Iran. A key moment in the modern history of the schism was the Islamic revolution of 1979 in Iran – and the establishment of a powerful, Islamist, Shia state (93% of Iranians are Shia).
Why was that crucial?
Because from the 1980s onwards, Shia minorities had the support of a powerful sponsor, matching the support funnelled to Sunni groups from the likes of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait. Iran has been the backer of the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah since the 1980s and continues to back Bashar al-Assad in Syria, a Sunni majority country ruled by a Shia elite.
Iraq, by contrast, is a Shia majority country (67%), which was ruled for decades by a Baathist dictatorship led by Sunnis (although Baathism is not itself a Sunni project: it’s a pan-Arabist form of national socialism).
After the ousting of Saddam Hussein in 2003 in a US-led invasion, sectarian tensions worsened, peaking in 2006/2007, as the now-dominant Shia rulers failed to created a stable polity – and emerging groups such as the forerunners of Isis exploited the power vacuum.
Will Iraq break up?
It’s possible. Backed by Iran, the government of Nouri al-Maliki is preparing to do everything possible to defend Baghdad, and the Shia holy sites of Najaf and Karbala. In the north the Kurds are gaining ever more autonomy, and their future may well include a state of their own, encompassing Kirkuk and the northern oilfields.
Isis could conceivably carve out a Sunni space somewhere between the two, including much of central Iraq’s oil fields. On the other hand, Isis remains a tiny force compared to the 250,000-strong Iraqi army (however incompetent and corrupt).
And Iraq’s neighbours – both Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, its great rival for regional hegemony – have nothing to gain from having a failed state on their doorstep.
How is Isis funded?
A mixture of private donations, extortion, “taxing” areas under its control, kidnappings and theft. Days before Mosul fell to Isis, Iraqi forces captured more than 160 USB sticks providing details of the group’s operations and finances.
Before Mosul, total Isis cash and assets came to $875m. It is thought to have received cash flows from the oilfields of eastern Syria, and from selling raw materials and plundered antiquities. But the seizure of Mosul – including raids on banks and seizures of ex-US military equipment from the Iraqi army – may have increased its assets to $2bn.
But the geopolitical elephant in the room is the question of how much support Isis is getting from individuals in Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Gulf states.