Daesh, who call themselves ISIS/ISIL, are known as the world’s most-feared terrorist organisation. But how did they come into existence? And how did they get so powerful? To help us understand we need to go back to the United States invasion of Iraq. “American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger.” said George W. Bush.
But did the coalition invasion of Iraq actually make the world a safer place? In March 2003, the Americans topple Saddam Hussein, removing the Baath party from power. That leaves Baathist soldiers and political operatives out of work and out of power. Saddam’s government was led mostly by Sunni muslims who are the minority in the Shia-dominated country. United States of America forms a transition government in Iraq, installing mostly Shia leaders.
This leaves Sunni muslims feeling marginalised. With Saddam’s government dissolved, violent terrorist groups began to move into the vacuum. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant travels from Afghanistan to Iraq via Iran to join the intensifying insurgency. Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, sees the chaos in Iraq as an opportunity to expand and appoints Zarqawi as his group’s representative in Iraq.
And so, Al Qaeda in Iraq, otherwise known as AQI, is born and goes on to become the leading Sunni insurgent group in the country. AQI launch a campaign of suicide bombings in order to foment sectarian hatred. They target the US and Iraqi armies and step up attacks, further inflaming sectarian violence in the country and exacerbating a civil war that leaves hundreds of thousands dead.
Zarqawi wants to prevent the formation of a Shia-dominated government and establish Al Qaeda’s presence in Iraq but Al Qaeda’s own leadership disapproves of Zarqawi’s brutality, fearing public backlash and a loss of support. Zarqawi ignores them. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Iraqi extremist who will eventually become the leader of Daesh is held by the coalition at the Camp Bucca detention facility. In fact it is inside US-operated prisons that he networks with former Baathists and other opponents of the occupation, many of whom will go on to become senior ISIS/ISIL members.
Now, back to Al Qaeda in Iraq. It suffers a major blow in 2006, when Zarqawi is killed by a United States air strike but this does not stop them. Instead, they join forces with other Iraqi militants who are aligned to their interests, including former Baath party hardliners. This kicks off their process of rebranding as ISIS — the Islamic State in Iraq. Throughout this period the Assad regime in Syria allows AQI to transfer terrorists and weaponry through their territory into Iraq to fight against coalition forces, and this continues until 2009.
Meanwhile, the United States of America allies with local Sunni muslim leaders who see a partnership with the United States of America as a way to gain political, economic, and social capital. This alliance leads to a military strategy called ‘The Awakening‘ (al-Sahwa). The Awakening is a joint operation between local Sunni muslim groups and the coalition. It leads to major defeats for AQI, a decrease in violence across the country and eventually forces AQI to go underground. Now remember that “After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over.” said, Barack Obama.
As United States of America forces begin their withdrawal, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki starts to exert more control over the Iraqi armed forces. He begins empowering sectarian Shia militias aligned to Iran. Sectarian violence continues to plague the country and by 2013 the death toll returns to pre-awakening levels. Al Qaeda, who had previously lost strategic power in the country following the Awakening, begins regrouping. The group’s new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, appointed in 2010 increases membership and support for the group. This is due in part to a backlash triggered by Maliki’s increasingly sectarian administration.
By this point, the Arab Spring is making waves throughout the region and neighbouring Syria is facing a civilian uprising against ruling leader Bashar al Assad. Syria is becoming more chaotic and destabilised creating the perfect opportunity for Al Qaeda to expand and dispatch operatives into Syria. This swells their numbers and further empowers them. Bashar al Assad uses increasingly brutal methods to suppress the democratic uprising focusing his forces on imprisoning and murdering civilian activists. Assad, whose regime had a pre-existing relationship with AQI releases violent extremists from detention facilities in order to paint the uprising in a sectarian light. Some of these prisoners will later go on to join ISIS/ISIL.
In 2013, AQI announces it is taking control of all Al Qaeda branches and affiliates in Iraq and Syria. It rebrands itself the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (al-Sham) and also known as ISIS, but on the Arab streets they are called Daesh. Al Qaeda central command rejects this power grab deepening the rift between the two groups. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s ISIS breaks off ties with Al Qaeda and begins seizing control of swathes of territory.
In Syria, bolstered by thousands of new foreign volunteers, they start attacking. Syrian rebel groups and taking control of previously liberated areas. The group moves their capital to the Syrian city of al-Raqqa. In Iraq the group makes sweeping gains. They take control of Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul in its entirety as the Iraqi army’s control in the region disintegrates. Baghdadi makes his first public appearance, leading prayers in a mosque in Mosul and announcing himself caliph of the self-proclaimed Daesh ‘Caliphate‘. Reviled by the group’s brutal campaign of murder, rape, and oppression.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s claimed Caliphate is rejected by the vast majority of Muslims worldwide with Muslim countries signing up to join the global anti-Daesh coalition. Vowing to defeat ISIS/Daesh, the United States-led coalition declares war on the group and begins airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. Nearly three years on, as international forces close in on Mosul. ISIS’s aspirations of statehood appear to be waning. Multiple military operations have weakened the group and they have lost significant territory in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. In response, it has increased its wave of violent terrorist attacks in Europe and across the world.