Aug 26th 2014
IT HAS been a busy two months for the Islamic State (IS), the vicious Sunni Muslim extremist group that operates in Syria and Iraq. On June 29th, a fortnight after taking over Mosul, Iraq’s second city, it declared a caliphate, claiming to speak for the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. It then battled its way towards Baghdad where the Shia-dominated government sits. At the start of August, IS turned north towards Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region and towns home to minorities on the way, attacking Christians, Yazidis and fellow Sunnis, and threatening to reach Erbil, the Kurdish capital. That led Barack Obama, America’s president, to authorise airstrikes against the group which began on August 8th. Meanwhile, in neighbouring Syria, IS has also been expanding westwards.
The Islamic State, known previously as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, ISIS or ISIL, grew out of remnants of the Islamic State in Iraq, a brutal group that led attacks against the American-led coalition forces after the 2003 invasion. By 2011, when the Americans withdrew, the group had been weakened by the Sahwa—Sunni groups paid to fight them—and targeted assassinations of their leaders. But the remaining fighters continued to extort money in Mosul and carry out attacks in Iraq. The vacuum created by Syria’s civil war from 2011 was a big boon, allowing surviving members to regroup and recruit next door. With headquarters in Raqqa, in eastern Syria, and extortion rackets in Mosul, it grew in power. Thanks to disgruntled Sunnis in Iraq willing to ally with IS (after being excluded by the government in Baghdad) and a brittle Iraqi security force that fled in the face of the assault, IS, by now composed of thousands of men, including many foreign fighters, managed to grab swathes of territory in Iraq.
So how is IS faring today? Although IS’s brutal ideology is rejected by most Muslims who see them as criminals, fighters have flocked to the group since June—6,000 in Syria alone by some estimates. IS has grabbed oil fields, army bases and more weaponry (including American goodies in Iraq). Although American airstrikes have pushed it back in northern areas from Mount Sinjar and Mosul Dam, Iraq’s largest, Barack Obama has made clear that he is not planning to try to rout the group. To rout IS, Iraq’s Sunnis must turn against it. In Syria, there is almost no check on IS’s actions. Although Syria’s regime of Bashar Assad has belatedly started to carry out strikes against the group, Syria rebels who have battled with IS since January find they are no match for the group. On August 24th IS took Tabaqa air base from the regime after a week of seizing a string of rebel-held villages near Aleppo.
Jihadist groups normally tend to prove bad at governance, lose civilian support and falter in their most ambitious aims, such as state building. But the rise of extreme Islamist ideology and the multiple vacuums in the Arab world allow such groups to survive at least well enough to makes a nuisance of themselves, including Yemen’s al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and jihadists in Mali. Western officials describe IS as stronger and more sophisticated than all of these, amounting in some estimations to the biggest security threat facing the region since 9/11. Syria’s war has no end in sight; Iraq remains in a mess. So even in the best-case scenario IS is likely to be active for generations to come. And the problem is not just for Syria, Iraq and its neighbours. With thousands of foreign fighters from across the world who may return home as radicalised rebels, many countries are at risk.