Yale Press Blog: 'Inside the World of ISIS — The Arab Taliban'

Inside the World of ISIS—The Arab Taliban
 Yale University Press, December 11, 2014
By Hassan Abbas

During my recent travels to Iraq, I heard first hand stories about the genesis and rise of Islamic State of Iraq & Syria (ISIS), also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh (al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham). The rapid expansion of this deadly militant group over a significant chunk of Iraq materialized through sheer brutality, oppression, and tyranny. A large section of the Syria-Iraq border region has evaporated in the process enabling collaboration and synergy among battle hardened militants from the Syrian warzone—an incubator for the new generation of terrorists. These militants are made up of Salafi strategists; foot soldiers from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Jordan (financed largely by wealthy donors in Qatar, Kuwait & Saudi Arabia); and fighters belonging to Zarqawi inspired “Al-Qaeda in Iraq.” In the case of Iraq, old Baathists (who are careful to wear masks during ISIS parades) also jumped in the fray in hopes of reclaiming at least some part of their lost power and prestige. Credible media reports maintain that militants from over 80 countries— including Western states—are represented in the conflict theatre. Leading this dynamic and diverse bunch of thugs is Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the mysterious leader of ISIS, who is the self-proclaimed “Caliph” of this so-called “Islamic State”—a fluid state at best which, in reality, is a professionally guarded and well equipped sanctuary of terror. Massacring Muslims and non-Muslims alike and beheading any Westerners that they can get their hands on are the trademarks of ISIS.

The idea of ISIS is neither new nor unique. Their tactics are modern but their ideology borrows from an extremist strain within the Muslim discourse. In more ways than one, the group is a byproduct of modern Muslim Wars. This includes internal conflicts as well as violent regional rivalries ranging from Iran versus Saudi Arabia to the Israel-Palestine clash. Many observers in the Middle East I talked to also blame the Western powers for their unconditional support and arming of “rebels” in Syria who ultimately grew into ISIS.

Shia versus Sunni is yet another lens through which this crisis is being viewed, but an astute Iraqi-American scholar told me that within Iraq many Shia political leaders view the ISIS onslaught primarily as a Sunni versus Sunni encounter inspired by regional oil politics. Turkish over-enthusiasm to expand its regional influence muddied the waters too.

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