ISIS: An Introduction and Guide to the Islamic State (2016)
Dates: 750–1258 CE (sometimes extended from 1261–1517 CE as ruled under the Mameluke Sultanate of Cairo)
What is important? The Abbassid Caliphate was the second dynastic caliphate in Islamic history following the Umayyad dynasty. The Umayya ruled from Damascus, Syria. The Abbasids ruled mostly from Iraq with the first capital in Kufa (750–762). The Abbasid rulers constructed the city of Baghdad to be their capital. At one point, the empire was ruled from Raqqa, Syria. The Abbasids claimed their lineage back to Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib who was an uncle of the Prophet Mohamed. Their claims in opposition to the Umayya included that the Umayya clan usurped the authority of the family of the prophet and that they also ruled impiously.
The dynasty did not rule a consolidated empire for long. Initially the fragmentation was due to distance, the challenge of communication, and the ability for local rulers to withhold resources from a distant central authority. Even when the empire was centrally controlled, it was a loose form of control. In the 10th century, Turkic tribes swept into the imperial lands and began to exert local authority. Many of the Turcoman sultans gave, at least, verbal obedience to the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad (or other capitals) though they typically governed in a semiautonomous fashion. The end date given previously coincides with the Mongol sack of Baghdad, which was a deep scar on Muslim and Arab consciousness. Support of the Abbasid caliphs continued under the Mameluke Sultans as they ruled from Cairo until the conquest of the Ottoman Turks and the movement of the caliphate from Cairo to Constantinople.
Many consider the Golden Age of Islam to be during the Abbasid Caliphate and especially in the 9th and 10th centuries. During this time, much of ancient Greek thought was preserved through translation from Greek to Arabic. In addition, there were numerous mathematical and scientific theoretical and practical developments.
Why does it matter to ISIS? Every culture refers back to its Golden Age. The use of Raqqa, Syria, and the focus on attacks toward Baghdad are attempts on the part of ISIS to control the physical territory from which the greatest Islamic caliphate ruled.
al-Amiri, Hadi (هادي العامري)
Key Events in His Life: Current Iraqi political leader. He was opposed to Saddam Hussein and he fought with the Iranian Army against the Iraqi military in the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988) as part of the Badr Brigade. He later became the commander of the Badr Corps that was then the military wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a party closely aligned with Iran. His organization received training from the Iranian Revolution Guards Corps and the Quds force. He was opposed to the U.S. occupation of Iraq and was a staunch opponent of U.S. interests and long-term influence through the occupation. He was elected to the Iraqi Parliament in 2009 and designated as the minister of transportation in 2010.
Why does it matter? He works closely with Qasem Soleimani of the Iranian Quds Force and he is one of the most prominent Iraqi figures in the anti-ISIS campaign. He leads the Badr Corps as one of the largest elements in the Popular Mobilization Forces.
al-Assad, Bashar Hafez (بشار حافظ الأسد)
Dates: September 11, 1965–Present
Key Events in His Life: He assumed office as the President of Syria following the death of his father in 2000. He is a graduate of Damascus University Medical School and later he completed postgraduate studies at the Western Eye Hospital in London where he specialized in ophthalmology. His wife is a UK citizen and he has three children. He was not expected to succeed to the leadership of Syria, but his older brother died in a car accident in 1994. His father ruled Syria for 30 years and established a powerful control of Alawite and secular leadership in the country. This organization and manner of government passed to Bashar.
Why does it matter? Leadership in Syria is a corporate form of rule. It is unclear just how much authority Bashar has and whether or not he can make unilateral decisions. His father was a dominating personality and many suggest that Bashar did not fill his father’s shoes as much as he inherited the position along with others close beside him. He is the international lightening rod for all of the problems in Syria and many call for his departure. It is unclear if he can simply depart or what his departure would do to the Syrian government establishment. Regardless of his personal position a collapse of the regime would certainly spell increased chaos as the Alawite communities have been tightly linked by the Assad family to the government. They will have to continue to fight as this is an existential struggle for them.
al-Baghdadi, Abu Abdullah al-Rashid (ابو عبدالله الراشد البغدادي)
Dates: Unknown–April 18, 2010
Abu Omar al-Qurashi al-Baghdadi
Hamid Dawud Mohamed Khalil al Zawi
Abu Hamza al-Baghdadi
Key Events in His Life: See “Leaders of ISIS” chapter.
Why does it matter? See “Leaders of ISIS” chapter.
al-Baghdadi, Abu Bakr
Dates: June 28, 1971 (near Samarra)–Present
Abu Du’a (أبو دعاء)
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Husseini al-Qurashi (أبو بكر البغدادي الحسيني الهاشمي القرشي)
Amir al-Mu’minin or Caliph Ibrahim (خَلِيفَةُ إِبْرَاهِيم)
Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri al-Samarrai (إبراهيم عواض إبراهيم علي محمد البدري السامرائي)
Key Events in His Life: See “Leaders of ISIS” chapter.
Why does it matter? See “Leaders of ISIS” chapter.
al-Maqdisi, Abu Muhammad
Dates: 1959 (Nablus, West Bank)–Present
Name: Aasim Muhammad Tahir al-Barqawi (عصام محمد طاهر البرقاوي)
Key Events in His Life: Leading Islamist thinker and writer. His family immigrated to Kuwait when he was a young boy and he later studied at the University of Mosul, Iraq. He traveled a great deal speaking with various religious leaders in the Arab-Muslim world as he developed his ideology. He developed a following after returning to Jordan in 1992; he was eventually arrested and imprisoned for his radical views. He was released and then arrested for planning attacks against American targets in Jordan. He was, however, acquitted because the Jordanian government had said there were no American forces in Jordan at the time he was to have allegedly planned the attacks. He was again arrested for his extreme views. He was released from prison most recently in June 2014. He advocated for the release of a British hostage from ISIS control on September 21, 2014.
Why does it matter? He is one of the most influential Islamist writers and speakers currently living. He shared part of his prison experience with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It is presumed that it was his thinking that shaped the thinking of al-Zarqawi into the man who would form the parent organization and ideology for ISIS. Al-Maqdisi was one of the first people to accuse the Saud family and regime of being apostate. This opened the door for others to so criticize most of the Arab-Muslim regimes.
al-Masri, Abu Ayyub
Dates: 1968–April 18, 2010
Name: Abu Hamza al-Muhajir (أبو حمزة المهاجر)
Key Events in His Life: See “Leaders of ISIS” chapter.
Why does it matter? See “Leaders of ISIS” chapter.
What is important? Al-Qaeda (القاعدة) means the base as in a base camp, a foundation, or a base as in baseball. The group that adopted this name was led by Osama bin Laden and also Abdullah Azzam. Abdullah provided the inspirational ideology and Osama provided the money and charisma. The group began in Pakistan/Afghanistan with the intent of fighting against the Soviet invaders of the country. Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the group ceased to function for some time. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the invitation made by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for western soldiers, primarily American, to enter the kingdom and defend it from possible attack from Iraq served as an irritant that grew over time when the Americans did not leave as promised. Al-Qaeda then became active with statements in 1996 and 1998 declaring war on the United States and its possessions and interests abroad. In short, the organization wanted to draw the United States into the Middle East by use of violence in order to weaken it economically and discredit it in the eyes of Muslims and the Muslim governments that look to the United States as a protector.
The attacks against the United States and Western interests began in 1998 with the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa. In 2000, a U.S. warship was attacked while docked in Aden, Yemen. The attacks on the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, were continuations of this intent to draw the United States into the region and then fatally weaken it. Al-Qaeda became a prime target for U.S. intelligence collection and targeting. This resulted in serious damage to the senior leadership and its ability to continue to mount spectacular attacks against major U.S. facilities and interests. As this was happening, al-Qaeda began to become a franchise operation with other groups taking on the mantle of al-Qaeda with designations for their location—in Morocco, the Arabian Peninsula, and Iraq.
In 2011, Osama bin Laden was found and killed by U.S. special operations forces. He was succeeded by Ayman al-Zawahiri as the leader of the organization.
Al-Qaeda has funded itself primarily through the personal wealth of Osama bin Laden and donations and thus it has always been beholden to the outside source of income for conducting operations. Since the death of bin Laden and really since the attacks against al-Qaeda in late 2001 the organization has struggled to control the global salafi-jihad in the manner it envisioned. It existed in Afghanistan because the Taliban protected it. It seems to continue to exist and provides some level of guidance to a variety of affiliates or franchises throughout the region and, to some degree, around the world. Otherwise it is not a major player in the fight—primarily because it has been effectively targeted and killed.
Why does it matter to ISIS? Al-Qaeda provided the ideological inspiration for ISIS. The idea of having a jihad that could succeed against the United States came through Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Without Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, there would probably not have been ISIS.
What is important? Al-Sham is a word that has multiple meanings. It can mean the specific city of Damascus, the greater Damascus area, the modern country and boundaries of Syria, or something called Greater Syria. This last area includes the modern states of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, most of Jordan, and portions of Turkey and Egypt. This is an Arabic phrase that dates back centuries.
Levant is derived from Latin and French words that mean rising. Literally, it is the place where the sun rises or the east. In Western academic circles, the Levant includes the same general region as given in the explanation of al-Sham previously. It is important to note that few Arabs use this phrase and if they do they typically only do so in an academic setting.
Both al-Sham and Levant are conceptual terms. There is no fixed border for either of the geographic designations and they do not represent a historic kingdom or geographic division. It is an area like referring to “the south” in the United States or “the West” in terms of culture.
Why does it matter to ISIS? ISIS uses the phrase al-Sham. It has never used Levant in its name. Few Arabs have ever used ISIL as a designation because it is not reflective of the Arabic acronym for the organization here referred to as ISIS.
al-Zarqawi, Abu Musab
Dates: October 20, 1966–June 7, 2006
Name: Ahmad Fadeel al-Nazal al-Khalayleh (أحمد فضيل النزال الخلايله)
Key Events in His Life: See “Leaders of ISIS” chapter.
Why does it matter? See “Leaders of ISIS” chapter.
Dates: June 15, 1951–Present
Name: Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri (أيمن محمد ربيع الظواهري)
Key Events in His Life: Current leader of al-Qaeda. Born in Cairo, Egypt, to a prosperous and well-educated family. He grew up as a studious youth who became a surgeon. He was also an Islamist and he joined the Muslim Brotherhood at age 14. He was one of the founding members of al-Jihad or Egyptian Islamic Jihad. He was arrested with hundreds of others in 1981 following the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. He was an active member of the organization inside Egypt and then abroad after fleeing the country. He is considered to be the instigator and maybe the mind behind the first Sunni suicide bombing. He met Osama bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam in Pakistan when they were part of a group called Maktab al-Khadamat (MAK) or Office of Services that was providing material support to the mujahidin in Afghanistan. It is suspected that Ayman al-Zawahiri was responsible for the assassination of Abdullah Azzam in 1989. Al-Zawahiri went on to develop a close coordinating relationship with Osama bin Laden, and in 1998, he merged the Egyptian Islamic Jihad into al-Qaeda. He became the second in command and was responsible for much of the group’s operational and strategic thought. He took over as the emir of al-Qaeda following the death of Osama bin Laden. He has continued that leadership to the present. He and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and each subsequent leader of the groups that became ISIS have had public disagreements over the direction and nature of the global Salafist jihad. He does not command the respect nor the military might to force compliance with his vision or directions. One of his lifelong goals was to place the Muslim Brotherhood in the leadership of Egypt. This was realized for a short time under the presidency of Mohamed Morsi (June 30, 2012–July 3, 2013).
Why does it matter? He is the leader of the originating group for global jihad against a superpower. He is in opposition to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph and he is presenting a different view of salafist-jihadi ideology that is currently seen as more amenable than ISIS with its harsh tone. His origins and background are important to remember. Although he may seem more reasonable than ISIS, he was an advocate for violent overthrow of Egyptian leaders and the use of suicide bombs to create an environment wherein political change becomes feasible.
What is important? The Assad family in Syria is Alawite. This is a religious subdivision of Islam. Alawites are a form of Shia Islam breaking away from the major sects in the ninth century. They have beliefs and practices adopted from Christianity and Judaism; these beliefs are labeled syncretistic because of the way in which they pull in these elements and add them to the previous Islamic tenets and practices. Alawites tend to be protective of their beliefs. For this reason, little has been known of them until the last decade or so. They are called Alawites because they are followers of Ali (Ali ibn Abi Talib), the first imam of Shia Islam and the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohamed. Because of the hidden nature of their beliefs and the perception of them as different, they were often viewed as heretics within Islam.
Alawites comprise about 12 percent of the population of Syria. The French occupation of Syria following the end of World War I brought an opportunity for Alawites to enter government service and created a short-lived Alawite state along the western coast and mountains of Syria. Although the state did not last long, this did bring the Alawites into the Syrian military where they continued to gain positions of authority until the coup de-tat that brought Hafez al-Assad to power in 1970. He then increased Alawite participation and power in the government, and both he and his son effectively linked Alawite survival with regime survival.
Why does it matter to ISIS? The linkages between Alawites serving in the Syrian military and government positions and the close ties between the regime and the Alawite community means that any collapse of the Syrian Assad regime will threaten the survival of the Alawites as people, thus opening up the possibility of genocide. As a result, 12 percent of the population is fighting the Syrian civil war to protect their right to exist.
Amir al-Mu’minin (Prince of the Faithful)
What is important? The title amir al-mu’minin is one that carries a lot of symbolic value. It is often translated as prince of the faithful because amir (or emir) is typically translated as prince. The word is derived from a root that means to command. Thus an amir is one who commands. In many cases, this phrase is translated commander of the faithful. This is a designation that has been used by nearly all of the caliphs throughout history, but it is also a title that has been used to designate particularly respected Islamic military or governing leaders. The leader of the Taliban, Mohamed Omar, used the title amir al-mu’minin though he never claimed to be, nor was he ever designated a caliph. That said, the designation is significant and means that the person holding the title is to be listened to and followed by the faithful.
Why does it matter to ISIS? Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is referred to as the amir al-mu’minin and he was also designated the caliph of Islam.
What is important? What is an Arab? There is no simple answer to this question. The term has a variety of meanings: one who speaks Arabic; one who lives in the Middle East; one from the Arabian Peninsula; one who is a Muslim; one who has a common “Arab” culture. There are other possibilities as well, but these capture the sense of difficulty in answering this question. In thinking about what makes a person of a particular group, a lot of preconceived notions and prejudices exist. For each one of these five answers to the question of “what is an Arab?” there are exceptions as well as significant issues. Language alone does not grant the full identity as there are many people in the Middle East who speak Arabic and do not consider themselves Arabs. The historic and most limited definition is that Arabs did come from the Arabian Peninsula, but that is no longer accurate as many other ethnicities live there. Muslims live across the globe and most Muslims are not Arabs. The largest Muslim countries by population—Indonesia, Pakistan, and India—are all non-Arab. The last response—one who has a common “Arab” culture—is probably the most accurate. In essence, Arabs are those people who speak like Arabs, act like Arabs, and think they are Arabs. This includes many peoples in the Middle East and North Africa. It includes Muslims and Christians. It includes people in a shifting set as there are those who will say in some circumstances that they are Arabs but in other times and places will identify themselves more with their nation, religion, etc. For the most part, this final answer is the one that this book applies when using the word “Arab.”
Why does it matter to ISIS? Despite the fact that many westerners equate Islamic jihadism with Arabs, ISIS does not sell itself by ethnicity. They are not Arabs though Arabs make up a significant portion of their leadership. They regularly advertise the international and broad ethnic sweep of their community of believers.
Dates: December 18, 2010–October 26, 2013
What is important? In the late fall of 2010, a green grocer in Tunis, Tunisia, was fed up with the oppression he felt from government officials and set himself ablaze in the street. This single act of self-immolation lit a fire that is still burning throughout the Middle East. Riots began in the capital and spread throughout Tunisia. The government leadership resigned and the president fled the country. News of the uprising in Tunisia sparked similar responses in other parts of the Middle East. By the spring of 2011, several countries were dealing with revolts and subsequent power shifts. Riots similarly overthrew the President of Egypt (January—February 11, 2011). As a result, open elections were established that brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power. Then there was a military coup followed by the establishment of a military dictator.
In Libya (February 15–October 23, 2011), riots led to violent suppression of the rioters, which in turn led to NATO and Arab League sanctions. A military adventure ensued that removed the Libyan President from power and ultimately led to his murder.
Bahrain (February 14–March 18, 2011) had riots as well. These led to a brutal government crackdown along with some minor government concessions and liberalization of some laws.
Likewise, Jordan made some minor political concessions in the face of mobs and riots.
Yemen also experienced a popular overthrow of the ruling president, which was then followed by an ongoing civil war.
For the purposes of this book, the most significant place affected by the so-called Arab Spring was Syria. The events in 2011 sparked a violent response from the government that escalated into a multiyear ongoing civil war with hundreds of thousands killed and millions displaced either internally or externally.
It is called the Arab Spring because it looked so positive in the spring of 2011. It looked like despotic rule was ending in the Middle East and that a peaceful and pleasant transition was set to happen. That changed and much of what came of the events in that spring have been negative for the residents of those countries, the region, and the world.
Why does it matter to ISIS? ISIS has risen to its current dimensions because of the Arab Spring in Syria and the chaos that followed. As ISIS has grown around the Middle East and North Africa, it is possible to see the Arab Spring as an opening door. ISIS is most powerful in Syria, but it also has powerful elements in Yemen, Egypt, and Libya, and some of the most significant reasons can be traced back to the Arab Spring.
Dates: established by Abu Jafar al-Mansur in 762 CE
What is important? Located along the Tigris River in modern-day Iraq, Baghdad, was founded with the intent of becoming the capital city of the Abbasid Caliphate. Within a short time of its founding, it became a center for governance, arts, science, and culture. Baghdad was considered to be the heart of the Arab Golden Age when it was a center of learning. The city was brutally sacked by the Mongols in 1258 CE. Stories say that the Tigris River ran black from the ink of the books thrown into it by the Mongols. In many ways, the city never fully recovered its former glory as one of the great cultural centers in the world.
Baghdad is the capital and largest city of Iraq and boasts a population of more than seven million people, making it the second most populous capital in the Arab world behind Cairo, Egypt. It is the single most important city in Iraq, and it dominates Mesopotamia in terms of political, cultural, and economic influence.
Why does it matter to ISIS? As a historic capital for the most respected ancient caliphate, Baghdad holds a position of significance. It is also a city important to the Shia. Thus taking the city would establish ISIS as a true power, making it worthy of its self-proclaimed title.
Bay’ah (Oath of Allegiance) (بَيْعَة)
What is important? The word comes from the same root as the words sale, commerce, seller, etc. The meaning implies a transaction or some sort of contractual relationship between two persons. With respect to ISIS, this word references the contractual relationships between supporters and the organization with regard to loyalty, fidelity, allegiance, and support. Within Islamic jurisprudence, there are different types of such contracts. For the sake of ISIS, these contracts can be either temporary or permanent, literal or conceptual.
This will be explained using the Prophet Mohamed and early Muslims. When the prophet united the Arabian Peninsula, each tribe made an oath of allegiance to him. Following the prophet’s death about four years after all of the peninsula was united, many of the tribes claimed that their oath was to the Prophet Mohamed and therefore they owed no allegiance to Abu Bakr who had then been declared the caliph or successor of the prophet. Abu Bakr ordered Muslim armies to go out and compel the tribes to make another oath of allegiance to him and essentially to the faith. In this historical reference, there were those who saw their oath as being to the man and therefore that oath ended upon the death of the man (literal as used previously) and those who saw the oath as being to the representative of the new faith (conceptual) and therefore it held regardless of who was the leader of that faith.
Why does it matter to ISIS? This legalistic issue comes into play with respect to groups that have sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda or the Taliban. ISIS is now seeking to get them to swear loyalty to it. Was their previous oath of the temporary or literal variety or was it permanent and conceptual? These things matter when trying to sway entire groups. Jabhat al-Nusra will argue that its original oath was to al-Qaeda and even though it was subordinate to the Islamic State in Iraq (ISIS forerunner) it owed loyalty to al-Qaeda when al-Qaeda and ISIS disagreed.
Bayji, Battle of
Dates: June 11, 2014–October 23, 2015?
What is important? The Battle of Bayji began as many ISIS operations have—as a prison break. The group moved into the area to free prisoners from the local prison. From that point forward, there have been various degrees of combat. This has included everything from sporadic gunfire to mortar attacks to platoon and company-sized assaults to clear the refinery and control it for ISIS use. The most important thing about Bayji is the fact that it is the largest refinery in Iraq. Whoever holds the facility and can control the output has the ability to process crude oil into refined and sellable product.
The Iraqi Army attacked to regain the town and facility in October 2014. The town and refinery have passed from one side to the other multiple times. In October 23, 2015, there were reports that the Iraqi Army accompanied by Shia militia had captured the town and facility once and for all. By October 25, there were additional and conflicting reports of continued fighting and the need to clear more of the facility. As of the time of writing, the final status of the facility is uncertain though the facility generally seemed to be under Iraqi government control.
The participants in the fighting were initially in the dozens and hundreds. By the end, the Iraqi Army and militias brought thousands to the fight. Casualties were high for both sides given the challenging nature of the facility and urban fighting.
Why does it matter to ISIS? The refinery is important both to ISIS and to the Iraqi government. The town controls a critical crossroads for major highways one of which runs from the Tigris to the Euphrates River valley. Controlling this terrain and the refinery or denying either to the opponent has value to both sides, making it unlikely that October 2015 will be the end of the battle of Bayji.
bin Laden, Osama
Dates: March 10, 1957–May 2, 2011
Name: Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden (أسامة بن محمد بن عوض بن لادن)
Key Events in His Life: Osama bin Laden was the son of a wealthy and successful construction company owner. His father died in 1969 in a helicopter crash. The bin Laden Group built some of the most important structures contracted by the Saudi government to include the renovations and expansion of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The money this business connection provided allowed Osama to travel to Afghanistan in 1984 to begin the organization called the Services Office that would later transform into al-Qaeda in 1988.
Osama bin Laden was married five or six times. Separated from the first wife after 27 years of marriage and divorced his second wife in the 1990s after about 10 years of marriage. He reportedly divorced the sixth wife (though there are conflicting reports of this wedding even happening) shortly after the marriage. Thus, he was in a polygamous relationship from the early 1980s until his death. He had between 20 and 26 children.
In 1992, bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia and then he was later expelled. He opposed the invitation of United States and other Western forces into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in support of Operation Desert Storm and he agitated for the removal of all Western forces, making him less and less welcomed by the Saudi government. He later traveled to Sudan. It was while he was in Sudan that the majority of early al-Qaeda operations began: 1993 World Trade Center bombing (not directly linked to al-Qaeda, but those who conducted the attacks were ideologically connected), 1996 Khobar Towers bombing that killed 19 U.S. service members in Saudi Arabia, 1998 Embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam that killed more than 200, and the 2000 attack on USS Cole in the port of Aden killing 17. In 1999, bin Laden was placed on the FBI “10 most wanted” list.
The most spectacular and obviously al-Qaeda led event was the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. This attack was funded and coordinated by Osama bin Laden and those he recruited and retained in al-Qaeda. They followed him from Sudan to Afghanistan where he was welcomed by the Taliban. Following the attacks against the United States, he was the most hunted man in the world and he was variously reported to be in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan—or dead. In 2003, he released a series of statements confirming that he was still alive. In 2004, he was quoted as offering a peace initiative to the West by saying, “I present a reconciliation initiative … to stop operations against all (European) countries if they promise not to be aggressive towards Muslims.” (Al-Arabiya audiotape) Later he warned Europe of a “reckoning” after controversial cartoons of Prophet Mohammed published in 2008. He later claimed responsibility for the botched Christmas Day bombing of US airliner and threatened more strikes on U.S. targets. He was killed by a U.S. special operations raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011.
Why does it matter? He was influenced by the 1979 seizure of the grand Mosque in Mecca, the teachings of Sayyid Qutb, Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, and other Salafist and Jihadist thinkers, and the establishment of Islamist governments in Sudan (1979), Iran (1979), and Afghanistan (1996).
He is the face for turning terrorism into global jihad. He also conceived of the use of violence as a means to generate interest and effort on the part of Sunni Islam to organically create a new manifestation of the caliphate.
He used financing, education, and purpose to generate the single most effective terrorist organization until his time. In the process, he took terrorism from single acts to generate public attention to massive attacks designed to generate a sense of purpose and possibility.
He took the ideas of deeper thinkers and better educated salafi-jihadis and he combined those ideas with money to create an organization that executed the single largest nonstate terrorist attack in human history.
He created, funded, and exported the idea of franchise terrorism.
What is important? Boko Haram is a salafi-jihadi group that operates primarily in Nigeria, but also in small portions of Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. In March 2015, it officially pledged its allegiance to ISIS and accepted Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as its caliph. When it did so, it accepted the new name Wilāyat Gharb Ifrīqīyyah or the West African State (or Province) (الولاية الإسلامية غرب أفريقيا). The group began in the late 2000s as an Islamist group with strict religious interpretations. It evolved into a salafi-jihadi group that used violence to achieve its ends. Its aspiration was to achieve an independent Muslim majority and Islamic governed state in western Africa. The group did not solely focus on one modern defined state though it primarily operated in Nigeria. Like ISIS, Boko Haram used violence and crime to generate the funds for its military actions, including kidnapping large groups. A kidnapping of nearly 300 school girls in 2014 garnered global attention. The Nigerian government has claimed to be successful in the fight against Boko Haram. In September 2015, it went so far as to state that it had effectively defeated the group. In this statement, the Nigerian military official acknowledged that Boko Haram still exists in small numbers and that it was trying to adapt. The Nigerian government, it was reported, is also adapting vis-à-vis its fight with Boko Haram.
Boko Haram may in fact has been removed from the global competition regarding violent extremism. Regardless it represented a significant amount of frustration and angst of the Muslim populations in the geographic area in which it operated. Despite the optimistic comments from the Nigerian government, the group known as Boko Haram or the West African State was still claiming to be conducting attacks in West Africa that resulted in the deaths of dozens at the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016.
Why does it matter to ISIS? As a province of ISIS, Boko Haram represented the near global reach of the influence of ISIS. If Boko Haram is ever actually destroyed, then this might play against ISIS. It undermines its narrative of being everywhere and expanding throughout the Islamic world. Regardless, Boko Haram represented a non-Arab, non-Middle Eastern group willing to ally itself with ISIS. This was an important endorsement for the ISIS brand. It is unlikely that it is truly defeated as the group continues to conduct attacks in various places within its former area of operations. It will continue to conduct deadly attacks for some time to come.
Caliph (pronounced in Arabic khalifa) (خَليفة)
What is important? The caliph is the ruler of the community of the faithful and the polity called a caliphate (see Caliphate). The word means successor in Arabic and it denotes a worthy person who serves as the rightful successor of the Prophet Mohamed who is believed and accepted to be the last legitimate prophet. Caliph is really a Sunni Muslim term. The Shias refer to their legitimate leaders as Imams. Within Sunni Islam, a caliph should be identified and selected by the community of the faithful.
Historically, this has not been the case. Each of the caliphates designated its leader and caliph as it designated and demonstrated its power. These caliphates existed in preindustrial periods when there was no way to vote or even to inform all of the various tribal leaders in a relatively short period of time. After the first four rightly guided caliphs, the empire of Islam was spread from India to Spain and the reach of communication required weeks to travel to the various parts of the caliphate.
In some circles of Sunni Islam, the caliph should come from the Quraysh tribe. Among the Shia, the imam is to come from the family of the prophet.
Prior to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the declaration by ISIS that he is now Caliph Ibrahim, the most recent generally accepted caliph was the ruler of the Ottoman Empire—Abdülmecid II ( [May 29, 1868–August 23, 1944]) who was removed from the title by the Turkish National Assembly in 1924 with the formal dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. For a brief time, Hussein ibn Ali al-Hashimi ( [1853/1854–June 4, 1931]), the Sharif and Emir of Mecca, took the title until he was removed from Mecca by the al-Saud dynasty in 1925. Since that time, there has been no caliph recognized by Muslims.
Why does it matter to ISIS? Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claims now to be the one and only holder of the title of successor of the prophet. This title is disputed by most Muslims. One of the primary criticisms of the title by scholars and lay people alike is that so few of the community of believers accept this title. By that argument, he cannot be a caliph. Obviously, ISIS disagrees and claims that he does have authority because the only community that matters—the truly faithful community—has bestowed him with that authority.
Caliph, Rashidun (الخلفاء الراشدون)
What is important? Within Sunni Islam, the first four successors of the Prophet Mohamed are referred to as rashidun or rightly guided. The use of this word is meant to dispel any controversy regarding their leadership. They are to be seen as those who ruled all of the community of the faithful without opposition. That is a little more positive than the reality. Regardless, they were generally uncontested in their leadership, they were all pious, they lived in accordance with the teachings of the prophet and the Quran, and they were nondynastic. Each of the other major caliphates that followed established some level of dynastic succession. As a result, they were seen as less than ideally pious. Brief entries on each of the rashidun caliphs are given in the following sections.
He lived from October 573 to August 22, 634, and served as the first successor to the Prophet Mohamed from June 8, 632, until his death. He was a merchant and one of the earliest converts to Islam. He was almost always with Mohamed. He was the father-in-law of the prophet. He had the responsibility of reuniting the Arab tribes that departed the community of believers following the death of the prophet. Then he oversaw the invasion of the Sassanid Persian Empire and the Roman Empire and initiated the expansion of the caliphate beyond traditionally Arab lands. Islam was to be a global religion and Abu Bakr instituted its spread.
The primary criticism of Abu Bakr from those who later became Shia was that Ali should have been the successor. Additionally, there was some criticism from the family of the prophet that Abu Bakr did not provide the inheritance that was their due. There are explanations and arguments on both sides. What is important is that he was universally respected as a pious and worthy man and Muslim.
Umar ibn al-Khattab
He lived from October 583 to November 3, 644, and served as the second successor to the Prophet Mohamed from August 23, 634, to his death. He was selected to be caliph by Abu Bakr. He was another pious and faithful man. He was a respected scholar and jurist and one of the most knowledgeable about what would come to be called sharia or Muslim law and jurisprudence. Unlike other Islamic leaders, Umar never killed a man in battle. He was not a warrior. Despite this, he oversaw the invasion of the Sassanid Persian Empire and its incorporation into the Islamic Caliphate. He also oversaw the conquest of much of the Roman Empire in what is referred to as the Levant. The caliphate grew more under his rule than under any other single person in history.
He did not use money from the conquest for himself or his family, rather he provided pensions for the companions of the prophet and their families. This allowed the companions to study the faith and created a culture of religious scholarship as a respected and honored way of life. He established the Islamic lunar-based calendar with the first year beginning with the immigration or hijra of the prophet from Mecca to Medina (622 CE). Umar was stabbed to death during morning prayers.
Uthman ibn Affan
He lived from October 576 to June 17, 656, and served as the third successor to the Prophet Mohamed beginning on November 11, 644. After being stabbed and before he died, Umar appointed a committee of six men to select the next caliph. Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet and Uthman, were both on the committee. The committee chose Uthman to serve. Uthman was from the powerful Umayyad family who had a ruler in Syria at that time. Early in his reign, he was considered one of the most popular, if not the most popular, of the rashidun caliphs. He continued to extend the caliphate geographically to the Indus River in the east and the Iberian Peninsula in the west. Under his reign, the Quran was finally compiled and published.
Late in his leadership, he began to appoint family members to senior positions around the caliphate. This generated concern about dynastic succession and the preeminence of certain tribes over others—always a sensitive subject among tribal cultures. The concern evolved into protests and ultimately led to a siege of the caliph’s home. The siege turned violent and a group broke into the home and killed Uthman.
Ali ibn Abi Talib
He lived from September 20, 601, to January 27, 661, and served as the fourth successor to the Prophet Mohamed from 656 to 661. He married the only surviving daughter of Mohamed—Fatima—and he produced the only direct line successors of the prophet’s line. He was the favored option for the successor to the prophet from the beginning in the eyes of Shia and he was always in consideration at each and every change in leadership. He was in the committee designated by Umar to choose his successor and politically outmaneuvered by Uthman. After Uthman’s murder, he became the caliph. This began a tumultuous period of Islamic history.
By this point, in world history the caliphate was massive—the largest geographic empire then on the planet. Governing such territory with preindustrial means was problematic, and as demonstrated by Uthman, there was a propensity for leaders to select subordinates whom they could trust. Uthman did this and Ali followed suit by replacing key rulers appointed by Uthman with those he trusted. In addition to this, he moved the governing capital from Mecca to Kufa in present-day Iraq.
Ali was hounded and criticized by the Umayyads for not pursuing the murderers of Uthman. This, and the removal of Umayya rulers, certainly played a part in the increasing tensions that eventually led to an Islamic civil war. He was ultimately killed by a member of the Kharajite group, his former supporters. The Kharajites hoped to end the civil war and the associated chaos within Islam by removing key figures in the dispute.
Why does it matter to ISIS? Even this cursory look at the lives of these important men conveys something of the challenges within the early period of the Islamic faith. Three of the first four—rightly guided—leaders of Islam were murdered. These men and the time period in which they ruled are seen by ISIS as its desired ideal age.
What is important? A caliphate is a form of Islamic government ruled over by a caliph. In this sense, a caliphate is to a caliph what a kingdom is to a king. This simple definition was all that existed in the early decades of Islam. Later on, the definition of a caliphate grew more complex as the geography governed by the caliph expanded to continental size. The early period of the caliphate was called the Rashidun Caliphate or the rightly guided caliphate (see Caliph, Rashidun) and there was no hereditary or dynastic succession. This period lasted from 632 to 661.
The last Rashidun caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib, was assassinated in 661 and the Umayya tribe established the first dynastic caliphate governed from Damascus, Syria, from 661 to 750. The Umayya were, in turn, replaced by the Abbasid Caliphate (see Abbasid Caliphate), which was governed from Baghdad, Iraq (and a few other places). It is during the Abbasid rule that the history gets complicated as the role of the caliph as the final word in governance, faith, and life gradually changed. At times, the Abbasid and later caliphs were little more than figureheads who lived in splendid isolation from their people, the community of believers. In some fashion, the Abbasids held the caliphate until 1517 when it passed out of Arab hands for the first time and into the Turkish hands of the Ottoman Sultans until 1924.
During World War I the British Empire was deeply concerned about the impact of going to war against the Ottoman Empire. The British Empire ruled over the largest number of Muslims in the entire world—the modern countries of Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan—under the Government of India. The British demonstrated a lack of understanding of the role of the caliph in this period and of the influence he had over Muslims, in general. Because of this ignorance, they sought to elevate others over the Ottoman caliph in search of a religious alternative. This affected the relationship between the British Empire and the Hashemite family of the Sharif of Mecca. The reality was that the caliph had ceased to be the powerful unifying voice of Islam. Non-Muslim meddling in the position of the caliph created tremendous animosity.
Why does it matter to ISIS? The role of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the self-proclaimed caliph of Islam is questionable in terms of what this means to modern Muslims. A caliphate does not have the draw that it did centuries ago. ISIS claims that all Muslims are expected to come to the caliphate and support it to the greatest extent possible.
What is important? The proper name is the U.S. Central Command. The abbreviated acronym is USCENTCOM or simply CENTCOM. CENTCOM is one of many U.S. geographic combatant commands used to organize and administer military relations and activities around the globe. In this organization, each command has responsibility for a specified area. CENTCOM has responsibility for the Middle East, Central Asia, and a portion of Africa. The area of responsibility for the command has changed several times since CENTCOM was established in 1983. The command currently coordinates actions within the following 20 countries under the direction of the U.S. Department of Defense: Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, and Yemen.
The command headquarters is located at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Florida, with a forward headquarters outside Doha, Qatar. CENTCOM is commanded by a four-star general who typically serves in the position for three years. The commander is responsible to the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the President of the United States for operations and policies conducted in the countries within his area of responsibility.
Why does it matter to ISIS? CENTCOM is the senior headquarters responsible for conducting the combat operations in Afghanistan since 2001 and in Iraq from 2003 to 2011 and from 2014 until the present. The CENTCOM commander is responsible for the primary combat operations directed against ISIS though some of the supporting bases and some ISIS affiliates are outside the area of responsibility: Turkey and Libya are not included in CENTCOM.
Dates: 1095–1291 CE
What is important? The crusading period began with the preaching of the First Crusade by Pope Urban II in 1095 and continued through the end of the Crusader States established in the eastern Mediterranean in 1291. Elements of this period—particularly the military orders—continued for a couple of centuries beyond these dates. This entry focuses primarily on the military ventures associated with the capture of Jerusalem by the First Crusade and ending with the loss of the last Crusader stronghold—Acre—on the Levantine coast in 1291.
The preaching of the First Crusade in 1095 generated a greater response than anticipated by Urban II. More than 100,000 people participated in the armed pilgrimage. The effort to conquer Jerusalem is one of the great military adventures in human history with all of the intrigue and salacious details fit for a movie or television series. Suffice it to say that although only a few thousand warriors actually made it to the city, this crusade was successful in capturing Jerusalem in 1099. The city was taken by means of a brutal and ferocious sack of the city that was emphasized by the Muslim forces for rallying support in freeing the land of the Franks of the Coast or the Crusaders. On the way to capturing the city, several other territories were also conquered and controlled. Overall four Crusader States were established in addition to Jerusalem. The four states were the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the County of Tripoli, the County of Edessa, and the Principality of Antioch. Over time the other three would owe fealty to the King of Jerusalem.
The timing of the Crusades worked in favor of the Christians. Much of their success can be attributed to the divided nature of Muslim leadership at the time. The Fatimid Caliphate (Shia) who ruled from Cairo also controlled Jerusalem. At the same time, the Abbasid caliph, who was little more than a figurehead, ruled from Baghdad. The caliphate, however, was subdivided into numerous locally controlled sultanates that operated under mostly Turkish leadership. This division allowed the Crusaders to take on one local lord at a time rather than facing the power of an empire in full force.
Along with the crusader efforts were efforts made by the Roman (Byzantine) Emperor fighting against Turkish rulers in the Anatolian Peninsula. Islam was divided and under attack from multiple forces only sometimes working in concert, but certainly presenting multiple directions of attack.
The loss of the County of Edessa to a Muslim Turkish force in 1044 was the impetus for the preaching of the Second Crusade. Despite being led by the powerful kings of Europe, this crusade did not regain the County of Edessa, so the Crusader States were reduced by one. In 1187, the Kurdish Sultan Salah al Din (Saladin) defeated the King of Jerusalem and over several months he captured most of the fortresses in the kingdom to include Jerusalem. This loss initiated the Third Crusade that included several kings. Among these was Richard I of England (Richard Lionheart). Although several major cities and fortresses were retaken, Jerusalem was not. The Kingdom of Jerusalem continued to exist as a coastal kingdom with some fortresses in the highlands of modern Israel and Lebanon and without the city of Jerusalem, its namesake, itself.
It was the rise of the Mameluke Sultanate in Cairo, which was brought on by the Fifth and Sixth Crusades and their attacks against Egypt, which brought about the ultimate demise of the Crusader states and their various strongholds. The Mamelukes who had been the slave soldiers of the sultan finally took over the sultanate themselves and they were able to generate the force and the impetus and drive to complete the destruction of all crusader fortresses in the former Crusader States. The last city to fall was Acre in what is now northern Israel. By the fall of the city in 1291, there was no further interest by European kings or nobles to mount major military operations to support existing lords or regain lost lands. The Crusader States ended.
Viewing the Crusades as a series of numbered adventures misrepresents what this period was about for many European nobles—an armed pilgrimage. Even before the designated beginning of the Crusader period, it was common for European nobility to travel with medium to large entourages to Jerusalem for religious reasons. Throughout the existence of the Crusader States, there was a near constant flow of European Christians to the states to conduct their armed pilgrimage. The numbers were not large enough to constitute a numbered crusade, but often a lord would arrive with dozens of fighters in train and support one of the local nobility in defending or expanding their lands. This created an odd relationship between the transient crusader and the permanent local nobility that passed their holdings from one generation to the next. The first group wanted to fight and make a name for itself in order to earn its penance. The second group often wanted stability to develop its lands. One group wanted friction with the Muslims—it was what it came for—and the other group wanted peace and stability.
Why does it matter to ISIS? It is common in jihadi literature and speeches to refer to the modern state of Israel as a crusader state. Such jihadi statements claim Israel was an entity thrust on the region by European powers as were the medieval crusader states. In this vein, ISIS refers to its enemies as Roman-Crusaders. As noted previously, the Roman Empire (many refer to it in the West as the Byzantine Empire though no one at the time referred to it in this manner) was also fighting the Muslims simultaneously to the crusaders. The idea of Europeans imposing their will on the Middle East is consistently characterized as crusader like. The imagery and rhetoric used emphasize these ancient conflicts as a way of encouraging local inhabitants to recall the mythology and history of the suffering inflicted on Islam by the crusaders.
Dabiq, Battle of
Dates: Just before the end of days and/or 1516 CE
What is important? Dabiq (دابق) is a village about 25 miles north-northeast of Aleppo, Syria. It currently has slightly more than 3,000 inhabitants. In 1516, the Ottoman Empire fought and defeated the Mameluke Sultanate in the area. According to some interpretations of Islamic end-of-days beliefs, this is to be the site of the battle where Jesus will return to earth and lead the Army of the Righteous in victory against the armies led by Gog and Magog and the Dajjal (see Dajjal) ushering in the end of days and the final judgment. In this way, Dabiq is similar to the Christian concept of the battle of Armageddon (to happen about 300 miles to the south). In the hadith given by the Prophet Mohamed it is the Romans who will come to this battle (in either Dabiq or al-A’maq) and be defeated (see Crusades).
The town used to include a shrine to Caliph Suleiman bin Abd al-Malik (سليمان بن عبد الملك), an Umayyad caliph who led an army against Constantinople. In August 2014, ISIS captured the town of Dabiq and destroyed the shrine.
Why does it matter to ISIS? ISIS has named its magazine after this town and this battle (see Dabiq Magazine) to remind its followers of the significance of this battle. It is a group focused on preparing for the Battle of Dabiq. It believes it will play an important role in preparing the world for the end of days and the triumphant events, which will be set in motion at Dabiq. According to prophecies regarding the end of days, the Army of the Righteous (which ISIS believes itself to be) will not be doing well immediately prior to the arrival of Jesus. It will need his supernatural assistance to win the battle and defeat the Dajjal’s army.
What is important? ISIS publishes Dabiq as a near monthly periodical with the purpose of promoting unity, truth-seeking, migration to the caliphate, holy war, and community. The magazine is published in English and has a very professional and modern look. The writing is in English though it has an Arabic poetic style that people sometimes misinterpret. In the magazine, ISIS explains its perception of the principles behind the organization, the actions of the organization, and vision for the future of the organization. Brief summaries of each issue available at the time of writing are as follows:
1. The Return of the Khalifah (July 5, 2014). In this issue, ISIS describes the declaration of the caliphate and what that means for the faithful. The issue explains the name of the magazine and discusses the recent victories achieved.
2. The Flood (July 27, 2014). ISIS uses the metaphor of the flood of Noah to communicate two different things: one, that ISIS is a flood that will sweep the earth and two, that ISIS is the ark and the only protection for the faithful from the flood of filth that is the non-Muslim world.
3. A Call to Hijrah (September 10, 2014). This issue discusses the responsibility of the faithful to immigrate or make hijrah (the Arabic word for immigration) to the caliphate. This has a religious link to when Mohamed made his hijrah from Mecca to Medina in 622, the date from which the Islamic calendar begins to reckon time.
4. The Failed Crusade (October 11, 2014). This is a mockery of the U.S.-led coalition’s attempts to fight against ISIS. The cover is a picture of St. Peter’s Square in Rome with the ISIS flag placed on the obelisk in the center of the plaza. The idea is to communicate that the U.S.-led crusade will ultimately fail as all of the other crusades did and the ISIS vision will conquer the world as prophesied.
5. Remaining and Expanding (November 21, 2014). The ISIS motto is “Remaining and Expanding.” This issue discusses the expansion of the state into new areas—the Sinai, Libya, Yemen, etc. It also explains the new currency of gold dinars and silver dirham, which communicate the staying power of the state.
6. Al Qa’idah of Waziristan: A Testimony from Within (December 29, 2014). In this issue ISIS takes responsibility for an attack in Australia. The remainder of the issue addresses disputes within the jihadi community.
7. From Hypocrisy to Apostasy: The Extinction of the Grayzone (February 12, 2015). The emphasis of this issue is on the division of the world into two camps—true Islam and those opposed to true Islam. ISIS boasts of the murder of the Jordanian pilot, declares war on Japan, and promotes successes in other parts of the caliphate.
8. Shari’ah Alone Will Rule Africa (March 30, 2015). Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance and successes in Tunisia and Libya are the main focus of this issue. It also promotes the child-soldier training program to further communicate the long-term vision of the group.
9. They Plot and Allah Plots (May 21, 2015). The title of this issue refers to the plots of the world intended to defeat ISIS. The magazine seeks to strengthen supporters by reminding them that God knows all and will conquer all. There is a lengthy segment on sex slavery that explains the justification of the practice.
10. The Law of Allah or the Laws of Men (July 13, 2015). The first article praises the near simultaneous attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait, and France and the significant casualties that resulted. As the Ramadan issue, it reminds readers of the historic victories of Muslim armies during the month of Ramadan. It calls on children and wives to obey ISIS and flee their families or husbands who oppose ISIS.
11. From the Battles of Al-Ahzāb to the War of Coalitions (August 9, 2015). The Battle of al-Ahzab was a battle between the early Muslims and the idolatrous Meccan tribes. This issue calls out al-Qaeda and the Taliban for lying about Mullah Omar’s death and opposing ISIS. An article also states that the Mahdi of the Shia is the Dajjal and in league with the Jews.
12. Just Terror (November 18, 2015). This issue boasts of the downing of a Russian airliner and the terror attacks in Beirut, Lebanon, and Paris, France. In this issue “terrorists” are likened to knights in a fairy tale like story. Essentially they are owning their global label as terrorists.
13. The Rafidah: From Ibn Saba’ to the Dajjal (January 19, 2016). This is the first issue published after the destruction of large amounts of ISIS-controlled cash and increased coalition air strikes. The magazine is shorter and less polished than its predecessors and therefore may reflect degradation of the ISIS publishing ability. The magazine emphasizes the continued struggle against those who oppose or refuse to accept the message of the Islamic State.
14. The Murtadd Brotherhood (April 13, 2016). This issue attacks the of the Muslim Brotherhood as apostates. ISIS also attacks several Muslim leaders in the West who call for peaceful co-existence between Islam and the West.
Why does it matter to ISIS? This is the flagship magazine for ISIS. It has made this the primary means of communicating to the West—both to enemies and to possible recruits.
Dates: Before the Day of Resurrection
What is important? The Dajjal is properly labeled al-Masih al-Dajjal (المسيح الدجّال) or “the false messiah.” It could also be thought of as the anti-Christ from a Christian perspective. The linguistic root means to lie, thus communicating the idea of deception or falsehood. Both Mohamed and his son-in-law Ali spoke about the Dajjal. They indicated that he would be blind in the right eye. He is to appear with the pretense of being the messiah at some future date in advance of the Day of Resurrection. The Dajjal is not referenced in the Quran though he is mentioned in several of the hadith. As with Christian Biblical references of the end of days, there are signs that describe the state of the world when he will come. These signs discuss the wickedness of the world and the abandonment of God and these teachings.
Jesus is to arrive and lead the Army of the Righteous against the Dajjal. The very breath of Jesus will destroy those who follow the Dajjal. The Dajjal will be defeated and all his followers rooted out and Jesus shall rule in an age of peace. Other versions include the presence of Gog and Magog along with the Dajjal.
Why does it matter to ISIS? ISIS regularly uses the imagery of the Dajjal to motivate its followers and to focus them on the opponents of Islam. The 13th issue of Dabiq magazine includes the Dajjal in the subtitle to again make clear that those who oppose ISIS are in league with the most important opponent of God—the Dajjal. Most followers of ISIS are not religious scholars and they do not understand all of the details. Because of this, ISIS and its followers are able to play fast and loose with the details of the end of days.
Deir al-Zour, Battle of
Dates: September 21, 2014–Present
What is important? Deir al-Zour sits on the Euphrates River. It is one of the only remaining Syrian government holds in Eastern Syria. This city is critical across history as it sits at a crucial river crossing on an important trade route from the Mediterranean Coast to Mesopotamia and beyond. The city and its environs have been the scene of fighting and the movement of armies for millennia.
In September 2014, ISIS began attacks on Syrian government facilities in the city. The town has seen clashes between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Syrian Army, and the Syrian Army and ISIS. It has a complicated history in this current struggle. As of writing the city is still held by the Syrian Government.
On May 15, 2015, the U.S. military conducted a raid to kill or capture a senior ISIS leader in Deir al-Zour. It ended up killing Abu Sayyaf who was identified as a senior financier for the group.
Why does it matter to ISIS? Deir al-Zour represents a critical movement corridor for any force operating in or through Eastern Syria. It is crucial at some point that ISIS controls this river crossing in order to fully dominate the Euphrates River valley. Readers should expect to hear more of this city in the future.
What is important? Fallujah is the second largest city in al-Anbar province, Iraq with a population of more than 300,000 people. It sits on the Euphrates River about 40 miles from Baghdad and 30 miles from Ramadi. The city is a major hub for commerce and opposition to the Shia government in Baghdad. During the U.S. occupation of Iraq, it was the site of two major battles, both in 2004.
The first battle began April 4, 2004. The second began October 31, 2004. They both happened in the same locations and for many of the same reasons, but they were conducted in different ways and with significantly different outcomes. Fallujah had a reputation of being something like the wild west of Iraq, even during the reign of Saddam Hussein. During the Iraq War (2003–2011), it was part of the Sunni Triangle—an area of violence and difficulty for U.S. and coalition forces that extended from Baqubah in the east to Ramadi in the west to Bayji in the north. Fallujah sits in the middle of the east-west axis. Throughout the entire eight years of the U.S. occupation, Fallujah was a consistent problem for both coalition and Iraqi leadership. Following the disbanding of the Iraqi Army, there were approximately 70,000 unemployed young men in the city. The city is heavily influenced by tribal structures and the religion tends to be more conservative.
The attack launched in April 2004 was smaller than and not as well prepared as the one later in the year. In March 2004, the first Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) replaced the 82nd Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. The Marines took a different approach to their duties—they sought to win the hearts and minds of the local populace. Despite these efforts, the populace remained in violent opposition to the U.S. occupation. The biggest catalyst event to the battle that followed was the March 31, 2004, ambush of Blackwater Security Contractors. Four were killed and their charred bodies were hung from a prominent overpass entering the city. At about this time, Shia militias under Muqtada al-Sadr rose up and began protests around the country. The coalition faced its hardest challenge to date. On April 4, the coalition launched Operation Vigilant Resolve to capture or kill those responsible for the murders and to restore control of the city to coalition forces and the Iraqi Governing Council. The Marine leadership wanted to take a softer approach, but the CPA and leaders in Washington, DC, felt strong action needed to be taken. Four Marine battalions assaulted positions in the city following aerial and artillery precision strikes. The fighting went on for five days. Several key members of the Iraq Governing Council threatened to desert the coalition if the attacks did not stop. The CPA suspended offensive operations. In early May, the Marines withdrew from the city and handed security over to an ad hoc organization raised from local former military personnel called the Fallujah Brigade.
Things did not get better over the summer. The Fallujah Brigade was ineffective in restoring order and by October the coalition, now under the direction of Iraqi transition leaders, ordered another attack on the city. This time leaflets were dropped and people were warned to leave the city. On October 31, the artillery and aerial bombardment began.
Between 75 and 90 percent of the population of the city fled before the battle took place. That is something like 150,000 to 200,000 people. A total of 38 U.S. personnel were killed in the battle as well as six Iraqi soldiers serving alongside coalition forces. It is estimated that between 1,200 and 2,000 Iraqi opposition fighters or insurgents were killed in the fighting with another 1,000 to 1,500 captured. Over 60 percent of the buildings in the city were damaged and 20 percent destroyed including 60 of the more than 200 mosques. The destruction of the city enraged the Sunni population and led to an increase of insurgent activity. It was in this period that al-Qaeda in Iraq began to grow (it was designated by this name in October 2004).
Once the fighting was done, the coalition went to work to rebuild Fallujah. Additionally, a new civil government and a new security force were created. Residents did not begin returning until mid-December. They were warned that they could be displaced for 75 to 90 days at the conflict’s beginning. Some reports indicated that Operation al-Fajr destroyed the insurgent’s grip on the city. Only sporadic insurgent attacks continued throughout the rest of the U.S. occupation in Iraq. Although this may be technically accurate, it is important to note that when the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham entered Fallujah in January 2014 it was greeted with popular acclaim. The reason for this welcome goes back to the social structure of Fallujah and the opposition to the U.S.-led occupation and the Shia-led government in Baghdad.
Why does it matter to ISIS? As stated previously in January 2014, ISIS drove into Fallujah to acclaim. It conducted a parade down some of the major streets of the city with banners and flags flying high. ISIS spent years developing and building relationships in the city. Some of the relationships date back to 2004 and the fighting done there as many leaders of ISIS gained their credibility in that fighting. Other relationships were built over the years through meetings, gift exchanges, basic rules of hospitality, and other cultural overtures. Promises were made of a better life for Sunnis. Offers of support and offers of positions of responsibility were exchanged. This is elaborated on for Fallujah as an example of how ISIS conducted business in building relationships with all of the cities into which it would enter. Fallujah did not fall fully under ISIS control though there is a significant pro-ISIS sentiment in the city. It is still contested space.
What is important? The hadith is the collection of the sayings of the Prophet Mohamed. This is an Arabic word that means saying, report, account, etc. The hadith is considered second only to the Quran and co-equal to the sunna in terms of the importance for the faithful in living and governing their lives. The collections of the hadith are slightly problematic as there is no one universally accepted collection. Any given statement is open for dispute. That said, some statements are more widely accepted than others and some specific statements enjoy near universal acceptance as they appear in multiple collections.
A hadith is a statement of the prophet. However, it is not a direct statement. Each one of the hadith was quoted by people of respect within the Muslim community. Typically, the people who are most often quoted are referred to as the companions of the prophet or the sahaba. Typically the hadith is preceded by the chain of custody of the statement. This chain traces from person to person the record of the quote back through each person who heard the statement until it reaches the prophet himself. Assuming each person in the chain is deemed to be trustworthy, the hadith is accurate. It is the debate over the trustworthiness of any given chain that creates the differing of opinions regarding which is authentic and which is not.
The two most respected collections are the Sahih al-Bukhari (compiled around 846 CE) and the Sahih Muslim (compiled between 840 and 870 CE). The Arabic word sahih means true. There are other collections accepted by Sunni, but these two are the most universally accepted. The Sunni often refers to the six books as they tend to accept six different collections. That, however, is not universally true. The Shias have different collections altogether. To provide some context of scale, the Sahih al-Bukhari contains about 7,275 hadith including repetitions and about 4,000 unique hadith.
Why does it matter to ISIS? Islamic law (see Sharia) is based, in large part, on the hadith. Thus the interpretations of the hadith are critical to ISIS in justifying its actions. It uses whatever hadith it needs, though it does tend to stick with the most accepted collections as a general rule.
What is important? The Islamic calendar is lunar and it begins from the year 622 CE when the Prophet Mohamed journeyed from Mecca to Yathrib (later renamed Medina). Mohamed was warned of a plot to kill him in Mecca so he and Abu Bakr escaped the city and traveled to Yathrib where the prophet had previously been invited to come and resolve some disputes in the city.
The term hijrah can often mean simply immigration or emigration. In a modern context, it is typically viewed as traveling to a Muslim country. In this common use, one can see the influence of the prophet. His journey to Medina created the opportunity for the faithful to grow as a community and for the faith to actually be created as an entity. The chapters of the Quran are divided between those received in Mecca and those received in Medina with the hijrah serving as the dividing line.
Why does it matter to ISIS? ISIS only uses the Islamic calendar in recording dates of events. Thus the hijrah shapes its perspective on time. In addition, it regularly calls for the faithful to come to the caliphate, which is, by definition, making hijrah.
Hezbollah (حزب الله)
What is important? The argument can be made that the birth of Hezbollah (or party of God) can be traced back to the Ashura festival celebration in the southern Lebanese village of Nabatiya on October 16, 1983. During the festival, an Israeli patrol tried to move through the town. In the process, it disrupted the marching celebrants. A riot broke out. Soldiers fired into the crowd, killing several people. From this spark, the flames grew that created Hezbollah. Hezbollah is a Shia sectarian group that grew in Southern Lebanon as an opponent of the Israeli occupation. It takes credit for driving the Israeli military out of Southern Lebanon in 2000 because of its regular attacks on the Israeli military within Southern Lebanon and Israeli civilians living close to the border. Over the nearly two decades of occupation, there were thousands of mortar and rocket attacks.
From the withdrawal of Israel from the Southern Lebanon buffer zone in 2000 until 2006 there were sporadic engagements across the border between Hezbollah (and other smaller groups) and the Israeli military. Rocket attacks and other forms of indirect fire against Israeli civilian villages were common throughout the period. Hezbollah claimed that it would resist the Israeli occupation of Lebanon continuously. Israel claimed that it had withdrawn entirely from Lebanon in 2000, but Hezbollah used the continued presence of Israeli soldiers on a small plot of land called Sheba Farms as a reason for the resistance to continue.
In 2006, Hezbollah launched an attack directed against an Israeli border patrol. Several soldiers were killed at the site of the attack and two soldiers were abducted. While this was happening, a rocket attack engaged the higher headquarters of the patrol, confusing any sort of immediate response and rescue. The two abducted soldiers were assumed dead. The amount of blood at the scene of the engagement was too much for any other explanation. Despite this assessment Israel launched what would be called the Second Lebanon War that lasted for 38 days, the longest ground war in Israel’s short history to that time. The fighting was intense. Hezbollah continued to launch rockets into northern Israel throughout the campaign. It even hit the city of Haifa—a major metropolitan area in the north, but one that had been outside rocket range until this conflict. The Israeli ground offensive failed to stop the rockets and it performed less than optimal by Israeli standards. The aerial bombardment of Lebanon was intense and this forced a negotiated settlement.
The 2006 fighting was viewed throughout the Middle East as an Israeli defeat (at the very least it was not an outright Israeli victory). In Israel, there was intense criticism of the military and civilian leadership, which led to significant reforms in training and operational doctrine. Hezbollah was now twice the hero—it drove the Israelis out of Lebanon in 2000 and in 2006 it successfully defended the country from attack. Despite this rosy picture, the leader of Hezbollah still stated after the war that if he had been aware of the damage Israel would inflict he would never have ordered the capture of the soldiers on the patrol. The soldiers were dead and their bodies returned as part of a prisoner swap in the negotiated settlement.
From these two periods of fighting, Hezbollah was viewed as Israel’s primary opponent as it was the only force to successfully (depending on perspective) fight Israel since its founding. Hezbollah fought and fired from tunnels and hidden locations. It used rockets and antitank missiles and fought small unit engagements. This is what Hezbollah was trained to do—fight Israel in this asymmetric manner.
In 2014, Hezbollah sent fighters to Syria to support the Syrian government in its fighting against the various opposition fighters. At first, Hezbollah did not perform as well as expected. It was now the ones fighting through villages and towns and clearing buildings. This was the reverse of what it had always done against the Israelis. It lost significant casualties in the early months of fighting. Despite this, it remained one of the most well-trained and semiprofessional forces augmenting the Syrian government. For the most part, its operations have been in villages close to the Lebanese border.
Why does it matter to ISIS? Hezbollah is one of the best fighting groups defending the Syrian regime. If ISIS actually wants to take all of Syria, then Hezbollah will be a significant obstacle to accomplishing that objective.
What is important? In Arabic, the word Islam means submission or more specifically submission to the will of God. A Muslim is linguistically and literally one who has made this submission. The faith of Islam extends back in time to the seventh century and the Prophet Mohamed who received directly the Quran from the Angel Gabriel when he was told to recite (see Quran). Mohamed was the prophet of the faith, called by God, to correct errors that had crept into the Jewish and Christian religions. Islam accepts most of the Biblical prophets, to include Jesus, as prophets. Mohamed was the last and final prophet. He cleansed the divine faith, which began with Adam. The belief is that the faith had become corrupted with incorrect doctrines and practices that drew people away from God. Mohamed brought it back on the correct course.
Islam is built on several key practices referred often to as the five pillars of Islam (see Islam, Five Pillars). The most important belief in Islam is the unity of God or in Arabic the tawhid. God is one and indivisible. The faith is explained in the Quran—the perfect word of God—received directly as God’s words and not the interpretations or explanations of man.
Islam is a religion that can lay claim to more than 1.5 billion adherents. The faith tends to be divided into two major divisions—Sunni and Shia. Understanding Islam can be complex due to the many divisions and subdivisions, but the practices and principles are generally simple and easy to understand. The articles of faith begin as noted previously with the unity and monotheistic nature of God—the one and only, eternal, and absolute. The word Allah is simply the Arabic version of “the God.” As Arabic does not have upper- or lower-case letters, the way to distinguish proper nouns is to provide the definite article. This is what creates the word Allah or, in English, God.
Muslims believe in Angels. The Quran was given from an angel to a man. Angels are the perfect obedient servants of God. In Islam, they typically serve as messengers of God (as in the case of the angel Gabriel), though they believe in a destroying angel as well. Revelation and prophets are critical to the faith though it is believed that such things ended with Mohamed and the complete revelation of the Quran. Finally, there is a powerful belief in judgment and the resurrection. The last day is often referred to as the Day of Resurrection rather than the Day of Judgment though both events will happen on that day. Based on this, there clearly is a concept of repentance and cleansing one’s life from sin to stand clean at the judgment. Islam believes in a merciful God who forgives the sins of those who repent.
There are men and women who have devoted their lives to becoming Islamic scholars. It is impossible to capture all of the faith in such a short entry as this. This is a large faith with more than a billion adherents who believe in peace, living according to the teachings of God and his prophets, and being ready to stand and be judged at the end of times. This should not sound radical or unusual to most readers. Islam is a faith that requires commitment in order to live it. It is not a faith that accepts divisions of life and parts of a life that does not include Islam—it is a holistic faith wherein all aspects of life are part of the submission to the will of God. Therefore, a Muslim will dress modestly, will arise early for prayers, will eat food determined as clean and properly slaughtered, will conduct business honestly, and will strive to live cleanly each and every day.
Why does it matter to ISIS? ISIS is a very small fraction of a percentage of Muslims. It is not indicative of the faith though its beliefs are rooted in scripture, hadith, and sunna. It believes its members are the true Muslims and all those who disagree with them are either deceived or apostate. Consider the group psychology of being less than a fraction of a percent and thinking the more than 99 percent are all wrong. This is ISIS.
Islam, Five Pillars
What is important? Sunni Islam has five main practices so important to the faith that they are referred to as the five pillars of Islam. They are the declaration of faith, daily prayer, charitable giving, fasting, and pilgrimage. Each is described in brief as follows:
Declaration of Faith or Shahada (الشهادة)
The word shahada comes from the same Arabic root as martyr, which is to make a witness of your life in laying it down for God. Thus the witness statement is a declaration of faith that communicates a powerful assurance of self and identity. The Arabic statement is often translated as (لَا إِلٰهَ إِلَّا الله مُحَمَّدٌ رَسُولُ الله): “There is no god but God (and) Mohamed is the messenger of God.” This is only partially true as it means more than these simple words alone. As stated in the Islam section previously, the unity or oneness of God is critical to the faith and important for all Muslims to understand, accept, and fully embrace. The name Allah emphasizes the God—the one and only God—all holiness in one. The statement includes a powerful assertion of God’s existence and the critical role of Mohamed as the Messenger of the God. The Arabic word rasool (رَسُولُ) can be translated as messenger or prophet. In this case, the meaning is broader and includes the concept of conveying the divine message instantiated in the form of the word of God as recited by Mohamed and then later recorded as the Quran.
Muslims accept that they are to pray five times a day if at all possible. The prayers come at dawn, noon, afternoon (when the sun is midway between noon and the horizon), sunset, and dark (when darkness is complete). Each prayer has set words and actions associated with it. The prayers are said facing the Ka’aba (the central structure in the Grand Mosque) in Mecca. Prayers can be said anywhere though the preferred option is in a mosque. These prayers serve as a reminder of the importance of God.
Charitable Giving or Zakat (زكاة)
One interpretation of zakat can be that which purifies. The idea being that caring for the poor and needy draws one closer to God. The generally accepted amount is 2.5 percent of all wealth—not just income, but savings and property as well. This draws on the notion of Arabic generosity—the importance of giving to others less fortunate and not hording wealth. By calling on the saved and propertied money, this encourages people to use their money rather than horde it. There are significant legal discussions on the exact definition of what is included in the 2.5 percent calculation and what the base amount for giving is. Those who have very little are exempt from this requirement, but determining what constitutes “little” is ruled upon differently in the different Islamic legal schools.
Fasting or Sawm (صوم)
Most people are aware of the Muslim practice of fasting during the month of Ramadan. There are three kinds of fasting in Islam: ritual, fasting as compensation for repentance, and ascetic fasting. All of these types of fasting include similar practices: abstinence from food, drink, physical sensual pleasures (smoking, sexual relations, chewing gum, etc.), and passionate emotions (anger, lust, greed, profane language, etc.) from dawn to darkness. Several people are exempt from fasting—people with medical conditions, menstruating or nursing women, small children, the elderly, etc. Where possible, exempt persons should make up their fasting once the reason for their exemption has passed. The idea of fasting is to demonstrate control of the body and to purify oneself from sin. Fasting during Ramadan is obligatory for those not exempt, but there are other holy days and even other days of the week when Muslims fast.
Pilgrimage to Mecca or Hajj (حج)
Every able bodied Muslim is expected to make the Hajj at least once in their lifetime. It is considered a great honor to travel to Mecca and participate in this event. As modern transportation has made it possible for more and more Muslims to make this journey, the Hajj has taken on a spectacle with millions of people gathered at the Great Mosque in prayer. The Hajj is only during the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah, the third month after Ramadan. Pilgrimages outside of this month are not considered Hajj though many Muslims consider it an honor to worship at the Great Mosque at any time. The Hajj consists of specific rituals that remind the pilgrim of the faithfulness of Abraham and his wife Hagar and their child Ishmael. The Hajj celebration includes a ritual animal sacrifice (typically a sheep or goat) that coincides with the Islamic holy celebration of the feast of slaughtering or Eid al-Adha celebrated by Muslims globally. This feast commemorates the gift of a ram, which God provided for Abraham in place of his son Ishmael whom he was commanded to sacrifice. It is worth noting that Muslims believe it was Ishmael Abraham who was called on to sacrifice whereas Christians and Jews believe it was Isaac. Arabs claim descent from Abraham through Ishmael.
Why does it matter to ISIS? These pillars are often interwoven into ISIS propaganda, literature, and videos as a means of appealing to the faithful.
Islamic Conquests (Seventh Century)
Dates: 634–661 CE
What is important? For the sake of this entry, the discussion of Islamic expansion is confined to the Rashidun Caliphate. The reason for this limitation is driven by space and by the Salafist ideology of the subjects of this book. As Salafists ISIS subscribes to the importance of the early generations of the prophet and his companions, which coincide with the Rashidun period. As stated elsewhere, when one looks at this period of expansion and what was accomplished by the Islamic armies in just a couple of dozen years it can appear miraculous. The forays beyond the Arabian Peninsula began even before the prophet’s death. Mohamed sent an army into what is today Jordan that fought and lost to the Romans. Following the prophet’s death in 632, many Arab tribes broke away from Islam believing that their loyalty oath was to Mohamed himself. The first caliph Abu Bakr fought his first wars bringing the Arabs together in unity under the banner of Islam and allegiance to the caliph. Once that was accomplished, then Abu Bakr sent the armies out to the north. The first army was sent against the Sassanid Persian Empire in 633. A year later another army was sent against the Romans with a general focus on the city of Damascus, Syria.
The Muslim (Arab) armies fought mostly on foot though they always had mounted forces as well. They divided their forces into tribal groups often translated as squadrons. The tribal relationships kept the forces loyal. In addition, a loose command structure prevented offense and friction within a force experienced in raiding and not schooled in large protracted campaigns. The missions assigned to subordinate units were based on general purposes that allowed for tremendous freedom in execution. Lengthy battles often ensued. Many of the major fights lasted for days—sometimes nearly a week or more. The warriors fighting in this army were united in their goal of spreading the faith and their belief that they would receive a heavenly reward if they died in battle. Even though the battles often took a long time to reach an ultimate conclusion, the Muslim forces were fast moving and reacted quickly to situations arising in the battle—both opportunities to be exploited and setbacks requiring response or withdrawal. They were counseled to keep the desert to their backs so that, if pressed, they could flee back into the desert, which was essentially their natural habitat as Bedouin warriors. One major fight against the Persians saw a Muslim force put a river to their back with disastrous consequences. This did not happen again in a major battle in this period.
Although the large empires did not crumble at once, they suffered heavy defeats during this period. The Persians were essentially destroyed as an empire by the end of this period, and the Romans pushed north into modern-day Turkey. Once Mesopotamia, the Levant, and Iran were clear, the armies of Islam began flowing west along the North African shore. Egypt fell in 639 and most of the rest of North Africa by 652. Much of the Muslim’s success can be attributed to capitalizing on the natural flow of things; they simply kept moving, always fighting the next enemy beyond the one they had just defeated. As the armies advanced, they sometimes were invited to assist in various disputes. Some Roman governors invited Muslim forces in to assert their independence from Constantinople only to lose their independence to the invited Muslim armies. By the end of this period, the Middle East and North Africa had shifted from primarily Christian rule to primarily Muslim rule.
Although the religious allegiance of the leadership in this period changed, the vast majority of the population maintained their personal religious affiliations. There were very few instances of conversion by the sword. Those who submitted to the Muslim invaders were allowed to pay a tax to provide for the protection of the Muslim forces. Most of the Muslim fighters stayed in camps outside the major urban areas in order to keep Islam and the native religions separate. The conversion of the populace happened over time, typically generations.
Why does it matter to ISIS? ISIS characterizes itself as a Muslim force fighting in the style of these early armies. It looks toward the past for historical examples of when and how battles were fought. Alhough it does not seek to fight exactly as the Muslims did anciently, ISIS does follow some of the same general patterns described previously.
Dates: independence declared May 14, 1948
What is important? It can be said that the modern incarnation of the jihadi movement got its intellectual roots from the Palestinian opposition fighters of the 1960s and 1970s as they used terror to grab the world’s attention and explain their desire for self-determination. The very existence of Israel as a predominantly Jewish state that defeated each and every one of their Arab neighbors in war was deemed insulting and humiliating by groups like ISIS. Jews were identified in the Quran and the teachings of the prophet as protected people—those needing the protection of the Muslims to survive within the caliphate. Here were protected people that were now the dominant people. This could not be. There must be some conspiracy that made this situation happen. Of course the conspiracy was that Israel is a modern-day crusader state thrust into the Middle East by European powers and kept in a dominant position by Western technology and weapons. Although ISIS does not mention Israel in all of its articles and broadcasts it is typically there as an undercurrent theme.
What follows is a brief description of the major conflicts in Israel’s history. The country was born in conflict; even before it declared itself to be a state it was under attack. What the modern state of Israel refers to as its War of Independence was fought in 1947 to 1948. In 1923, the League of Nations instituted the temporary rule of Palestine by Great Britain (known as the British Mandate). Prior to this mandate, Palestine was under Ottoman control. The British Mandate was set to end on May 14, 1948. The United Nations had adopted a partition plan that proposed the establishment of independent Arab and Jewish states with international oversight for the city of Jerusalem, but the plan was uncertain to come into effect before the mandate ended. Zionist leaders (Jews who favored an independent Jewish state) declared their independence and the war was on. Israel defeated armies from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria along with additional forces from other Arab states. This abject failure in conflict by the Arab states led to several political changes including a coup de tat against the King in Egypt and a revolution in Syria. None of the countries were actually ready to fight except Jordan whose military was trained and led primarily by British officers.
The next war is referred to as the 1956 War or the Suez Crisis. This war was based on something out of fiction as the British government was angry with the Egyptian government for nationalizing the Suez Canal and the British and French wanted Israel to attack across the Sinai toward the canal. French and British forces would call for a cease fire and then land paratroopers with the argument that they were there to protect the canal. The entire world knew of the charade very soon after the conflict began. Although the Israelis made it to the canal, they eventually withdrew under international pressure led by the United States.
In 1967 Egypt, acting on warnings given by the Soviet Union of impending Israeli attacks on their Arab neighbors, prepared for war and blocked the exit from the Gulf of Aqaba—Israel’s only access to the Red Sea and ultimately the Indian Ocean. This was deemed to be a casus belli (or justification for war) by Israel. The United States was fully committed to Vietnam and not interested in sorting out the problem. Israel ultimately decided to go to war to protect its national interests and what it believed to be its national survival in what many call the Six Day War or the 1967 War. Here Israel had stunning victories against Egypt. It destroyed the Egyptian air force on the ground in a surprise attack, and it then marched across the Sinai Peninsula to the Suez Canal. It then turned against Jordanian forces that had fired artillery against Israel in an attempt to show solidarity with Egypt. Israel took the West Bank and captured the city of Jerusalem. Finally Israel went against Syria in the Golan Heights and took the land. When people speak of the “occupied territories,” it is the Palestinian lands captured in this war—the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights.
There followed an uneasy “peace” for several years. This peaceful period included the first of many terrorist attacks launched by Palestinians from neighboring countries against Israel. In this period, Israel adopted a policy it has used until today. It reacts against the country from which an attack is launched as if that country launched the attack.
In 1973, the Arabs surprised Israel in what many call the Yom Kippur War or the October War. The Egyptians successfully crossed the Suez Canal and pushed the Israelis away from the canal. The Syrians had initial successes in the Golan Heights, but they were later pushed back. The Israelis also penetrated the Egyptian lines by the canal and made a crossing of their own. By the time the United States and the Soviet Union forced the sides to stop fighting, the Israelis had columns on the roads toward Cairo and Damascus. Despite the response, the ultimate result was a peace deal between Israel and Egypt, called the Camp David Accords, where Israel traded the Sinai for peace with Egypt. For this deal, Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian President, was assassinated.
The Yom Kippur War or the October War could be argued to be the last war that Israel fought against Arab states. All of its other fighting has been against nonstate and substate actors. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon to defeat Palestinian opponents who were attacking northern Israel from there. It continued to fight in southern Lebanon from 1982 to 2000. Israel also dealt with Palestinian uprisings or intifadas within the occupied territories in 1987 and again in 2000. Both of the intifadas lasted longer than a year and challenged the notions of what it means to be Israeli. As mentioned in the entry on Hezbollah, Israel fought a war with it in 2006. It also conducted numerous operations against Hamas in the Gaza Strip from 2005 until the present.
Why does it matter to ISIS? Israel serves several roles for ISIS. It is a unifying enemy for most, if not all, salafi-jihadi groups and a constant source of motivation for ISIS. It is unlikely, however, that ISIS will be launching attacks against Israel anytime soon as the Syrian government forces and Hezbollah currently are in between ISIS and Israel.
Jabhat al-Nusra (جبهة النصرة لأهل الشام “The Support Front for the People of Al-Sham”)
What is important? Jabhat al-Nusra (or al-Nusra Front as many in the media refer to it) is a salafi-jihadi organization. It is a break off from ISIS sent to Syria in 2012 with the intent of developing the salafi-jihadi opposition to Bashar al-Assad. The group declared itself as a member of al-Qaeda when ISIS changed its name from the Islamic State of Iraq to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham in 2014. This announcement meant that ISIS was now in Syria full time. Consequently, Jabhat al-Nusra would have to either take orders from ISIS or declare its allegiance elsewhere. It chose the second option in aligning with al-Qaeda. The internal struggle between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS captured a lot of media attention in 2014 and 2015 though few reports properly credited the origin of the groups or recognized the reason for the friction.
Fundamentally, Jabhat al-Nusra has the same ideology as ISIS. It does not emphasize the apocalyptic vision nor does it promote the harshest anti-Shia statements. That said, it operates in Syria where the majority of its opponents—the Syrian regime or Hezbollah—are Shia making this difference moot. Jabhat al-Nusra’s membership is generally Syrian, another difference from ISIS, which incorporates more foreigners into its fighting organizations.
In the comparison between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS often comes off as more extreme and less cooperative. There are multiple Sunni states funneling money to the Syrian opposition, and many of them prefer religiously strict organizations if possible. Jabat al-Nusra has often been characterized in this way. As a result, it has been courted by several of the states to break from al-Qaeda with the offer of money as an enticement. So far it has not taken the enticement.
Jabhat al-Nusra is one of the most effective antiregime organizations in Syria. It has been successful in small and medium operations, and it has effectively defeated other less religious opposition groups on multiple occasions. In this regard, it is one of the most formidable non-ISS forces in Syria.
Why does it matter to ISIS? ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra have fought each other in a variety of places, the most significant being in and around Deir al-Zour. Jabhat al-Nusra has typically fared poorly given that this is an area where ISIS is dominant. It has moved further west in the country, and ISIS has yet to move into those locations. As the competition in Syria continues to play out it is uncertain how this will resolve itself. Right now ISIS has the upper hand, but Jabhat al-Nusra remains its most significant opponent.
What is important? The Arabic language does not have upper- and lower-case letters so there is no way to distinguish the difference between words based solely on a capital letter. For example, in English one can communicate two different things when talking about crusade depending on whether a capital or lower-case letter is used to begin the word. The use of lower case denotes a supreme commitment of effort toward any project that is deemed valuable while the use of a capital letter typically refers to the Crusading period discussed previously (see Crusades). The comparable word in Arabic is jihad or Jihad. As written in English, the lower-case version can mean to strive, to apply oneself, to struggle, to persevere. When begun with an upper-case letter, it takes on a different meaning—holy war for the defense of the faith. Jihad when written with a lower—case first letter can carry the same meaning, but the point is to communicate that the word has multiple meanings. For most Muslims, it means a personal struggle—fasting during the month of Ramadan is typically considered a jihad, for example.
It is a small group of Muslims that thinks of jihad as something to be waged with violence in the defense of the faith. This is true regardless of the circumstances or the period in history. Most people are not inclined to perform acts of violence regardless of the precipitating cause. There are two kinds of jihad in Islamic law—compulsory and voluntary. An example of compulsory jihad would be the invasion of a Muslim country by a non-Muslim country. The Soviet Union’s perceived invasion of Afghanistan is one such example. The compulsion for fighting moves in concentric rings from those directly affected outward to a point where it may be a compulsion on all Muslims. If those people most closely affected by the invasion are not capable of stopping the aggressors and driving them back, then those next closest to the area are under the obligation to fight and so on until the aggressors are driven from Muslim lands.
The voluntary form of jihad is more controversial and tends to be preached by jihadi thinkers. It is based on interpretations of jurisprudence given when the borders between Muslim and non-Muslim lands were open and raids and engagements between the parties were common. In this case, the interpretation is that Muslims are free to wage jihad as a means of punishing the nonbelievers. Abdullah Azzam, the intellectual thinker behind al-Qaeda, wrote a legal treatise describing these two forms of jihad. He advocated for the performance of both, though his priority was on driving the Soviets from Afghanistan at the time of writing.
Why does it matter to ISIS? ISIS believes that Muslim lands have been invaded by western nonbelieving countries physically and conceptually through the spread of the ideas of non-believers. All of the countries of the region, other than the Islamic State, are contaminated by the western beliefs, making jihad necessary in order to remove the invaders and their ideas. This is obligatory. The region must be cleansed. In this case, the caliph has also called for a general jihad, making it obligatory for all Muslims everywhere to respond, not simply those who are geographically closest to the Middle East.
Kharajites or Khawarij (الخارجية, خوارج)
What is important? Kharajites are literally those who went out. They are outsiders. The word kharajite is derived from the root for such words as outside, exit, etc. Thus the term refers to those outside the faith or outside the norms and beliefs of the community of believers.
This group dates back to the period of succession following the death of the third caliph of Sunni Islam, Uthman ibn Affan. The Kharajites, then referred to by a different name, argued that the succession should be determined by combat of champions of any Muslim and not just Quraysh or even Arabs. They tended to favor Ali. Some have even suggested that they were responsible for the murder of Uthman. Regardless, they were a dedicated group committed to having a clean succession. Rather than have the competition, there was a negotiated settlement that placed Ali as the caliph after an indecisive battle between the two forces.
The Kharajites took it on themselves to assassinate each of the main participants in the succession struggle though only Ali was actually killed while at prayers in Kufa, Iraq. The group continued for some time as a plague on rulers deemed to be impure, but it has not again shaped the debate of the succession or of the faith as it did at the beginning. The group has moderated over the centuries such that its intellectual and literal descendants are one of the most moderate forms of modern Islam in Oman and in small pockets elsewhere.
Why does it matter to ISIS? Some, including the King of Jordan, have used the word Kharajites or Khawarij to designate ISIS. The historical and contextual baggage associated with the words help emphasize the status of ISIS as being outside the larger Muslim community; many view it as outside the law and the accepted norms of the faith and community of believers. It is unclear how much this has resonated within Islam.
Kobane, Battle of
Dates: September 13, 2014–March 15, 2015
What is important? Kobane is the Turkish name for a village that sits on Syria’s northern border with Turkey about a third of the way along the border from west to east. It is along a tributary stream of the Euphrates River. The Arabic name for the village is Ayn al-Arab (Arab Spring or Spring of the Arab). The city had a population of about 40,000 people. As ISIS advanced toward the city, tens of thousands of residents escaped into Turkey.
In October 2014, ISIS advanced capturing dozens and then hundreds of villages. This is a predominantly Kurdish area, and the Kurds fled in large numbers. Kurdish fighters from the YPG defended the villages and the city of Kobane. The YPG were joined by elements of the free Syrian Army and other opposition groups to the Syrian regime and to ISIS.
ISIS enjoyed initial success; it captured more than 60 percent of the city by the end of 2014. In January 2015, the YPG and others counterattacked and drove back ISIS from Kobane and from most of the villages previously taken. By March 2015, the pre-Kobane lines were generally restored. The counterattack enjoyed significant support from coalition aircraft, but none from the Turkish military that overwatched the battle area.
Why does it matter to ISIS? The Battle of Kobane is held up as the coalition model of success. While the coalition claims to have retaken the city through a combination of coalition airpower and indigenous “boots on the ground” ISIS claims to have accomplished what it intended to achieve in Kobane. The city was destroyed (more than 70 percent of the buildings damaged or destroyed) and no one can live there.
What is important? See al-Sham (Levant).
Why does it matter to ISIS? See al-Sham (Levant).
What is important? The Mahdi is a figure that features prominently in both Sunni and Shia Islam though with different specific expressions and expectations. The Arabic root is also used in the words for peaceful, smooth, and calm. Simply stated, a Mahdi is a righteous person. In terms of Islam specifically it means one who smooths the paths before. In general, the Mahdi is a person who will rule before the Day of Judgment or Day of Resurrection as a forerunner to those end times.
The Mahdi is not explicitly referenced in the Quran, but there are several references to the Mahdi in the hadith. In some branches of Shia Islam, it is believed that the Mahdi has already come and is in hiding until the end of times when he will reveal himself. In some interpretations, Jesus is the Mahdi though this is not commonly accepted.
The role and position of the Mahdi are somewhat mystical and it carries with it a great deal of significance. Over time there have been several people who claimed to be the Mahdi and who drew hundreds and thousands of people to it. In these declarations, entire societies have been motivated to follow a leader who offered them an opportunity to bring about the end of days.
Why does it matter to ISIS? While ISIS has not, as yet, made reference to the Mahdi, it is a group focused on Islamic end-of-days prophecies. This makes understanding the Mahdi, who will play a key role in the fulfillment of these prophecies, useful as part of a study of the Islamic State.
What is important? Mosul is the second largest urban area in modern-day Iraq. It sits astride the Tigris River. Anciently, the Assyrian capital of Nineveh was on the eastern bank of the river where modern-day Mosul sits. Mosul was the capital city of the Ninawa governorate in Iraq until June 2014 when it was captured by ISIS. The city has a population of around one million people though specific numbers vary significantly (between 750,000 and 2,500,000) depending on the source. The largest estimates are no longer true as hundreds of thousands have fled before and during ISIS control. The lowest estimates refer to the urban center only and not the greater metropolitan area. Prior to the invasion of ISIS, the city was predominantly Arab with Kurdish, Turcoman, and Yazidi minorities.
Mosul has consistently been a regionally important city going all the way back to Assyrian times. In historic significance, Salah al-Din (Saladin) ruled from Mosul.
In 2014, ISIS conducted a great deal of engagements with civic and tribal leaders in and around Mosul. Since the fall of Saddam’s regime in 2003 the city served as a hotbed for disaffected persons belonging to the Ba’ath party. The groups in opposition to the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad welcomed ISIS and believed that it could control what it perceived to be a backward group. In retrospect, ISIS controlled them as it swept into the city. The initial reports were that ISIS was conducting a prison break in June 2014 and did not have designs on controlling the entire city. The Iraqi security forces responsible for the protection of the city fled at the approach of ISIS, allowing ISIS to take the city as a target of opportunity. There is some question regarding the accuracy of this story, but that was the rumor in June and July 2014 and it deserves some credence. It communicates the opportunistic nature of ISIS and the level of corruption and inherent internal weakness of the Iraqi Security Forces.
It was in Mosul that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself caliph and invited all Muslims to come and support the caliphate.
Mosul has been a major source of revenue for ISIS throughout its occupation. The government in Baghdad continued to pay government employees living in Mosul, thus providing a constant source of revenue to ISIS. While these payments have ceased, the taxation of a million or more people provides the single largest source of income to the state coffers. Mosul is also the most urban area controlled by ISIS with all of the amenities to include a major university with medical facilities and chemical laboratories.
North of the city of Mosul lies the Mosul Dam that is an earthen dam built on a geologically unstable foundation of gypsum. The dam has regularly been declared dangerously close to collapse. Should the dam fail, it would risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of people all of the way down the Tigris River valley to Baghdad and beyond.
Why does it matter to ISIS? Mosul is the crown jewel of cities in the caliphate. The coalition’s intent was to regain Mosul in 2015, but the fall of Ramadi in May of that year put those plans on hold until early 2016. Although numerous operations with coalition air support (typically conducted by Kurdish fighters) have nibbled away at the villages and road networks around Mosul throughout 2015 the city is still strongly in the hands of ISIS.
What is important? The word in Arabic means chant. A nasheed is a type of music typically performed in acapella as conservative Muslim clergy have issues regarding musical accompaniment. There are several hadith that seem to forbid the use of musical instruments. The famous salafi scholar Ibn Taymiyyah is reported to have said that music was like alcohol to the soul.
Why does it matter to ISIS? Various groups have nasheeds that are available on YouTube or other online media sources. These are like music videos in support of the jihad. ISIS has used nasheeds to promote its message and to link its actions in a heroic narrative. Other groups use these as well. Depending on the group, the video may include music. The most prevalent nasheed for ISIS in 2014 and early 2015 was called the Islamic State Arises. The lyrics are as follows. These lyrics give a sense of the narrative being woven by ISIS.
My ummah, dawn has appeared
So await the expected victory
The Islamic State has arisen
By the blood of the righteous
The Islamic State has arisen
By the jihad of the pious
They have offered their souls
In righteousness with constancy and conviction
So that the religion may be established
In which there is the law of the lord of the worlds
My ummah, accept the good news
And don’t despair victory is near
The Islamic State has arisen
And the dreaded might has begun
It has arisen tracing out glory
And the period of setting has ended
By faithful men who do not fear warfare
They have created eternal glory
That will not perish or disappear
My ummah, God is our Lord
So grant your blood
For victory will not return
Except by the blood of the martyrs
Who have spent their time hoping for their Lord
In the abode of the prophets
They have offered their souls to God
And for the religion there is self-sacrifice
The people of giving and granting
Are the people of excellence and pride
My ummah, accept the good news
[sword being drawn]
The sun of steadfastness has arisen
Verily we have marched [marching feet]
In masses for the hills the time-honored glory
My ummah, accept the good news [gunshot]
The sun of steadfastness has arisen
Verily we have marched
In masses for the hills the time-honored glory
That we may return the light
Faith and glorious might
By men who have forsaken the dunya
And attained immortality
And have revived the ummah of glory
And the assured victory
My ummah, dawn has appeared
So await the expected victory
The Islamic State has arisen
By the blood of the righteous
Dates: c. 1950 to 1960–April 23, 2013
Name: Mohammed Omar Mujahid (ملا محمد عمر مجاهد)
Key Events in His Life: Mohammed Omar is also known by many as Mullah Omar. He was an Afghan mujahedeen and the leader of the Taliban. He ruled Afghanistan from September 27, 1996, to November 13, 2001. He lived primarily in Kandahar, and even when he ruled Afghanistan, he rarely left the city. He is enigmatic and few details of his life are known for certain. Only two pictures of him exist, and neither one is certainly him.
He left Afghanistan to study in Pakistan before the Soviet appearance in Afghanistan. He later fought with the mujahedeen and distinguished himself in battle where he lost an eye to shrapnel. Following the Soviet departure, he played almost no role in the fighting of the warlords. Eventually he led a group of students (Talibs or Taliban in the Pashto language) to fight against the injustice of the warlords. One of the myths (or maybe facts) about his command claims that he captured a mosque that supposedly held a cloak worn by the Prophet Mohamed. He placed that cloak on his shoulders and was declared by his followers as amir al-mu’minin (see Amir al-Mu’minin) as foretold of anyone to wear the cloak. He led the Taliban on a series of lightning raids and offensives that captured nearly all of Afghanistan within weeks.
The Taliban are a highly conservative, religiously based organization—it is salafi in some respects—especially with regard to interpretations of the faith and sharia. The rule of the Taliban was deemed harsh and repressive. It took the country backward with respect to treatment of women and education. The Taliban also ended a great deal of the corruption and the abuses of the warlords.
Mohammed Omar died of tuberculosis in 2013, but this fact was kept hidden from the world and his own followers for more than two years. The Taliban finally admitted to his death on July 29, 2015. The fact that such a leader in a well-known struggle involving the United States and other major players could be kept hidden for so long attests to his secretive nature.
Why does it matter? Mohammed Omar listened to and read the writings of Abdullah Azzam. He met with and knew Osama bin Laden before al-Qaeda became known. These intellectual and social connections led bin Laden to have his training bases and his operations run from Afghanistan. It was this connection that led U.S. Forces to Afghanistan in 2001 following the attacks on the United States by al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001.
He was acknowledged by many in the salafi-jihadi community as the amir al-mu’minin. With this title, many declared allegiance to him or at least respected him for the title. The declaration of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the amir al-mu’minin created something of a friction within that community that could not be resolved while he lived.
Operation Desert Storm
Dates: August 2, 1990–February 28, 1991
What is important? In response to the invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990, the United States spent nearly six months deploying about 700,000 personnel and thousands of pieces of heavy equipment to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as part of a powerful international coalition involving nearly a million personnel and 34 nations.
The objective of the campaign was to expel Iraq from Kuwait. The limited nature of campaign objectives was due in part to UN Security Council resolutions. The multinational nature of the coalition served as a limiting factor as well. Different nations joined the coalition with very different expectations and requirements. In particular, it was feared that the Arab members of the coalition would not go along if the United States required much beyond simply expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Thus there were severe limits.
The military campaign, known as Operation Desert Storm, took place in two parts—an aggressive air campaign that began on January 17, 1991—and a lightning fast ground campaign that began on February 24 and ended on February 28. It is sometimes referred to as the 100-Hour War. Obviously, when combining the air and the ground campaigns together was a lot more than 100 hours. It is certain that without the extensive air campaign, the ground fighting would have been longer with more coalition casualties. As it was, the coalition only suffered about a thousand casualties compared to Iraqi casualties of over 100,000.
President George H. W. Bush called on the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam Hussein as the President of Iraq. Broadcasts from Arabic language radio stations gave the impression that the coalition would support popular uprisings. This was never the intent of the coalition. Regardless of intent, both the Shias in the south and the Kurds in the north began a popular uprising and enjoyed initial success against regime security forces.
Formal hostilities between the coalition and the Iraqi regime were brought to an end by the U.S. government in coordination with its coalition partners. Coalition and Iraqi military commanders met to discuss the cessation of hostilities and the rules for separating forces. During these discussions, the Iraqi military leaders asked to be able to fly helicopters to allow for logistics functions as the coalition had destroyed all the major bridges over the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The coalition leaders agreed to what seemed to be a reasonable request.
The helicopters were instead used to suppress the uprisings and retain government authority throughout Iraq. Following the end of hostilities, a harsh sanctions regime was established that affected Iraqi life at all levels and in every way imaginable. The sanctions were regularly used as a scapegoat by Saddam Hussein for anything bad in Iraq.
Why does it matter to ISIS? The experiences from before, during, and after Operation Desert Storm reverberated both with the U.S. government and the people of Iraq in the initial parts of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Operation Inherent Resolve
Dates: June 15, 2014–Present
What is important? Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) is the named operation for the U.S. military in conducting operations against the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. Much of this book explains the various parts of this operation, so here it is only given in brief summary. The primary nature of OIR at the time of writing is to advise, assist, and train. It also involves the conduct of air strikes by coalition partner countries in support of the various ground forces resident in Iraq and Syria. Other than limited special operations forces from coalition countries, there have been no deployments of army or Marine combat formations. OIR is separate from the actions of Iran and Russia that have sent combat formations into the conflict zone. The coalition is reported to consist of approximately 65 countries. Early 2016 saw small, but important changes to the coalition commitments as more and more combat elements deployed into Iraq.
Why does it matter to ISIS? As OIR exists under the presidential administration of President Obama, it does not include large U.S. combat formations, nor is it likely to short of a significant attack conducted by ISIS on U.S. soil. It is uncertain how the operation will change when a new president is inaugurated in 2017.
Operation Iraqi Freedom
Dates: Operation Iraqi Freedom (March 20, 2003–August 31, 2010): U.S. military named operation for the invasion of Iraq in order to overthrow the regime of long-time dictator Saddam Hussein and seize purported stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
Operation New Dawn (September 1, 2010– December 31, 2011): U.S. military named operation for the advise-and-assist effort in support of the Iraqi security forces and in conjunction with the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
What is important? Although technically there were two U.S.-named operations for the conduct of operations in the country of Iraq between 2003 and 2011, they are both typically linked into one named operation: Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).
The war began with attacks from the air against key Iraqi leaders—none of which were effective in killing any of the 200 designated senior regime targets. The air campaign was referred to as “Shock and Awe” as it delivered an enormous amount of explosives with precision against the whole of the Iraqi government and infrastructure in a relatively short time. This was designed to paralyze the regime and either cause it to collapse or prevent it from controlling its military forces.
The ground campaign included two main forces advancing side by side from Kuwait-oriented north on Baghdad. On the right (east) was the Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) that included the U.S. Marine Corps First Division and a United Kingdom division. The Marines attacked all the way to Baghdad whereas the British oriented its efforts on securing the southern city of Basra. On the left (west) was the U.S. Army V Corps (V [(US] Corps) that included the Third Infantry (Mechanized) Division (3 ID) as the main effort with the 101st Air Assault Division (101 ID) in support. It was originally planned for the Fourth Infantry (Mechanized) Division (4 ID) to attack from the north after moving through Turkey, but on March 1, 2003, the Turkish parliament voted against allowing U.S. forces to move through or operate from Turkish territory. The 4 ID was forced to move its equipment from Turkish waters through the Suez Canal and then into and through Kuwait to get into Iraq.
The combat maneuver formations sought to avoid urban areas as much as possible. They moved through them when necessary to cross the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and to move through more difficult terrain like the agricultural areas crisscrossed by irrigation ditches. As V (US) Corps approached Baghdad, the forces were funneled into a narrow geographic area between the Euphrates River and the Razazza Lake. This area is known as the Karbala Gap. In the middle of this area is the city of Karbala. Some of the heaviest fighting happened in this area.
The government of Iraq collapsed rapidly with the primary fighting ending in less than three weeks—one of the fastest conquests of a modern state in history. The defeat of military forces was not the problem, but the governing of a country was for several reasons.
First, the Iraqi governing councils, and later their elected representatives, had little control over the resources and organs of a state. The infrastructure of Iraq was in shambles. Some of the shambles were a result of the combat action in the spring of 2003 and some from the combat actions of 1991. Many others were a result of the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq from 1991 until 2003. The idea that Saddam Hussein would be personally affected by the sanctions or that the organizations and entities essential to his existence as an authority figure in Iraq would be threatened by such sanctions was naïve on the part of western governments. Saddam used what money he obtained to maintain his security and intelligence apparatus and made sure those most essential or loyal to him received the benefits of modernity—electricity, clean water, etc. The rest of the population suffered as the Iraqi infrastructure degraded.
Second, those initially designated to be in the interim governing body were not respected by the Iraqi people. They were either seen as outsiders (exiles given power by the invaders) or as lackeys to the invading forces. To gain credibility, it was almost necessary to be seen as opposing the Coalition Provisional Authority or at least not kowtowing to them in every action. Thus nothing moved as quickly as expected. Everything in Iraq is hard, became one of the most often repeated phrases by coalition soldiers and officials. It was said, because it was true.
Third, there were several relatively rapid elections. No one governed for any significant length of time in Iraq until after the period in question. This almost continuous handover of authority from one person to the next—the musical chairs game of Iraqi politics, if you will—fostered a sense of corruption as a means of survival. The Americans were pouring money into the country. If you wanted to get your hands on that money and benefit yourself and your family, then you needed to act while you had the chance. As a result, little was really accomplished with the resources provided because those resources were often squandered or horded and then sent to out of country estates and banks for later use and benefit.
Fourth and most important were the two decisions to unemploy thousands upon thousands of the technically proficient people of Iraq. The orders known as Order One and Order Two put out of work the political leadership and the security leadership. This meant that lots of young, military-trained people and nearly all those who were trained to organize and lead were now without meaningful employment for themselves or their families. Their world was destroyed.
One of the most important objectives to understand is the growing disconnect between how the coalition saw what was happening and what was actually happening. The rise of a sectarian ideological struggle took time to be comprehended by the United States and other members of the coalition. The U.S.-led coalition began to fall apart in 2004 with nine countries withdrawing their forces. The most famous of these was the Spanish contingent that withdrew after the Madrid bombings in 2004 due to the mishandling of blame and a perceived cover-up by the Spanish government regarding who was responsible for the attacks. Another two countries each departed in 2005 and 2006. A new four-star commander named George Casey ran the fighting from a command called Multi-National Forces-Iraq or MNF-I. General Casey believed that limited American participation and visibility within Iraq would both encourage Iraqis to step forward and discourage attacks on U.S. forces. He was sent to Iraq with a mandate to withdraw U.S. forces within 18 months from the time he took command (he commanded from June 4, 2004, until February 10, 2007). This time limit demonstrated more than anything else a lack of understanding of Iraq and what was happening there by senior leaders in Washington, DC. Another example of the disconnect was the fact that many in the Bush Administration and MNF-I hesitated to call what was happening in Iraq a civil war.
The final factor that played a critical role in the war was the improvised explosive device or IED. These devices plagued the United States and coalition military personnel throughout the fighting; more people were wounded or killed by IEDs than any other weapon system in the war.
In 2006, the United States had a midterm election in which the President’s party lost control of both the House and the Senate and he entered a period of greater political oversight and scrutiny. This is also when the Surge was decided and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld resigned. Robert Gates became the new Secretary of Defense.
The final transition of the war came with the inauguration of the Obama Administration that sought to end the war in order to fulfill campaign promises.
Why does it matter to ISIS? The relationship between Operation Iraqi Freedom and ISIS has a great deal to do with the question of genesis. What created ISIS? This question plagued politicians throughout the rise and success of ISIS. Was it the decision to invade, the failed occupation that created chaos and sectarianism in Iraq, the rapid withdrawal that left an unstable and divided Iraq? Or was it all of the above? The connection between Operation Iraqi Freedom and what has become of the Middle East cannot be undone, but maybe it can be understood.
What is important? The Ottoman Empire ruled modern-day Turkey and most of what is today called the Levant, Mesopotamia, and the Arabian Peninsula from about 1299 to 1924. The empire grew from the earliest periods until the 1500s when it reached its greatest extent; it governed much of the eastern portions of North Africa and a significant portion of southeastern Europe to include all of the Balkan Peninsula. The Ottomans are Turkic people who came into Anatolia as nomadic raiders under the direction of the Abbasid caliphs and remained. They became the Muslim power in Anatolia following the Mongol invasion of Mesopotamia and the collapse of the Abbasids. The group slowly expanded beyond Anatolia with a primary interest toward Europe. It captured Constantinople and effectively ended the Roman (Byzantine) Empire in 1453 CE. It was in this period that it became an empire.
The Ottomans later expanded south to capture the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and they declared their ruler the successor of the prophet and caliph. The Ottomans fought the Safavids throughout the coexistence of the two empires with the Ottomans generally coming off better and exerting control over Mesopotamia. The Ottomans were Sunni Muslims and under their leadership some of the greatest missionary movements in Islamic history took place. The Ottomans also introduced slave soldiers called Janissaries to the world, and they became one of the first gunpowder empires. They were the last generally accepted caliphate in Islam.
Why does it matter to ISIS? ISIS has declared many other Muslims to be nonbelievers or apostates, and it does not accept the idea that a Turk could be a legitimate successor of the prophet. It tends to reject the Ottoman leadership.
Palmyra, Syria (تدمر)
What is important? Called Tadmoor in Arabic, Palmyra is a city that sits a little more than midway between Damascus and Deir al-Zour on the Euphrates River. It is an ancient city with a history dating back to before the Roman Empire. One of the most famous leaders of ancient Palmyra was Queen Zenobia who ruled a large and influential empire in the late 200s AD. She is considered a significant figure in Syrian history even today.
Due to its role as a seat of regional leadership and its position anciently on a major caravan route, the city boasted impressive architecture. As it sits on a sort of cross-roads of civilization, the ruins show traces of Roman, Hellenistic, and Mesopotamian influences. Prior to the arrival of ISIS, Palmyra contained some of the most stunning ruins from the Roman and Hellenistic periods. The modern-day city and ruins include a marvelous colonnade and a spectacular temple of Bal. It is this temple and other buildings that were targeted by ISIS when it took the city in the spring of 2015.
Why does it matter to ISIS? ISIS captured the city of Palmyra and the surrounding ruins on May 13, 2015, and entered the world heritage site on May 21, 2015. Since its occupation it has raided and sold artifacts and destroyed structures. The old amphitheater has been used as a place for public executions. Palmyra is a singular example of ISIS as an iconoclastic group and as an opponent of Western civilization and non-Islamic heritage. Palmyra was retaken by Syrian government forces along with Russian fire support on 27 March 2016.
What is important? The Holy Quran is considered by Muslims to be the word of God as given to Mohamed by the Angel Gabriel. The Quran was not written by Mohamed nor is it his book. He was commanded by Gabriel to recite and thus each verse (or ayah) and chapter (or sura) of the book was a recitation committed to memory by Mohamed and then recited to his followers, which they in turn memorized and recited. The word Quran means recitation.
The Quran is the unedited and unfiltered word of God. It is more than words and in its written form more than a book. For non-Muslims, it can be difficult to understand the reverence Muslims have for the Quran. A close approximation for Christians could be when the Gospel of John refers to Jesus Christ as the Word. For Muslims, the Quran is the embodiment of the teachings and mind and will of God. In this sense, to desecrate the Quran is to desecrate God himself.
The Quran was not committed to paper until after the death of the prophet. Several of the companions of the prophet worked with scribes to capture all of the words properly. Because the Quran was given in the Arabic language, Arabic is considered the only authentic language—thus there are no translations of the Quran. All versions of Quran in languages other than Arabic are considered interpretations. The Quran is regarded as the pinnacle of written or spoken Arabic, and indeed any language. In this sense, Arabic is the language of God, and the ideal form of the language is instantiated in the Quran. To hear or read Quranic Arabic is to hear the voice of God.
Quranic scholarship and memorization are worthy of significant respect within the ummah. There are competitions every year for the memorization of the entire book consisting of 114 chapters, or suras. The suras tend to be divided into Meccan or Medinan characterizations depending on the city in which Mohamed resided when the information was received.
Why does it matter to ISIS? The roots of all Islamic arguments for the caliphate begin with Quranic authority. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a graduate of Islamic studies.
What is important? The Quraysh tribe was a powerful merchant tribe that ruled the western coasts of Arabia and controlled Mecca and the Ka’aba during the lifetime of the Prophet Mohamed and for many centuries afterward. By tradition, the members of the tribe are descendants of Abraham through his son Ishmael. Mohamed was a member of the Banu Hashim clan of the Quraysh. Generally speaking, the Quraysh were originally hostile to Mohamed and his message of monotheism. This message threatened the importance of the Ka’aba that was then a shrine to polytheism and a source of great profit as tribes made an annual pilgrimage to the site. It was members of the tribe that drove Mohamed to flee Mecca for Medina and members of the tribe who fought against the Muslims in Medina.
When Mohamed united Arabs under the banner of Islam, the Quraysh and members of the various clans and subclans of the Quraysh tribe became the most powerful leaders of the faith both in the conquest of other Arab tribes and in the expansion of Islam beyond the Arabian Peninsula. The Umayyad Caliphate, the Abbasid Caliphate, and the Fatimid Caliphate (Shia) are all based off succession from the Quraysh. The Sunni-Shia split was initially driven by the question of which part of the Quraysh tribe should rule. The Kharajites were driven in their belief that succession and leadership of the ummah should not be linked to lineage, particularly to the Quraysh. In one way or another, much of Islamic history is tied to this tribe and questions about their authority and legitimacy.
Why does it matter to ISIS? ISIS places great significance in the hadith that states that a Quraysh should be the caliph. It emphasizes at every opportunity the fact that caliph Ibrahim is also Abu Bakr al-Qurayshi al-Baghdadi, a descendant of the Quraysh tribe.
Ramadi, Battle of
Dates: November 21, 2014–December 30, 2015 (or present)
What is important? Ramadi is the capital of al-Anbar Province in Iraq. It is a large city of more than 400,000 people, which sits along the Euphrates River about 70 miles from Baghdad and 30 miles from Fallujah. The dates for the battle of Ramadi are interesting in that the battle raged for months. The prime minister of Iraq visited Ramadi on December 30, 2015, but significant portions of the city still remained under ISIS control. The battle began as an insurgency with small groups and small violence that began growing in October 2014 until some reports claimed ISIS controlled about 60 percent of the city.
The fighting in and around the city ebbed and flowed with respect to intensity over the course of a year. ISIS and the Iraqi Army each sent additional forces in support of offensive operations to change the dynamic in the city, but none of them proved decisive until the middle of May 2015 following the loss of Tikrit by ISIS.
Seemingly out of nowhere a major offensive was mounted by ISIS that included more than a dozen powerful truck bombs (each larger than the one used in the Oklahoma City bombing 1995). The cover of a sandstorm was used to capture the last remaining government buildings held by the Iraqi Army. The Iraqi Army fled the city and ISIS took control. It is estimated that ISIS took the city with fewer than 200 fighters against hundreds, if not thousands of Iraqi soldiers. Despite the size of the bombs used and the numbers present in the battle, casualties for both sides were in the hundreds.
The Iraqi government and U.S. senior officials announced an immediate effort to retake the city. That effort began within a matter of days, though it was weak and ineffective. Slow progress occurred over the course of the summer of 2015 with the Iraqi Army isolating the city. On December 8, 2015, the Iraqi Army began a major offensive to retake the city and within three weeks it captured the city center and government buildings, leading to the previously mentioned visit of the prime minister. Pockets of ISIS resistance remained up to the time of writing. Much of the city was destroyed in the recapturing of the city center by the bombs dropped by coalition aircraft and by the IEDs used by ISIS.
Why does it matter to ISIS? Ramadi represents real power. It is a provincial capital, and it is a short distance from Baghdad. It sits on the Euphrates River and controls movement along this major economic artery. Control here gives ISIS credibility.
What is important? Raqqa is a large modern city sitting on the Euphrates River about two-thirds of the way along the course of the river traveling upstream from Iraq to the Turkish border. The city has more than 200,000 people. The city has an ancient history; it served for a short period as capital of the Abbasid Caliphate under the reign of Caliph Harun al-Rashid during what is often deemed the peak of the Islamic Golden Age. It is this period and this caliph that is featured in some of the stories in The Book of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.
Why does it matter to ISIS? ISIS began battling for the city in 2013 and by January 13, 2014, it gained complete control. The city has become something of the de facto capital of the Islamic State. As such, it has been the recipient of several bombing campaigns conducted by coalition and Russian aircraft in 2015 and continuing into 2016, especially following the October 31 downing of a Russian airliner and the November 13, 2015, terrorist attacks in Paris, France.
What is important? The Safavid Empire ruled over modern-day Iran, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, and Armenia. It also ruled over portions of Afghanistan, Georgia, Iraq, Kuwait, the North Caucasus, Pakistan, Syria, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The empire expanded and contracted as it competed with other regional powers of the time, which was 1501 to 1722 (also 1729–1736). In general, it was the last Persian Empire. A lot of modern Iranian identity can be traced to the Safavid Empire. Its main regional rival was the Ottoman Empire. Much of the collision between the two happened in modern-day Iraq and eastern Turkey.
Under Safavid leadership, the empire was transformed from a predominantly Sunni populace to a predominantly Shia populace. This was mandatory. In the Safavid period, it was not uncommon for Safavid rulers to use the Sunni-Shia divide as a recruiting tool to inspire those Shias living within Ottoman lands to revolt against their Sunni overlords. This, in part, led to Ottoman expulsion of some Shias living in the border regions and the Anatolian Plateau. Simply put, when the Safavid dynasty began its rule modern-day Iran was generally a Sunni majority place and when it concluded its rule it was a predominantly Shia country. The religious-cultural imperialism and expansionism were unique to the Safavids; no other Shia empire or caliphate had so mandated a change from Sunni to Shia.
Why does it matter to ISIS? ISIS consistently refers to its Iraqi security force opponents as safawis that means safavids. It uses this term in the derogatory to emphasize the notion of Shia expansionism.
Sahwa (Sunni Uprising)
What is important? The Sahwa movement was known by many different names during the U.S. occupation of Iraq 2003 to 2011. One of these names was the Sunni Awakening movement (حركة الصحوة السنية) and it is from this group that the term sahwa (meaning awakening) is derived.
Organic or emergent are good words to describe what happened in the Sahwa, or awakening, in Anbar province. This movement grew naturally rather than being created by a person or event. The exact beginning of the awakening is nearly impossible to state, but in 2005 and 2006 several tribal leaders in Anbar became frustrated with the death, destruction, and chaos and decided to oppose the foreign fighters. At first, these were not senior tribal leaders, but typically sons or nephews. They gathered small groups of men, and they cooperated with U.S. forces operating in their areas. By the time the Surge began in 2007, the awakening had been going on for more than a year. Sunni tribes were becoming more and more likely to oppose al-Qaeda and other similar groups. Because the local tribes knew who was an Iraqi tribal member and who was a foreigner, it was much easier for them to identify the enemy. The intelligence provided by the awakening was more important than the combat actions conducted by them. In many ways, this is what changed the combat dynamic in Iraq more so than the extra deployment of U.S. soldiers (see The Surge). That said, extra U.S. forces did make engagement with and exploitation of awakening information much more effective.
Sons of Iraq
The Sunni awakening that grew in Anbar province became more and more formal over time. By 2007, the U.S. military began paying Sunni “militias” to provide security and intelligence. Over time, these groups of fighters gained the name the Sons of Iraq. The idea of U.S. leaders was to integrate these tribal fighters into a formal militia under the authority of the Iraqi government. During 2008, the U.S. exerted pressure on the Nuri al-Maliki led government to bring these fighters into some official status. By the end of the year, tens of thousands of fighters were receiving pay from the Iraqi government. Critics of the program likened this to paying bribe money to people who had American and Iraqi blood on their hands. Those who supported the program expressed the benefits in terms of reduced violence, increased intelligence reporting on foreign fighters and al-Qaeda (and other extremist group’s) operatives and operations. Payment of the Sons of Iraq was always problematic. The Iraqi prime minister did not want to pay it; it required consistent U.S. attention and pressure to make this happen. Once that pressure ended, the program rapidly ended as well.
Why does it matter to ISIS? There are many answers to this question.
First, ISIS refers to many Sunnis it perceives to be supporting the enemy (however, it defines that term) as sahwa. So, for ISIS this is a derogative term that connotes collaborator.
Second, the sahwa movement or awakening is seen by the coalition as the way to turn the tides against ISIS. This worked in 2007 to 2010, so it should work now—so the argument goes. For this reason, there is a lot of emphasis placed on working with Sunni tribes to recreate something like the Sons of Iraq.
Third, the rejection of the Sons of Iraq by the Iraqi government started while U.S. forces were in Iraq. The complete abandonment of these tribe members who believed they sacrificed for Iraq as well as their family and tribe was seen as the worst form of abandonment by the government in Baghdad. This created a significant amount of tension between the Shia government and the Sunnis, especially in al-Anbar Province. In this regard, this created a seam into which ISIS could flow in 2014.
What is important? Mohamed said, “The best people are those of my generation, and then those who will come after them (the next generation), and then those who will come after them (i.e. the next generation), and then after them, there will come people whose witness will precede their oaths, and whose oaths will precede their witness” (Sahih Bukhari Volume 8. hadith number 437). This quote from the prophet is the simplest explanation of the perspective of salafi believers. The word salaf means ancestors. One who subscribes to Salafist thought seeks to live according to the teachings and example of the most righteous of people—Mohamed (of course) and those designated by Mohamed as the best generations. This is why Salafist thought focuses on the early interpretations of the faith. It is about returning to that period because this original generation had it right. Over the centuries, this type of thinking has experienced a great deal of variation. Modern salafist thinkers today tend to draw their intellectual roots from Mohamed ibn Abd al-Wahab (see Wahhabi) who lived in what would become Saudi Arabia in the 1800s.
Salafists do not necessarily subscribe to violence. In fact, they are a small subset of Salafism that believes in the use of violence to convey their beliefs. They are typically labeled as salafi-jihadis. Salafists, in general, advocate for their interpretation of the faith through peaceful means.
The basic tenets of Salafism include the following. It bases its legal interpretations strictly from the Quran and the hadeeth, or statements of the prophet. As there are multiple versions of the hadeeth Salafists, use the strictest and most limited of these. Understanding the Quran comes from the Quran and from the hadith and not from rational discourse or reasoned discussion. Understanding of God’s word then comes from God’s word or the words of his prophet. Salafists believe that Mohamed and his companions give an eternal example of the right way to live. Salafists come from all of the various schools of jurisprudence. The belief is a way to live and not simply an issue of legal interpretation. They also follow the sunna, or actions of the prophet, as accurately as possible. This is not simply in prayer, but in all things known concerning how he lived his life.
Why does it matter to ISIS? ISIS subscribes to a Salafist interpretation of Islam. It is stricter than most others of this sect of Islam, and it also adds a component of violence to the general religious interpretation, making ISIS clearly salafi-jihadis.
What is important? The word sharia is generally translated as Islamic Law. Islamic Law is different from Western law in that it is not necessarily codified in a set of books on a lawyer’s shelf. Sharia consists of a several components: the Quran, the statements of the Prophet Mohamed (hadith), the behaviors and actions of the Prophet Mohamed (the sunna), and the interpretations of judges over time (basic jurisprudence or fiqh). There are four major schools of Islamic legal scholarship in Sunni Islam and one primary one in Shia Islam. Each derives its names from the original primary interpreters: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanbali, and Jafari. All of the components combined are used to make judgments within the law.
The purpose of Sharia is not necessarily individual correction, but societal benefit. This law is accepted as the best way to have the best community. It may be instructive to understand that the root of the word sharia is the same as the root for the word street or path in Arabic. In other words, the law could be seen as the right path on which the community needs to travel to be God’s people.
The law addresses a wide array of issues including crime, relationships, property, marriage, etc. It is as holistic as any legal code in the world. Sharia also includes rules of evidence and the consideration of witnesses and personal testimony.
There is no question that Sharia has a lot of connotations in the West as being archaic, backward, and unjust. The point here is not to defend or criticize it, but simply to provide a basic understanding. Sharia is an ancient legal system that dates back to the seventh century, which has effectively brought stability to countless societies over the last 1,400 years. That should be considered before criticism is leveled. In its original application, the legal system was extremely progressive relative to other legal systems of the period. It allowed for rights for women with regard to marriage, divorce, and property ownership. It allowed for the participation of witnesses to determine what is just for the participants in a dispute as well as what was best for the community.
Sharia, as understood by Muslims, is God’s law and as such it is perceived by some as infallible.
Why does it matter to ISIS? ISIS is often labeled as an extremist group. Its acceptance and view of Sharia is extreme with respect to the vast majority of Muslims. It sees Sharia as a fixed and divine law that needs to be enforced rigidly. In this manner, it delivers what is perceived to be harsh judgments. That said, consider what is practiced by the governments in the countries where ISIS has the greatest influence. There is little law, and where it is practiced, it is arbitrary. Although most in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere do not accept ISIS’s harsh legal interpretations, they do accept the fact that those interpretations are based on an understandable law rather than being chaotically and capriciously enforced. If, even harsh laws are enforced consistently, this gives stability over those who do not enforce law at all or who do so by whim.
What is important? Shia is an abbreviation of Shī‘atu ‘Alī (شيعة علي), which means the followers or the partisans of Ali ibn Abi Talib. Ali was the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Mohamed. He is the fourth caliph in Sunni Islam and considered the first imam (one who stands in front as an example and leader of the faith) in Shia Islam and divinely appointed to be so. The divisions between Sunni and Shia start early in Islamic history with the designation of the successors of the prophet. Most Shias believe that Ali was the only legitimate successor to Mohamed. Shias refuse to accept Abu Bakr as a legitimate caliph (successor). For this refusal, some Sunnis refer to Shias as refusers. This is often common in ISIS literature and speech.
Shia Islam comprises about 10 to 15 percent of Muslims. Most of these live in four countries: Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, and India. There are numerous divisions within Shia Islam. These divisions tend to be based off the last Imam that each group considers legitimate. The largest single group is called the Twelvers because it accepts down to the 12th Imam with Ali being the first. The dominant group in Iran is the Twelvers. The other two major groups are Zaidis (common in Yemen) and Ismailis (numerous countries).
Shias believe in the importance of the family of the prophet and those designated to lead the faith—imams. In this regard, Shia Islam tends to be more hierarchical than does Sunni Islam. As no major branch of Shiism currently believes in a living or present imam, it looks toward religious scholars or ayatollahs. These men provide religious guidance and instruction from the Islamic law based off study.
Shias accept that the descendants of the immediate family of the prophet and the imams were infallible and divinely blessed. They also accept the idea that there are hidden leaders who will come back to lead at the end of days.
Why does it matter to ISIS? ISIS believes that the Shias (all of them) refused to accept the first and rightly guided caliphs (see Caliph, Rashidun) and are therefore worse than non-believers. It considers Shia apostate for rejecting those appointed to rule the Islamic community. Shias are more the enemy than the west. In this regard, ISIS is different in its degree of anti-Shia rhetoric and action than almost all other salafi-jihadi groups that may view the Shia as wrong, but not necessarily apostate.
Dates: March 1, 1957–Present
Key Events in His Life: Qasem Soleimani is a major general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Since 1998 he has served as the commander of the Quds Force of that military organization. The Quds force is primarily tasked with fighting Iran’s battles outside of Iran. It is the extra military and clandestine force for the IRGC. Soleimani has worked extensively with Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon and Hamas. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he became the primary architect and orchestrator of the Iranian support to Shia anti-occupation efforts. He coordinated the training and equipping of mostly Iraqi groups that conducted attacks on U.S. forces and Sunni militias. Following the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the increasing Syrian civil war, he played a key role in coordinating Iranian assistance to Syria and developing strategy. With the rise of ISIS and its successful attacks in both Syria and later Iraq, he again became the Iranian leader responsible for coordinating the Iranian and Syrian and Iraqi strategy to oppose ISIS as well as support and sustain the Iranian-friendly regimes in Damascus and Baghdad.
Why does it matter? Qasem Soleimani is one of the most influential people in the Middle East and one of the most critical strategists in the fight against ISIS.
Sunni or ahl al-sunna (أهل السنة)
What is important? This is the denomination of Islam that believes that the first successor of the Prophet Mohamed was his father-in-law Abu Bakr. In Arabic, it is called ahl al-sunna wa al-jamā‘a (أهل السنة والجماعة), which means people of the tradition of Mohamed and the consensus of the community of believers. Sunna comprises the practices of the Prophet Mohamed, the things he did that were witnessed and later recorded as his behaviors. As he is considered to be the most righteous of men and the last prophet, it is his life that should be emulated by all Muslims.
Sunni Islam is the largest denomination of Islam consisting of about 85 to 90 percent of Muslims. In addition to the five pillars of Islam, which all Muslims practice, the Sunnis have six articles of faith in which they believe:
1. Reality of the one true God
2. Existence of the angels of God
3. Authority of the books of God, which are books of Abraham, the Torah, the Psalms, the Gospel, and the Quran
4. Following the prophets of God
5. Preparation for and belief in the Day of Judgment
6. Supremacy of God’s will
Most Sunnis see themselves as the proper form of Islam, and if asked what they are, will simply respond, Muslim. Within Sunni Islam, there are major divisions based off different interpretations of religious law. The groups are typically referred to as schools of law. Each is named for a famous legal scholar (Ẓāhirī, Shafi’i, Maliki, and Hanbali).
Why does it matter to ISIS? All ISIS followers are Sunni. They all accept the articles of faith listed previously, and they all accept the early caliphs. As discussed under then entry for Salafi, they represent a specific interpretation of this broader division of Islam.
The Surge (see also Sahwa [Sunni Uprising])
What is important? The Surge in Iraq of 2007 to 2009 had already become shrouded in myth by the time this book was written. The purpose of the Surge is regularly misunderstood: what it was and what it did. The intent was to send 30,000 additional U.S. ground forces into Iraq to stabilize the security situation, and by so doing, to create an environment wherein the political problems could be solved. This meant that five additional brigade combat teams were sent into Iraq. Many of the currently deployed brigades were extended to 15 months deployments, rather than 12 months; they were originally tasked to serve. General David Petraeus often spoke of a surge of ideas. This was espoused primarily in the new U.S. Army and USMC field manual titled Counterinsurgency. General Petraeus’ assumption of command of Multi-National Forces-Iraq was also part of this surge. His plan was to get soldiers off the large forward operating bases and have them live among the people to provide security to the populace. The idea being that if the populace believed that the United States would work and fight for Iraqis, then they would be more supportive of coalition ideas. The additional U.S. forces coincided with a growing Sunni Awakening in which tribal leaders rose up in opposition to al-Qaeda and other extreme groups and worked with coalition forces.
The Surge was more than U.S. forces. It included Iraqi events that most observers and commentators did not understand. When the political debates rage about whether or not the Surge was successful it is important to keep in mind all that is included in the years 2006 to 2009. It is much more than additional soldiers.
Due to the political nature of the Iraq war by 2007, General Petraeus’ testimony to the U.S. Congress in September of the year was viewed in a partisan way. Many of the members of Congress accused General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker (then U.S. ambassador to Iraq) of presenting the Bush Administration’s perspective rather than an open assessment from their perspectives. This was part of the criticism in a MoveOn.org advertisement in The New York Times as well as other sources.
At the time of the testimony, the BBC reported on a poll of the Iraqi people that stated that 70 percent (93 percent among Sunnis and 50 percent among Shia) of the Iraqi people believed that the Surge made security worse in Iraq. Simple statistics on the number of attacks provided data that indicated that by September 2007 the violence was decreasing, but it would require many more months before the violence returned to 2004 levels.
The debate of success in Iraq is linked to the notion of success or lack of success of the Surge. As noted, this became a critical point in the partisan political fighting in Congress once the Democrats took control in the 2006 elections and also in the 2008 presidential campaign. The questions about success or failure in Iraq became more poignant and significant in 2014 and 2015 as the Islamic State gained control of areas of Iraq and U.S. military forces returned to Iraq to coordinate training and air strikes.
Why does it matter to ISIS? Many U.S. military and some foreign policy leaders believe that the Surge was successful and that reaching out to the populace and convincing Sunni tribes to fight alongside the Iraqi government and the coalition is the model to ultimately defeat ISIS in Iraq. Understanding the mechanics of the Surge is informative in understanding U.S. military thought on fighting ISIS.
Dates: Created 1916
What is important? Mark Sykes, a British diplomat, and François Georges-Picot, a French diplomat, met and discussed over a course of many meetings the nature of a post-Ottoman Empire Middle East. These discussions were taking place in the heat of trench slaughter in World War I and the governments of both countries represented were looking for a success that would validate the costs of the war. The solution was to divide the Ottoman Empire up into spheres of influence that would allow the allies to have various levels of control over terrain deemed advantageous to each of the participants.
The actual terms of the agreement are not as onerous as many commentators make out. It was the interpretation of those terms that generated the long-standing animosity against both France and Britain in the Middle East to the present.
France was allocated control over portions of what is now south-eastern Turkey at the north-eastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea and Great Britain was given control over Mesopotamia and land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Both countries were also given primacy of advice and counsel to governments to be established in what is now Syria for France and Iraq for Great Britain. It was this last designation that most angered Arabs when the agreement became public. They felt the British government had lied to them and promised the same land to multiple people.
The agreement did not actually decide anything as it was not a treaty, but an agreement between government functionaries. Still, it was the lines drawn in these discussions that became the starting point for drawing the lines of the countries in the current Middle East. It is also this perceived double dealing that so angered the Arabs and others in the region against the West.
Why does it matter to ISIS? ISIS has made a point in video productions and its magazine to communicate that it is erasing the lines drawn by the Sykes-Picot Agreement. In fact, in one video a narrator says as much as it shows a bulldozer wiping away the sand berm that marked the boundary between Syria and Iraq that was essentially created by these two European diplomats.
Tikrit, Battle of
Dates: June 2014–April 17, 2015
What is important? Tikrit is the hometown of Saddam Hussein, and it sits on the Tigris River about 90 miles north of Baghdad. This is a large city of more than 250,000 people. It is also the administrative center for the Salah al-Din Province of Iraq. Tikrit fell to ISIS as part of its June 2014 advances into Iraq. The Iraqi government tried to retake the city in short order, but these attacks failed to achieve any real success. The ISIS force inside Tikrit was uncertain, but some numbers report it at between 2,000 and more than 10,000. The larger numbers are probably inaccurate though Tikrit did serve as a location for operations against other targets in the Tigris River valley.
As with other battles, there were numerous clashes between the armed groups and several attempts to retake the city with insufficient force. In late February 2015, the Popular Mobilization Forces (Shia militias) gathered in force and worked with the Iraqi Army to form a large force of more than 20,000 (some say more than 30,000) fighters. This group attacked on March 2, 2015, and began to successfully move into the city. It was stopped on the outskirts from March 13 to 30, but then the Iraqi government coordinated to get coalition air support. Once the attacks came from the air, the Iraqi forces moved into the city and captured the city center and most of the rest of the city by early April with sporadic fighting that lasted until April 17.
A requirement for the coalition to fly in support of the operation was the withdrawal of militias. This was done somewhat; some groups did pull back, but others continued to fight. Regardless, this was the first major offensive by the Iraqi Army, Popular Mobilization Forces, and the U.S.-led coalition.
Why does it matter to ISIS? As stated previously, this was the first serious coordination between all of the then-present anti-ISIS forces. ISIS lost a major city and a symbolic city as the birthplace of Saddam Hussein.
Dates: 661–750 CE (continued to rule from Codoba from 756 to 1031 CE)
What is important? The Umayyad Caliphate was the first dynastic caliphate in Islamic history. It followed the death of Ali ibn Abi Talib as the last of the Rashidun caliphs. The Umayya ruled primarily from Damascus Syria. The Umayya were a clan of the Quraysh tribe, and Uthman ibn Affan, the third Rashidun caliph, was a member of this clan. His murder and Ali’s seeming unwillingness to find those responsible and punish them generated the first major crisis within the ummah. The first ruler of the dynasty was Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan who served as governor of Syria at the time of Uthman’s death. He marched his army on Mecca but arrived after Ali was proclaimed caliph. He demanded those who committed the murder be brought to justice, but this did not happen. Muawiya believed he could and should be caliph. It was not until the assassination of Ali under the hands of the Kharajites that Muawiyah declared himself caliph. He ruled from Damascus as he had as governor and this was where the dynasty continued to rule.
The Umayyads extended the span of control of Islam by conquering all the way into the Iberian Peninsula and the island of Sicily as well as numerous other extensions. The Umayyad Caliphate was the largest singularly governed empire in Islamic history. Following their collapse to the Abbasids, the Islamic world was ruled by more and more local or regional leaders and any one person—caliph or otherwise—struggled to establish or maintain control. It is interesting that the Umayyads provided this largest and most grand manifestation of the ummah yet at the same time they have been viewed by Muslims at the time and to the present as corrupt and less than ideally pious.
The fall of the Umayyads should be seen as inevitable. Ruling an empire that stretched from modern-day India to modern-day Portugal with ancient communication means was impossible for a long period of time. Only the expansion of the faith and the tremendous—battlefield success kept the fractious Arab tribal armies focused. In addition, the Umayyads were the first to deal with governance in a real and practical sense. Were conversions desired if by converting a local governor you lost the substantial jizya tax from the nonbelievers? How does one govern an empire with uneducated tribesman over a vast majority nonbelieving and generally better educated populace? These rather basic problems challenged how Muslims viewed the Umayyad rule.
The final problem was the ethnically diverse populations who chaffed under foreign control even if they had converted to Islam. Local populations opposed the leadership with a distant caliph and revolts broke out at various places over the course of this empire and those that followed. This brought the added problem of Muslims killing Muslims—something forbidden. The empire was seen as corrupt and challenged from multiple sides and within. There came a call for cleansing the ummah, and the Abbasids took over. The ruling family member who escaped the Abbasids fled to Cordoba, Spain and established a dynastic succession that ruled from there for hundreds of years.
Why does it matter to ISIS? ISIS does not respect the Umayyad dynasty nor the heritage it represents. It has desecrated and destroyed shrines built to honor Umayyad caliphs in territory under its control. The Umayyads represent to ISIS something of the problem of Islam itself—corruption and an accommodation to the world. This is what ISIS is calling the ummah to correct.
What is important? This word typically means community. The ummah is used as shorthand to reference the community of believers in Islam. Throughout Islamic writings, this word is important in understanding the simple meaning of the faithful.
Why does it matter to ISIS? ISIS regularly refers to the ummah and its responsibility to protect it. Because it sees itself as the only true worshiper of the faith, it is the ummah and only those who join with it are worthy of that title. All others are unbelievers or apostates.
What is important? Wahhabism is often referred to as a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam and a form of Salafist thinking. The movement takes its name from Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792) who lived in the north of the Arabian Peninsula. He called for a return to a more correct interpretation of the faith. He challenged the practices of traveling to shrines to pray and worship as a form of idolatry, or shirk in Arabic. He also challenged the innovations, or bid’ah, which had, over time, crept into the faith. Innovations to Islam are a sin as the religion was given in its perfected form to Mohamed. For that reason, one only has to live as Mohamed did to live a similarly correct life. Al-Wahhab made alliance with Mohamed bin Saud who formed and ruled the first Saudi State in the Arabian Peninsula in 1744 to 1818.
The relationship between the Wahhabis and the Saudis is critical and essential to the survival and dominance of both. The Wahhabis have not always or generally been violent, but during the rise of Abdul Aziz bin Saud in his efforts to establish the second Saudi state he made alliance with a group of warriors referred to as the Ikhwan or Brotherhood. These were fighters who strictly adhered to a Wahhabi religious interpretation of the faith. Their successful fighting style helped elevate Abdul Aziz to becoming king of what we today call Saudi Arabia. Once he became king of the majority of the peninsula, to include the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, Abdul Aziz was seen by the Ikhwan as becoming less pure in his faith. He worked with foreigners (he always had, but it became more pronounced), and he seemed to make compromises with other Muslims who were not in agreement with the Ikhwan. Abdul Aziz needed to fight the Ikhwan, but to do so he needed the sanction of Wahhabi clerics who pronounced a fatwa (declaration) making it incumbent on the subjects of a kingdom to follow the king. This declaration allowed Abdul Aziz to go against the Ikhwan who opposed him, but it also bound him to the Wahhabi clerics because he could not have maintained his position without them.
The relationship between the Saudi monarchy and the Wahhabi clerics has typically been complex as it was at the beginning. The monarchy empowers their preaching and teaching and has spread schools all over the region through the use of state money. This has made what many consider to be a minority interpretation of Islam, one of the most widely promulgated interpretations in the country and throughout the region.
As a final note, although one can call Wahhabis Salafists they are not necessarily jihadists. The Ikhwan were an early version of salafi-jihadi thought, but most Wahhabis today do not believe it appropriate to promote their faith by the sword—especially not when they can promote it through the school.
Why does it matter to ISIS? ISIS members would not call themselves Wahhabis, but their intellectual roots with respect to cleansing the faith and ruling a kingdom or caliphate through this interpretation have both intellectual and spiritual connections to the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and the military success of the Ikhwan.
What is important? Wilayah means state or province. It comes from a root word that also means to govern. Thus a wilayah is a place that is governed. Groups that have declared their allegiance to ISIS and that control some territory are typically referred to as a wilayah. Examples are as follows in their English versions and geographic locations (given from west to east):
Wilayat Algeria (al-Jiza’ir)
Wilayat West Africa (Gharb al-Afriqiya)
Portions of Nigeria, Chad, and Niger
Sinai Peninsula (Northeastern Egypt)
Eastern Saudi Arabia
Afghanistan-Pakistan Border Region
Just because there is an area with a wilayah declared does not mean that ISIS has significant control there. Some of these wilayahs are more powerful and influential than others. Most, if not all, of the wilayahs act like terrorist groups or nonstate actors. Wilayat Sinai took responsibility for the downing of the Russian airliner on October 31, 2015. Wilayat West Africa (formerly Boko Haram) is one of the most active in terms of attacks, kidnappings, and control of territory.
In late 2015, the activity of Wilayat Barqa captured headlines as it attacked an oil storage facility on the Libyan coast and began controlling the surrounding villages. Other reports of this same group mentioned that senior ISIS leaders moved to the area and began to control the actions. Some surmised that Libya might become a fallback area for ISIS should it lose more cities in Iraq and Syria.
It is unclear what the role and purpose of the wilayahs will be. Right now it seems as if the various groups are linking themselves to ISIS to gain notoriety and possible resources from ISIS. ISIS would have readers of Dabiq magazine believe that these wilayahs are part of a growing caliphate that will someday merge into one large governed space with each of these smaller groups now governing much larger, but still subordinate parts of the caliphate. Today this is most clearly seen in Libya where the influence of ISIS and ISIS-affiliated groups grows week by week.
Why does it matter to ISIS? ISIS uses the declarations of the various wilayahs as proof that they are remaining and expanding. This further emphasizes that ISIS is everywhere and by being everywhere it empowers ISIS to be able to lose somewhere.
What is important? The Yazidi community is a distinct ethnic and religious group that is found in significant numbers in northern Iraq and elsewhere in the region though in declining numbers. A great many have migrated, primarily to Germany, and thus the second largest population of Yazidis in the world resides in Germany with the largest living in Iraq. As with so many things in the Middle East understanding the Yazidis can be complex. The intent here is to give a simple explanation of why they have been targeted by ISIS.
Religious scholars call their religion syncretic that means they have adapted beliefs from other faiths. The deep history of their faith can be traced all the way back to Zoroastrianism of the ancient Persian Empire. Zoroastrians were declared to be people of the book and protected under Islamic law. That said, Yazidis are not precisely in line with Zoroastrian beliefs. They are strict monotheists who believe in God as the creator, but they also believe that God gave the care and consideration of the earth to angels, the chief of which is the Peacock Angel. The reason for bringing this up is to understand why many in the region claim the Yazidis to be devil worshippers. The Peacock Angel fell from favor with God until his tears of remorse regained his position and acceptance before God. This idea of a fall from grace has been linked to a Sufi Islamic belief of the Jinn Iblis who bears some resemblance to the Christian Satan. At times, the Arabic word iblis is translated as Satan. This belief in a divine creature who fell from grace has been interpreted by many as devil worship, for which the Yazidis have been persecuted by many groups over the centuries. ISIS is only the most recent incarnation of persecutors.
The Yazidis are often linked with Kurds. They live in the same villages as Kurds, they speak Kurdish, and to an outsider they look and dress like Kurds. They are not Kurds in a cultural sense as they have separate traditions and behaviors.
Why does it matter to ISIS? With the northern advance of ISIS into Iraq many Yazidi dominated villages came under the control of ISIS. The most notable region was the area surrounding Mount Sinjar. This is an east-west running ridgeline that sits just north of a major transportation route between Mosul, Iraq, and the Syrian border. ISIS attacked the city of Sinjar and the surrounding villages (about August 2014). It massacred civilians and enslaved the women. Because Yazidi women were not considered believers, they were legitimate war booty. The mistreatment of thousands of Yazidi women and children drew the world’s attention. U.S. special operations forces were sent to make an assessment of the situation and supplies were air dropped onto the mountain to support the sufferers. The women became a focal point of anti-ISIS rhetoric as a means of communicating the ancient barbarity of the Islamic State. Kurdish forces, with the support of significant U.S and coalition airstrikes, recaptured the area around Mount Sinjar in November 2015.