What is Isis and can the group be stopped?

Jul 22, 2016

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson calls for Islamic State members to face prosecution for war crimes


Boris Johnson has called for members of Islamic State to face prosecution for war crimes.

Speaking at a meeting of foreign ministers and defence officials in Washington, the Foreign Secretary said the UK wanted to spearhead a campaign to bring members of IS to justice. He also proposed the country hosted a summit to examine how to tackle new terrorism threats

Johnson warned of the potential dispersal of IS fighters around the world if they are pushed out of Iraq and Syria and said more must be done to collect evidence from former territories held by the terrorist group. Witnesses will need to be identified and data collected so individuals can be held to account and prosecuted, he added.

Western allies must deal with the "cancer" of IS and its "ability to spread and to metastasise, to pop up all over the world in the way that we've been seeing", he said after the meeting.

His words echo earlier comments by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has called for IS to be held to account for crimes such as genocide against religious minorities.

It is now more than two years since a new "caliphate" in Syria and Iraq was declared by the group of Sunni fighters, who are known variously as Islamic State, Isis, Isil or Daesh.

Experts say the organisation is considerably weakened, but is that just wishful thinking? What is IS now – and how has it changed in the last two years?

What is Isis and how did it start?

The group was regarded by the west as a terrorist organisation even before it began its murderous rampage across the Middle East. Initially called Al-Qaeda in Iraq, it became Isis or Isil in 2013 and then Islamic State after it launched a major offensive in northern Iraq and claimed to have established a caliphate across Iraq and Syria in June 2014. In the Arab world and the US, the derogatory name Daesh is commonly used to describe the group.

Is IS really a state?

The group views itself as its own state with administrative buildings, courts, street signs and even its own newspaper. Douglas Ollivant, an advisor to the Obama and Bush administrations in the US, told the Washington Post two years ago IS had "all the trappings of a state, just not an internationally recognised one". If it is a state, it is a diminished one. According to the Daily Telegraph, the number of people living in IS-held territory has fallen from around nine million at the start of 2015 to fewer than six million now.

Is it really Islamic?

The group claims to be the sole representative of true followers of Islam and has executed large numbers of Muslims whose understanding of the Koran differs from its own narrow interpretation. Barack Obama and David Cameron have both described the group as "un-Islamic" and surveys have found very little support for the group among western Muslims. Experts say the group believes itself to be religious, whatever most Muslims feel, and that makes it harder to fight.

Does it control as much territory as it used to?

At its height, in the winter of 2014-2015, IS encompassed almost a third of Iraq and Syria, says the Telegraph. According to the US-led coalition, air strikes and ground offensives have reduced its dominance in Iraq by almost half. Last month, the Iraqi army retook Falluja. The big battle now will be for the country's second largest city, Mosul. According to the Daily Mail, Iraq hopes to foment an uprising among people living there.

What about its territory in Syria?

That's "much more complicated", says the Telegraph. With Russian help, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad took back the historic city of Palmyra earlier this year – an important symbolic victory which attracted international attention. But, says the newspaper, the regime appears more interested in attacking moderate opposition groups than in fighting IS.

What about attacks outside Syria and Iraq?

After the group declared its caliphate, it initially confined its activities to the Middle East. Then, in October 2014, a Muslim convert killed a soldier in Ottawa and stormed the Canadian parliament before he was shot dead. Other lone wolf attacks followed – and then the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris – but while praised by the group, they were only believed to be inspired by IS rather than directly organised and ordered by it, said Der Spiegel.

It wasn't until the downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai peninsula in October 2015, followed by the Paris attacks in November, that terror analysts detected a shift in IS strategy, away from expanding its caliphate and towards international terrorism in the model of al-Qaeda. By last December, it was linked to at least 90 terrorist attacks in 21 countries outside Iraq and Syria, leaving more than 1,300 people dead.

The November Paris massacre also marked the first time the group had deployed suicide bombers in Europe, a technique repeated in the Brussels airport attacks of March this year.

Who fights for IS?

Out of IS's 43 original founders, 39 have been killed, according to Hisham al-Hashimi, a Baghdad-based advisor to the Iraqi government. Kurdish and Iraqi commanders say the group is now using fighters who are less experienced and less ideologically committed than their predecessors. The latest US intelligence suggests there are up to 25,000 militants, more than 6,000 less than before, with the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria falling by almost 90 per cent in the past 12 months.

How is it doing financially?

Before founding its caliphate, IS made money through oil smuggling in Syria, racketeering and kidnappings, as well as donations from private jihadi networks in the Gulf. Later, it captured some of Syria's most-lucrative oil fields. At their height, these were bringing in £30m a month for the group, with the main buyer being the Syrian government. However, attacks by the West and loss of territory are estimated to have reduced that to £11m a month.

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