Isis: what is Islamic State and can it be stopped?

An Iraqi-Kurdish security guard in northern Iraq

Part terrorist group and part government, Isis claims to have established an Islamic State in Syria and Iraq

LAST UPDATED AT 13:14 ON Fri 6 Mar 2015

The Isis advance across northern Iraq last summer – and its subsequent declaration of a calaphate – took the world by surprise, but it was a crisis that had been brewing for several years. Here's how the group now calling itself Islamic State grew out of the chaos and sectarian hatred unleashed at the end of the Iraq war.

What's the difference between Isis and the Islamic State?

Isis, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, 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 claimed to have established a caliphate at the end of last summer.

It has played a prominent role in Syria's civil war with the chaos enabling it to develop a reputation as one of the most extreme groups operating in the region, reports the New York Times.

However, its insistence on strict Sharia law and its focus on establishing a state rather than toppling President Bashar al-Assad have alienated the group from the larger rebel movement. Its influence was curtailed last year when opposition groups ousted it from Idlib and Aleppo, two areas where it had been most active. It has also been repelled from Kobane, near the Turkish border, and come under attack in the Iraqi city of Tikrit, but it still controls large swathes of territory. 

Reports from cities where Isis has taken control are bleak, with public executions, beheadings, kidnap, amputations, torture and beatings among tactics used to maintain control. Isis has long targeted journalists and activists, and has been known to use suicide attacks and land mines against its opposition.

A group or a geographical state?

After the fall of Mosul last summer, some terrorism experts suggested that the militant group's claim to statehood was no idle boast. The Washington Post said Islamic State "effectively governs a nation-size tract of territory that stretches from the eastern edge of the Syrian city of Aleppo to Fallujah in western Iraq – and now also includes the northern Iraqi city of Mosul". Although the borders of the territory it controls has ebbed and flowed since then, its power has not been substantially diminished. The group views itself as its own state with administrative buildings, courts, street signs and even its own newspaper. Douglas Ollivant, of the New America Foundation, who advised the Obama and Bush administrations on Iraq, says it has "all the trappings of a state, just not an internationally recognised one". 

What does Islamic State want?

Having established a caliphate, Islamic State now believes that it is the duty of all Muslims to emigrate to it and renounce their citizenship of any other nation. It regards any form of government other than its own as anathema to Islam. According to Graeme Wood, Islamic State's leadership believe they are on course for an apocalyptic battle with their enemies, from which they will emerge victorious. They foretell, he writes in The Atlantic, "that the armies of Rome [usually interpreted as any Christian or non-Islamic force] will mass to meet the armies of Islam in northern Syria; and that Islam’s final showdown with an anti-Messiah will occur in Jerusalem after a period of renewed Islamic conquest." As such, Islamic State supporters actively welcome the prospect of western intervention, which they believe will hasten their own final victory.

Is it genuinely Islamic?

Islamic State 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 their own narrow interpretation. Barack Obama and David Cameron have both described the group as "unislamic" and surveys have found very little support for the group among western Muslims. But Wood argues that the religious foundation of the group should not be overlooked. "The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic," he writes. "Very Islamic. ... Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn't actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it."  

Is Islamic State part of al-Qaeda?

Its predecessor, Isis, began as an al-Qaeda offshoot but was officially rejected by the group earlier this year. Al-Qaeda has reportedly complained that Isis is too brutal and that its focus on establishing a caliphate has distracted from the push in Syria to topple President Assad. The rejection means al-Qaeda's representation in Iraq is now limited, while Islamic State poses a significant challenge to Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki's control over the country.

Who leads Islamic State?

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of Islamic State, is now deemed one of the most powerful jihadi leaders in the world. He took over as leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2010 after its former leaders were killed in an attack by US and Iraqi troops, reports The Independent. Following the fate of his predecessors, he reportedly insists on extreme secrecy, sometimes wearing a mask as disguise. Baghdadi, also known as Abu Dua, is believed to be in his early 40s, with degrees in Islamic Studies, including poetry, history and genealogy. Born in Samarra, a largely Sunni city north of Baghdad, he was later held prisoner by the Americans in Bocca Camp in southern Iraq between 2005 and 2009. The group's leadership is almost exclusively made up of Iraqis, but it has gained thousands of volunteers from across the Middle East and hundreds from the West. Iraqi officials believe there are between 6,000 and 10,000 Isis militants in the country.

How is Islamic State funded?

The group made money through oil smuggling in Syria, racketeering and kidnappings, as well as donations from private jihadi networks in the Gulf, says the Financial Times. The militants have seized oilfields in Syria's Deir Ezzor province, made alliances with tribes to extract oil and were believed to be extorting taxes of up to $8m a month from businesses in Mosul before its takeover. After it seized Mosul last year, the group looted hundreds of millions of dollars from the city's banks, making it the richest terrorist group in the world. The FT says the group has issued annual reports since 2012 detailing its numerical "successes", including bombings, assassinations and new recruits, with the apparent aim of demonstrating its record to potential donors. The group claimed nearly 10,000 operations in Iraq in 2013 alone, with 1,000 assassinations and 4,000 improvised explosive devices planted.

Can Islamic State be stopped?

Experts believe that without intervention Isis will head south toward Iraq's capital city Baghdad. Prime Minister Maliki has vowed to fight back by reorganising military forces, punishing any troops who try to flee and arming civilians. It has also turned to the US, asking for missiles and artillery but not for a return of US troops. However, one former senior US commander told the Washington Post: "When a force like that gets momentum and the security forces start to crumble, it becomes difficult to stop." However, opponents of Islamic State may be able to exploit one vulnerability. Unlike al-Qaeda, which can disappear into underground cells while remaining a threat, Islamic State depends on holding territory to maintain its claim on legitimacy. If its fighters are pushed back from the land they hold, its status as a caliphate is eroded.

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