Isis: who are they and can they be stopped?

An Iraqi-Kurdish security guard in northern Iraq

Part terrorist group and part Islamist state, Isis seeks to establish a caliphate in Syria and Iraq

LAST UPDATED AT 10:58 ON Wed 18 Jun 2014

The Isis advance across northern Iraq seems to have taken the world by surprise, but it's a crisis that has been brewing for several years. Here's how the group grew out of the chaos and sectarian hatred unleashed at the end of the Iraq war.

What is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria?

The West considers Isis to be an international terrorist organisation. It operates in Iraq and Syria with the aim of creating an Islamic state across the borders of the two countries and beyond. Initially called Al-Qaeda in Iraq, it became the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria last year. It has played a prominent role in Syria's civil war with the chaos enabling it to quickly 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 this year when opposition groups ousted it from Idlib and Aleppo, two areas where it had been most active. It still controls the Syrian city of Raqqa and now appears to be consolidating its power base in Iraq.

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, some terrorism experts are suggesting that the militant group is coming close to becoming the Islamic State implied by its name. The Washington Post says Isis "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". 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". 

Is Isis part of al-Qaeda?

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

Who leads Isis?

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of Isis, 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 Isis funded?

Isis has 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. Since seizing Mosul last week, Isis has been able to loot 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 Isis 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." · 

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