What is Isis? The genesis of the network of terror

Isis is a terrorist Islamic organization founded in 2014, on the ashes of the “old” Al Qaeda group in Iraq. It operates in the Middle East but also, with its many ramifications, in Europe, Africa, Russia and the United States. Over the last years it has carried out numerous terrorist attacks and became sadly famous when in 2014 its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, proclaimed the birth of the Islamic Caliphate.

The story of Isis begins in 2004, following the downfall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, on April 9th after the intense war waged against the United States.

During the first months of occupation the Sunnis began to fear they would be oppressed by the Shiite majority. Saddam, who was a Sunni, had governed the Country in constant contrast with the majority of Shiites, the country’s prevailing religious group.

Furthermore the power vacuum left by the Raìs’s downfall favored the conditions for the emergence of extremist Islamism and, in particular, of the kind preached by those groups close to Al Qaeda’s jihadist ideologies. Numerous organizations began to target both Shiites and US soldiers. Iraq was quickly engulfed in a spiral of violence which further crushed the Country’s fragile post-Saddam institutions.

In the general postwar chaos, one figure emerged who was to become sadly known for publishing videos showing the beheading of hostages. His name was Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordan terrorist and leader of the jihadist al-Jamāʿat al-Tawḥīd wa l-Jihād (Congregation of Monotheism and Jihad). In May 2004 al Zarqawi carried out the horrifying execution of Nicholas Berg, a young Jewish American contractor. The video of Berg’s beheading was to become a reference point for Isis.

Un frame dl video della decapitazione dell'imprenditore Nicholas Berg
A frame of video from the decapitation of businessman Nicholas Berg

In October 2004, Al Zarqawi pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda and its leader Osama Bin Laden: his group became the Iraqi branch of the organization led by the sheikh of terror. And so the Al Qaeda in Iraq group was founded, led by Al Zarqawi himself.

Hundreds of terrorists, both from Iraq and abroad, joined Al Qaeda. In Iraq the group carried out dozens of attacks against American military targets as well as the re-established Iraqi army. Many victims were also civilians. Al Qaeda claimed numerous kidnappings in Iraq which, like in Nicholas Berg’s case, ended with the hostage wearing an orange jumpsuit being executed in front of a camera.

Al Zarqawi soon became the most wanted man in Iraq with the US putting a price on his head. The hunt for the Jordanian terrorist ended on June 7th 2006 near Baquba, an Iraqi town not far from Baghdad. Al Zarqawi was located inside a building which was bombed by the US airforce: the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq died as a consequence of the injuries suffered in the attack.

Abu_Hamza_al-Muhajir
Abu Al Masri, leader di Al Qaeda in Iraq dopo la morte di Al Zarqawi

Al Zarqawi was succeeded only a few weeks later by an old acquaintance of Ayman al-Ẓawahiri’s, Al Qaeda’s number two man: the Egyptian (like Bin Laden’s right-hand man) Abu Al Masri, his trustworthy collaborator since the Egyptian Islamic Jihad in the 80s. Al Masri changed the group’s name from Al Qaeda in Iraq to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil).

2007 was marked by sectarian violence in Iraq, especially between Shiite and Sunni communities: attacks, kidnappings, the killing of civilians. The Country found itself in a desperate situation. Iraq was plunged in chaos and in this context the organization captained by Al Masri appeared much stronger and established in the Sunni provinces.

Isil targeted not only military objectives, but also cinemas, theatres and any venue where civilians assembled. The organization perpetrated an intense season of terror throughout Iraq.

On April 18th 2010 however Al Masri was located in the city of Tikrit. A sustained gunfire ensued between his men and Iraqi and US forces, at the end of which Al Masri was killed. His place was taken by a young terrorist who in just a few years was able to make his way up the ranks of the organization of terror: his name was Al Badri, but he came to be known with his fighting name Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.

In 2011 war broke out in Syria: following the outbursts of initial protests the situation spiraled out of control into an armed conflict between the army faithful to president Bashar al Assad and opposition forces.

Al Baghdadi sensed the opportunity offered by the weakening of the Syrian State and as from 2012 started to send his men to fight against Damascus. Together with other Jihadist organizations Isil conquered the eastern regions of Syria. And so, an alliance with Al Nusra, the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda, was established.

Al Baghdadi’s objective was to widen the scope of his terrorist group and export the jihad into a country, Syria, which was increasingly in the grips of chaos.

Al Nusra and Isil continued to join forces and collaborate in Syria, especially from the first months of 2013 when they conquered Raqqa and a large part of the province of Deir Ezzor . Further the jihadist groups defeated the Free Syrian Army and won the province of Idlib.

Soon however there was friction between Al Nusra and Isil: Al Baghdadi unilaterally decided the merging of the two groups and the founding of Isis, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

The move was not approved by Al Qaeda leaders, nor by those of the Syrian branch of Al Nusra. The two jihadist organizations therefore came onto conflict, fighting over the territories which had been won from the Syrian army during the 2013 and 2014 campaigns.

Isis came out of the conflict victorious. Al Baghdadi’s faithful army began to expand both in Syria as well as in Iraq, establishing a complete military and institutional control in the occupied territories. In Syria Isis was mainly based in Raqqa,while in Iraq by summer 2014 Isis had control of Mosul, Ramadi, Falluja and a large part of the Sunni province of Al Anbar.

Galvanized by this success on July 5th 2014Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi broadcast a video in which, from the main mosque in Mosul,he proclaimed the birth of the Caliphate and the Islamic State. Isis was attempting to become an actual Nation by setting up institutional officeswhich branched out into the conquered territoriessecuring control.Raqqa was declared capital of the Caliphate in Syria.

I territori controllati dall'Isis in Siria e in Iraq nell'estate del 2015 (Isisliveuamap)
Territories controlled by Isis in Syria and Iraq in the summer of 2015 (Isisliveuamap) – Click on the image for details

Isis reached the height of its expansion in the summer of 2015 when Al Baghdadi’s black flags dominated from the outskirts of Baghdad to Aleppo and Damascus, crossing through the desert between Syria and Iraq and the city of Palmyra.

Just like Syria, Libya also wascaught in a situation of severe political and institutional paralysis in 2014. The fall of Gadaffi’s regime in October 2011 which culminated with the assassination of the Raìs, brought on the collapse of the Libyan state which, just like Iraq in 2003 and Syria in 2011, favored the rise to power of extremist groups.

Numerous jihadi factions already operating in Libya in the summer of 2014 decide to swear allegiance to Al Baghdadi. First in Derna, then in Sirte, Libya witnessed the birth within its boundaries of the Islamic Caliphate.

In Libya’s case however the territorial expansion of the Islamic State on the Mediterranean coast would never reach an extensiveness which could be compared to that between Syria and Iraq. In summer 2016, following the formal go ahead from the Al Serraj government based in Tripoli which substantially had no territorial control, American raids began to bomb Sirte and the surrounding area. In just a few months, the Misurata army (faithful to Al Serraj) ousted Isis from Sirte and sanctioned the end of the Caliphate in Libya. However still todaya number ofBaghdadi’s followers are established in the area, especially in the south of the Country.

The terror brought on by Isis soon spread from its initial areas in Syria, Iraq and Libya: the caliph Al Baghdadi was eager to export terrorism abroad thereby supplanting Al Qaeda’s leadership in the global jihadi network. Since2014 anyone carrying out attacks in Europe and Africa has done so under the name of Isis.

The first serious attack took place on January 7th in Paris: two of the caliphate’s militia men broke into the headquarters of the satirical weekly paper Charlie Hebdo, killing numerous members of staff in response to a series of cartoons which were considered blasphemous. Two days later the perpetrators of the shooting were killed in a police operation. Again, in the French capital an Isis commando went into action on the evening of Friday November 13th2015 targeting the Stade de France, theBataclantheatre and a number of crowded cafés. At the end of the day victims amounted to 130 civilians.

From Paris toBrussels: on 22nd March 2016, a suicide bomber blew himself up inside an airport while another blew up at an underground station of the Belgian capital.Once again the terrorist bombings were claimed by Isis. Only a few months later, in Nice, during the July 14th celebrations, a Tunisian drove a truck onto the city’s promenade killing over eighty people waiting for the fireworks show.On December 19th Isis terror hit the city of Berlin where a truck driving into a crowd killed civilians at the Christmas markets. In Istanbul39 people were killed on New Year’s Eve byan Uzbek terrorist affiliated to Isis.

(Caption):  Above, a map showing all the attacks carried out in 2016 in real time.

2017 was the black year for Isis terrorism in Europe: on March 22nd inLondon ansuv ran overpassers-by at Westminster; inSt. Petersburgon April 3rd a suicide bomber killed 14 people in the underground; inStockholm, a few days later, four people died when a truck overran a crowd. On May 22nd Isis terrorism again hit Great Britain: in Manchester, during a concert by Ariana Grande, a suicide bomber blew himself up killing 22 people; on June 3rd 8 people were killed by an Isis terrorist in a street in the centre of London. In Barcelona, a truck ran 14 people over on the Ramblas.

However Europe was not the only area on the Isis radar: the terrorist group was also active in Tunisia, carrying out an attack at the Bardo National Museum on March 18th 2015 and in Susa a few months later. It also struck in Egypt, Maliand in Nigeria, where it operated through Boko Haram which had pledged allegiance to the Caliphate in  2014.

The attacks were carried out either by highly trained units, especially in Syria and Iraq during the years of Isis expansion, or by the so-called “loose cannons”or “lone wolves”, operating with the support of a highly developed network throughout different territories.

From a military perspective, today Isis appears defeated. In 2016 the advance of the Caliphate’s fighters faltered while 2017 was the year in which their retreat began. With the Syrian army on one side and the Sdf (Kurdish-led and US-supported) troops on the other,the Islamic State underwent a serious blow. In the summer of 2017 Isis lost70% of its territories in Syria. By September 2017 Deir Ezzorwas no longer under siege and the following month Raqqa was lost.

In IraqalsoIsis lost almost all its territory: the Iraqi army won back Ramadi, Falluja and Mosul; the province of Al Anbar was brought back under the control of Baghdad so that the Caliphate could be said to be no longer present in the Country.

Currently the whereabouts of the Caliph Al Baghdadi is unknown: he has been proclaimed dead twice, the last time in June 2017. The Isis leader was recently reported as being on the border between Syria and Iraq. The governments of Damascus, Moscow and Baghdad are also trying to track him down. His last audio message dates back to September 2017.

(Caption): Islamic State  foreign fighters (Infographics by Alberto Bellotto): Foreign Fighters who have travelled to Syria to join the ranks of Isis

Although the Caliphate no longer exists Isis continues to induce fear. What above all worries many are the terrorists who after fleeing Iraq and Syria following their defeat are now on their way back to Europe and their countries of origin. These are the so-called “foreign fighters“, ready to attack the Old Continent.