The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—a group of Sunni jihadists under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—boasts an intensive series of violent triumphs over the past several months and has became one of the most dangerous radical militant groups in the Middle East. Rapid transformations of the region, including the sectarian conflict that resulted from the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq and recent forces withdrawal, have cultivated ideal conditions for the emergence of ISIS. The group was previously known as “al-Qaeda in Iraq” and was so extremist with attacking other rebel groups in Syria that al-Qaeda (AQ) withdrew its franchisement.
Since 2011, civil war and sectarian conflict in Syria has succeeded in attracting monetary support and seduced thousands of recruits from numerous countries. Some estimates put the number of militants at its disposal at approximately 10,000, of which roughly 3,000 are so-called foreign fighters. Some sources claim that the number of militants at the group’s disposal stands at only 6,000. However, with many rapid transformations taking place on the ground, these numbers will likely increase in the immediate future. Roger Griffin, an expert on extremism and radicalization stated that, “ISIS [has] made terrorism sexy.” But what has ISIS made of Islam?
ISIS is fighting for the creation of an Islamic caliphate in eastern Syria and northern Iraq, and claims to do so on the principles of Sharia law. On the ground ISIS has been unusually successful, bringing Raqqa (eastern Syria) and Tal Afar, Mosul, Tikrit, Suleiman Beg, and Fallujah (northern and central Iraq) under its control. Fighting continues in the Syrian city of Deir al-Zour and Iraqi cities of Kirkuk and Ramadi. In early-June, 2014, ISIS proudly circulated news that it had slaughtered 1,700 Iraqi soldiers. Further attacks resulted in the massacre of 29 Iraqi women because they were working in the prostitution industry. ISIS has also been accused of systematically killing Christians in and around northern Iraq. Mark Arabo, a Chaldean-American leader and proprietor in California, referred to the situation as a “Christian genocide” where “children are being beheaded, mothers are being raped and killed, and fathers are being hung.”
Heavy recruitment is underway in some notable Western democracies. ISIS’ numbers are budding as a result of active recruitment taking place in Canada, the United Kingdom (UK), the United States (US), and elsewhere in Europe. Several recruitment videos claim Muslims leading ordinary lives can join the jihad—engineers, doctors, professionals, volunteers, and fundraisers. A “marriage bureau” has also recently opened in the Syrian town of al-Bab “for women who want to wed jihadist fighters in territory they control,” states the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and World News. “By creating content specifically targeting female jihadi supporters,” according to the SITE Intelligence Group, “the Islamic State is able to establish a pipeline to assist Western women in traveling to Syria to marry jihadi fighters and contribute to the formation of their new society.”
Messages like these are put out by the al-Hayat Media Center, a sophisticated media wing of ISIS that utilizes Twitter and YouTube to disseminate its messages, among other social-media platforms. ISIS and its supporters purport to adhere to Islamic law. They cite the Qur’an. They mimic Muslim activities such as prayer; but their actions and ideologies patently clash with Sharia law. A leading Canadian Imam, Professor Syed B. Soharwardy, has criticized ISIS for what he referred to as the group’s “un-Islamic” beliefs stating outright that, “ISIS is not a part of the Muslim community.” He reasoned further that, “ISIS is using Islam to destroy peace and create a negative image of Islam. They are terrorists and must be punished.”
Violence related to and perpetrated by ISIS may not remain confined to the Middle East. Although ISIS is primarily interested in local politics of the Middle East, its campaigns of violence retain the potential of becoming active elsewhere by means of radicalization and recruitment. Despite what some might think about ISIS being limited to operations in the Middle East, the radicalization of Westerners shows that ISIS already has roots established in small and large cities in North American and the UK. Much of the group’s attention remains fixed on the US and Americans; but in doing so, ISIS has also looked to those most susceptible. It is particularly important for Muslim youth to be made aware that ISIS militants are terrorists and that their actions betray Islam and represent a blatant assault on the religion. The exigency of this is undergirded by the amount of support that ISIS leaders have and continue to receive from abroad. The thousands of adults that have so far been seduced by the group’s propaganda illuminates the risk that Muslim and even non-Muslim youth are at.
Instances of radicalization among Western populations can inspire others to follow down pathways of violence. Muslim community leadership should be asked where they stand and how they intend to act in response to such cases of radicalization. The same question should also be posed to non-Muslim community leadership. ISIS has gained considerable attention and even praise for its tactical and strategic gains in recent months; yet maintaining and strengthening its position will be intricately tied to much more entrenched religious sentiment enabling the group to connect with millions of people far beyond Syria and Iraq. As ISIS spokesperson Shaykh Muhammad Adnani expressed, ISIS “has not prevailed by numbers, nor equipment, nor weapons, nor wealth, rather it prevails by Allah’s bounty alone, through its creed.” Preventing ISIS from further hijacking the Islamic religion is a critical step in mitigating its swelling influence and violent campaigns.