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What you need to know about ISIS

by JASMINE ELSHAMY Editor-in-Chief

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) is all over the news these days, but it is hard to keep up with what is happening when you do not know the basic facts. Hopefully, this article can clear things up.

“One thing that is troublesome about the media today is that all of the big news outlets expect you to have a basic foundation of knowledge of situations that are going on in the Middle East, which is understandable, but it just makes it that much harder to keep up,” says senior Michelle Barclay. “I really want to be knowledgeable about current events, but it’s important to know the basic facts first.”

ISIS, a terrorist organization based in Iraq and Syria, currently controls hundreds of square miles. It ignores international borders and has a presence from Syria’s Mediterranean coast to south of Baghdad. In a video they posted on YouTube, U.S. journalist James Foley was beheaded by ISIS militants on August 19, followed by the beheading of another U.S. journalist, Steven Sotloff, on September 2.

They began as an al-Qaeda splinter group, which basically means that they were al-Qaeda in Iraq, and although U.S. troops and allied Sunni militias defeated al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2006, it did not destroy them. In 2011, the group rebooted and successfully freed a number of prisoners held by the Iraqi government.

Since pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2004, the group’s goal has been remarkably consistent: found a hardline Sunni Islamic state. As General Ray Odierno puts it: “They want complete failure of the government in Iraq. They want to establish a caliphate, [an Islamic state led by a supreme religious and political leader known as a caliph – i.e. “successor” – to Muhammad], in Iraq.”

Even after ISIS split with al-Qaeda in February 2014 (in large part because ISIS was too brutal, even for al-Qaeda), ISIS’ goal remained the same.

Perhaps the single most important factor in ISIS’ recent resurgence is the conflict between Iraqi Shias and Sunnis. ISIS fighters themselves are Sunnis, and the tension between the two groups is a powerful recruiting tool for ISIS.

The difference between the two largest Muslim groups originated with a controversy over who got to take power after the Prophet Muhammed’s death, which you can read all about here. But Iraq’s sectarian problems are not about relitigating 7th-century disputes; they are about modern political power and grievances.

ISIS would be able to recruit Sunni fighters off of the Sunni-Shia tension, even if Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had not held office until mid-August, but his policies toward the Sunni minority have helped ISIS considerably. It remains to be seen whether the new PM, Haider al-Abadi, will be an improvement.

Maliki, a Shia Muslim, built a Shia sectarian state and refused to take steps to accommodate Sunnis. Police killed peaceful Sunni protestors and used anti-terrorism laws to mass-arrest Sunni civilians. Maliki made political alliances with violent Shia militias, infuriating Sunnis. ISIS cannily exploited that brutality to recruit new fighters.

Obama made a speech on ISIS in which he refused to acknowledge ISIS as a state of any kind, but only as a terrorist organization. He then went on to describe a plan for ISIS’s defeat. You can read the entire speech here.

What do you think about ISIS and Obama’s plan? Let us know in the comments!

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