Black and white flags fly over Palmyra today. In the center of town, one can hear the cheers of many a Jihadi as they celebrate having “liberated” Palmyra from the corrupt and tyrannical control of Iraq. Further out, there are only screams as homosexuals, Christians, Shi’ites, Kurds, Jews, non-Wahhabi Sunnis, Yazidis and many more are ruthlessly slaughtered or sold as slaves. The term “humanitarian crisis” does not even begin to describe the horror that plagues Iraq and Syria. Yet, the Islamic State holds firm control over a territory greater in size than the United Kingdom. How can such a barbaric, racist and backwards regime exist, and remain stable, in this day and age?
Islamic State was borne out of conflict. It initially started as a cell of al-Qaeda, called al-Qaed in Iraq, or AQI. It came into formation during the US Invasion of Iraq, fighting against America. At this point, al-Qaeda slowly started to distance itself from AQI, due to AQI’s ‘extreme methods’. AQI gained more power when it spread out into Syria during the Syrian civil war. Here, it started to show it’s even more extreme methods, which at this point included crucifying Christians. After reports of the crucifixions, al-Qaeda officially cut its ties with AQI, calling it far too extreme.
The leaders of AQI were eventually captured by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They were held for several years. However, after reports that Syria had used chemical weapons on its civilian population, many nations prepared to arm Syrian rebels. Bashar al-Assad then released AQI leaders and let them fight against him again, under the pretense that foreign nations would never arm Syrian rebels if there was a chance that the weapons would end up in the hands of such an extreme group.
AQI then renamed itself to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. ISIS very quickly planned an offensive into Iraq, and managed to conquer 1/3 of its land and kill 1,400 people in a single weekend. This was when ISIS started to get large amounts of media coverage.
A few days later, Islamic State leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi made his first (and so far only) public speech directed to all members of the Muslim world. He announced IS’s plans to recreate the Caliphate.
The Caliphate was the first Islamic “state” formed immediately after the death of the prophet Muhammad. It was a very different kind of state, not being a nation, feudal or entirely theocratic. It was a different government system entirely, similar to the Iqta system which replaced it. The last Sunni Caliph was Abdulmecid II of the Ottoman Empire, who lost his title when the Ottoman Empire was partitioned in 1925. By claiming to be the Caliphate, IS is laying claim to all lands occupied by Muslims, as well as the land previously occupied by Caliphates (it would be a state that rules all the Middle East, parts of India and Central Asia, some Balkan nations, North and West Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia and other South East Asian nations and most of Spain).
IS is known to be the most successful terrorist organization of all time. They make an estimated $2-3 million a day. This stems from the oil fields they have taken over and their many ransoms of either people or culture (when Palmyra was taken over, IS auctioned off many ancient artifacts). They also control more land than any terrorist group in history.
This success is one of the reasons why IS is so popular where it rules. The other is stability. Syria and Iraq are both in states of civil war. Syria is also a Ba’athist nation, making it unpopular with many Sunni Muslims (Ba’athism is very similar to Communism, and is secular, despite Syria being ruled by a Shi’ite elite). The American instituted Iraqi regime was also notoriously unpopular and oppressive. In fact, many people are fleeing the government ruled parts of Iraq into the Islamic State to escape it, as IS is far more stable than the current government of Iraq is.
The few who have traveled into IS territories and returned say that they are remarkably well controlled. There are very few crimes committed, the cities are very clean and the wealth gap is far thinner than in other parts of the regions. However, the visitors also note that many crimes carry death sentences, including apostasy, adultery, homosexuality and not praying at the designated prayer times. Public executions, sometimes performed by children, are commonplace.
Islamic State is renowned worldwide for its internet presence. It employs many people to slowly coerce mostly western Muslims into joining ISIS by claiming they are being deified by the media, and are actually spreading stability to the region. They are also known for their online videos, be they very successful recruitment videos or their equally successful beheading videos, designed to strike fear in the hearts of their enemies.
Islamic State is at this point almost impossible to defeat. It has spread stability to the regions it has conquered, creating many loyal followers who will willingly fight for it at any cost. It is also almost impossible to defeat because it is not just a nation. Nations can easily be toppled with enough force. Islamic State is an ideology, that of the Caliphate reborn. Fighting an ideology is like crumpling a piece of paper. It will get smaller, but it will also harden. Whereas before it could be split in half easily, now it is solidified and strong. Islamic State represents a wakened dream in the minds of many Wahhabis, that of unifying Islam, mending the schism. This cannot be destroyed in a day. While IS is truly a genocidal, backwards and evil organization, we must also recognize its positives, so that we can truly learn from history.
Sources include: The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Daily Show, VICE News, The Telegraph, The Independent, Newsweek, NPR and the Discovery Network