Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it’s nearly impossible not to have heard of the Islamist militant group #ISIS. Since 2014, the extremist organization has made a name for itself across the globe as the epicenter of Islamic terrorism and has proven to be an extremely dangerous and ever-expanding entity.

While terrorist organizations such as ISIS are certainly nothing new, the effect they’ve had on the international community is unprecedented. On top of gaining control over large portions of land in both Iraq and Syria, their doctrine and ideology have spawned a vast network of dedicated jihadists that’s managed to seep into 18 countries, while also wreaking havoc in several more.

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Despite the efforts of the international community, which includes a plethora of coalition forces with the help of both the U.S. and Russia, ISIS’s sphere of influence continues to grow. Although history has shown that plenty of terrorist organizations have vanished into obscurity before, ISIS just might prove to be the exception.

Origins

ISIS initially started out as Jama'at al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad, a relatively unknown militant jihadist group formed by Jordanian national Abu Musab al-Zarqawi back in 1999. Shortly after the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, al-Zarqawi pledged his allegiance to Osama Bin Laden and effectively became al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq.

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While the group consisted of an array of foreign fighters, the primary bulk of the group’s fighting force consisted of former Iraqi soldiers.

After going through several mergers with other Islamist militant groups, they officially became known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2006. Although, at the time they were still primarily known to the world as al-Qaeda affiliates. While the group managed to wage a grueling war of attrition during their insurgency in Iraq, US forces managed to wear down the militant group and their network in which they were forced to go through several leadership changes during the occupation.

However, all of this would change in 2011 with the beginning of the #Syrian Civil War. After protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government escalated into a full-on civil war, ISI quickly established itself at the very heart of the conflict. ISI began sending over veteran Syrian and Iraqi fighters in order to establish an organization in Syria which ultimately became the al-Nusra Front.

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On April 8, 2013, ISI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that al-Nusra would merge together with ISI under their new name ISIS. However, after disagreements with al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani and al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri about the merger and ISIS’s continuous aggressive behavior, al-Zawahiri disavowed ISIS thus making them their own separate entity.

During the early stages of the Syrian Civil War, an abundance of rebel factions had formed in order to oppose Assad’s regime. The rebel groups ranged from moderates to jihadists with ISIS proving to be by far the least favorable among the international community. While the main goal for essentially all of these rebel forces was to overthrow Assad, ISIS was more concerned with establishing their own rule and installing a Wahhabi doctrine in their conquered territories.

The U.S. at the time was supplying and training many of these rebel groups with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) being the primary beneficiary. However, after ISIS had officially announced their presence and intentions, it didn’t take long for the other rebel factions to take up arms against them. Unfortunately, this ended disastrously. Not only did ISIS effectively establish dominance over nearly every other rebel force, but they had also captured the supplies and weapons given to them by the U.S. This ultimately resulted in thousands of fighters from al-Nusra, the Islamic Front, and the FSA defecting to ISIS.

Sphere of influence

Perhaps the most frightening aspect about ISIS’s meteoric rise to power is the manner in which they’ve done it. While most insurgencies usually use strategies revolved around guerilla warfare and attrition, ISIS, for the most part, has managed to take control of large territories in eastern Syria and western Iraq through conventional ground warfare. This is truly unprecedented considering the fact that they’ve managed to accomplish this feat against organized militaries. Not to mention that because of this, they’ve become both the wealthiest and largest Islamist militant group in the world with an estimated annual budget of $1 billion and a force of 30,000 soldiers.

Between this and their proclamation of a worldwide caliphate, ISIS has established a vast network stretching across the globe. Their success in Syria and Iraq, as well as the West’s disastrous #war on terror, have proven to be extremely effective recruitment tools. By proving to the world that Islamist militant groups can have real tangible success against legitimate militaries, it’s become somewhat of a rallying cry for Islamic extremists everywhere. Not to mention that by referring to themselves as a global caliphate, it creates a greater sense of camaraderie compared to that of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The sum total of all these elements has resulted in numerous Jihadist groups pledging their allegiance to ISIS. This has given them a fairly significant presence in multiple countries outside of Iraq and Syria. ISIS now has affiliates in Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Gaza, Yemen, Chechnya, Dagestan, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, Brazil, and even Norway. Although most of ISIS’s military operations have primarily been focused in the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia, they have now begun spreading to other regions. ISIS-affiliates, known as the Maute group, have recently managed to seize parts of Marawi, a southern Philippine city located on Mindanao island.

ISIS has absolutely no qualms with taking responsibility for virtually any terrorist attack even remotely associated with Islamic motives. Perhaps the best example of this was the nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida back in 2016. Omar Mateen, a 29-year old security guard, shot up the gay nightclub Pulse which resulted in the death of 49 people as well as 58 more wounded. It was the deadliest terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11. During Mateen’s 9-11 phone call, he swore allegiance to ISIS which resulted in them subsequently claiming responsibility for the attack.

When it comes to trying to project an image of having unlimited reach, this is positively brilliant. Mateen had no direct association with ISIS prior to the attack whatsoever, but by accepting him amongst their ranks afterwards, they make what was actually a lone wolf attack look like their doing. This only helps perpetuate the illusion that ISIS can infiltrate any corner of the world and attack at any given time. As a result, fear and paranoia exponentially grows which only further validates ISIS as a legitimate threat, thus making them appear far more powerful than they really are.

Media Presence

Unlike other terrorist organizations, ISIS has actually adapted to the modern age in which they have developed a pretty significant presence on social media. They have their own Facebook and Twitter pages, and have even managed to post propaganda videos on YouTube. For a group that preaches extreme Islamic fundamentalism, they’re surprisingly tech savvy. This coincides very well with their declaration of a global caliphate, it allows them to reach out to distraught Muslims across the globe which further projects their non-exclusive attitude. Because of this, they’re able to connect to a much larger audience than al-Qaeda and the Taliban were ever capable of.

However, what has arguably helped spread their message and image more so than anything else is the mainstream media. When you think about the amount of exposure and coverage ISIS gets on news outlets like Fox News, CNN, NBC, etc., it’s borderline impossible to watch the news and not at least hear one story about ISIS or their affiliates. While it’s clear that stories about Islamic terrorism are clearly good for ratings and viewership, it’s also simultaneously feeding the beast. When you combine the military success ISIS has had with the 24/7 news cycle, it creates an almost Hollywood-esque image of the Islamist militant group.

In a sense, ISIS has become every bit as compelling to watch and hear about as some of cinema and TV’s greatest villains. Their growth, ideology, and actions have made them out to be some sort of boogeyman that the masses can’t keep their eyes off of. When it comes to ISIS, there is absolutely nothing redeeming about them, they almost seem to be cartoonishly evil which makes them even that much more perfect for TV. All of this has culminated into an unprecedented amount of “brand awareness” that no terrorist organization has ever received. Since ISIS has proven to be a rating’s juggernaut for the mainstream media, they have essentially crafted them as the “first great villains” of the 21st century.

Legacy

Let’s say ISIS does lose all the territory they’ve gained and that they’re fighting strength is reduced to a shadow of what it once was. Let’s say that ISIS does indeed ultimately become irrelevant and a non-factor on the world stage. It’s sad to say, but it won’t matter because the damage has already been done.

Much like how the Mujahideen proved to the world that jihadists can wear down militaries as large and powerful as the Red Army in the 1980’s, ISIS has proven that Islamic extremists can become much more than just rebel fighters. They’ve essentially laid out the blueprint on how to evolve from Islamist militants to practically creating your own country. ISIS has launched a global following that will not just simply vanish the moment they no longer exist. They’re an ideology that can very easily take the form of another jihadist militant organization and so on.

Much like the domino effect that the American Revolution had on the rest of British Empire’s colonies, ISIS is arguably doing the same for the Islamic extremist community. What they’ve managed to accomplish in the last several years is revolutionary when compared to their contemporaries. It’s caused a ripple effect uniting all those who believe in their cause. What ISIS strives for isn’t just control of a country or two, they want to launch a worldwide caliphate which is something anyone agreeable to their beliefs can contribute to.

However, despite all the doom and gloom this article is projecting, there is a possible silver lining that can come out of this whole situation. There are two ways Muslims around the world can view ISIS: they can see them as a call to arms against Western values, or they can see them as the end result of refusing to modernize and progress with the rest of the world. Despite all the terrorist attacks ISIS has been responsible for across the globe, they’ve still killed far more Muslims compared to anyone else.

The Muslim community, as well as the rest of the world, are well aware of how horrible life under ISIS’s rule is. So perhaps instead of continuing to lean on antiquated values, this could be the catalyst for much needed reform. Regardless of what direction the world will go in as a result from this era in history, ISIS’s impact will last for generations to come.