EXPLAINER: Who Is ISIS, Where Are They From, And Why Are They Fighting?


If you hadn’t heard of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the front page of the Australian on Monday would have woken you out of your stupor.

A picture of an ordinary Australian child, dressed in shorts and thongs as if he were going to the beach, is proudly holding a decapitated head like a trophy fish.

The image sent shockwaves across Australia, and the world.

It was first posted on twitter by Australian Khaled Sharrouf, who is believed to be fighting with ISIS in Syria. The boy in the photo is reportedly his son.

Media have reported the victim is a Syrian soldier, and the picture was taken in the northern Syrian province of Raqqa, one of the last outposts of the Syrian government which was stormed by ISIS militants last week.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said it “is really one of the most disturbing, stomach-turning, grotesque photographs ever displayed.”

Few would argue with that assessment.

While most Australians have comfortably gone about their daily lives ignoring the killings perpetrated by the brutal Assad dictatorship for the past three years, or the current Israeli assault on Gaza which has killed nearly 2000 Palestinians, this close connection to home shocked an apathetic population with the perception that the problems in the Middle East are now on our doorstep.

ABC’S Q&A program debated the supposed rise of Aussie Jihadists on Monday, although the vast majority of Australian Muslims are moderate and peace-loving.

Earlier this month, the US announced airstrikes in Iraq amidst growing outrage at the persecution and killing of Christians and Kurds, and over a potential genocide of the Yazidis, with many still trapped high on Mt Sinjar in northern Iraq.

This week the US also announced it was sending 130 US Marines and special forces into Iraq, having confirmed it is arming the Kurdish Peshmerga in its fight against ISIS. France is also sending arms to Kurdish fighters.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott this week announced Australia would play a “humanitarian” role in the crisis, and would help provide aid to the Yazidis refuged on Mt Sinjar.

But who are ISIS and why and how has it seized a third of Syria and a quarter of Iraq, or, as veteran journalist Patrick Coburn calls it “an area larger than Great Britain and inhabited by six million people”? 

ISIS is a Sunni extremist group which began as an Al-Qaeda off-shoot in Iraq.

It emerged following the United States’ invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and its ideology is reportedly very close to the extreme Wahhabism that originated in Saudi Arabia, and is infamously intolerant of Shia and other religious minorities. 

Al Qaeda disowned ISIS in early February 2014 following years of strained relations.

Tensions peaked in April 2013 when the Iraq faction headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – known as one of the most brutal of al-Qaeda’s franchise leaders – announced the Iraqi faction would command the Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), assimilating both under ISIS.

The Iraq faction had begun fighting the brutal Assad regime in Syria by 2011, and had begun calling itself ISIS by 2012 to reflect the broader aims in Syria.

Despite intervention from Al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman Zawahiri, al-Baghdadi refused to accept Al-Qaeda’s assertion that JN would still be ultimately commanded by Al-Qaeda, not ISIS.

JN’s leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani rejected the takeover attempt, and Zawahiri renounced al-Baghdadi.

According to political scientist Barak Mendelsohn, “this was the first time a leader of an Al Qaeda franchise had publically disobeyed an AQC leader, and the episode stoked doubts within the jihadi community about Zawahiri, who succeeded (Osama) Bin Laden only two years ago."

ISIS began expanding control over Syria’s north, becoming a force to be reckoned with in the Syrian opposition, and at the same time gained a reputation for extreme, disturbing and shocking brutality. 

ISIS’ biggest victory came when it captured Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul in June, a huge military defeat.

It now controls most of the oil and gas fields in Syria, whilst edging in on some in Iraq. Cockburn told Democracy Now this week that’s how ISIS is funding its campaigns.

In the London Review of Books, Cockburn writes:

“The Caliphate may be poor and isolated but its oil wells and control of crucial roads provide a steady income in addition to the plunder of war.

“The birth of the new state is the most radical change to the political geography of the Middle East since the Sykes-Picot Agreement was implemented in the aftermath of the First World War.

“Yet this explosive transformation has created surprisingly little alarm internationally or even among those in Iraq and Syria not yet under the rule of Isis.

“Politicians and diplomats tend to treat Isis as if it is a Bedouin raiding party that appears dramatically from the desert, wins spectacular victories and then retreats to its strongholds leaving the status quo little changed.

“Such a scenario is conceivable but is getting less and less likely as Isis consolidates its hold on its new conquests in an area that may soon stretch from Iran to the Mediterranean.”

Indeed, the emergence of ISIS is linked to the catastrophic failure of the Iraq War. The support for ISIS by Sunni extremists has been reportedly due to the deep dissatisfaction with Nouri Maliki’s Shia government, which followed a succession of leaders backed by the US after the toppling of Saddam Hussein (himself a Sunni Muslim).

Maliki is currently struggling to stay in power, while Haider al-Abadi has been nominated, and is widely supported to take over the Prime Ministerial office. He has been tasked with forming government in the next 30 days.

Maliki has stated Abadi’s appointment “has no value” and is trying to take an appeal to the federal court against Abadi.

The US has reportedly been pushing for Al-Abadi as Prime Minister since late June, according to the Daily Beast.

For his part, Maliki has been widely blamed for the rise of ISIS. But Cockburn has just completed a book about ISIS, titled ‘The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising’. He says Maliki was not the only factor in ISIS’ rise.

“Almost everything now is being blamed on al-Maliki, both inside and outside Baghdad, that he was the person who provoked the Sunni uprising, he was the hate figure for the Sunni, he produced an army that was riddled with corruption,” Cockburn told Democracy Now.

“But I think that it’s exaggerated, that it’s as if there was a magic wand that would be used once al-Maliki had gone. But there were other reasons for this uprising, for the creation of ISIS — notably, the rebellion in Syria in 2011.

“This changed the regional balance of power. That was a Sunni rebellion, which Iraqi politicians over the last couple of years were always telling me, if the West supports the opposition in Syria, this will destabilize Iraq. And they were dead right. It wasn’t just al-Maliki.”

Journalist Robert Fisk, writing in the Independent, claims that while the US rationale for the intervention was ‘humanitarian’, like the Gulf War and the Iraq War before it, questions should be raised of the US' interests in the rich oil reserves in Iraq’s Kurdistan region.

“When ‘we’ liberated Kuwait in 1991, we all had to recite – again and again – that this war was not about oil,” Fisk wrote.

“And when we invaded Iraq in 2003, again we had to repeat, ad nauseam, that this act of aggression was not about oil – as if the US Marines would have been sent to Mesopotamia if its major export was asparagus.

“And now, as we protect our beloved Westerners in Irbil and succour the Yazidis in the mountains of Kurdistan and mourn for the tens of thousands of Christians fleeing from the iniquities of ISIS, we must not – do not and will not – mention oil.

“I wonder why not. For is it not significant – or just a bit relevant – that Kurdistan accounts for 43.7 billion barrels of Iraq’s 143 billion barrels of reserves, as well as 25.5 billion barrels of unproven reserves and three to six trillion cubic metres of gas?”

Fisk writes about the global oil and gas conglomerates like Mobile, Chevron, Exxon and Total who are all in Kurdistan.

“ISIS is not going to be allowed to mess with companies like these – in a place where oil operators stand to pick up 20 per cent of all profits.”

Journalist Glen Greenwald agrees.

“I think, clearly, that ISIS is a group that is brutal and awful and extremist and dangerous. Nobody likes ISIS,” he told Democracy Now.

“But the U.S. stands by constantly while thousands or more people are put at risk or are even killed.

“And not only does the United States stand by while that happens, but the United States government is an active participant in the killing of thousands of civilians all the time.

“As I said, the Israelis just killed… close to 2,000 people in Gaza, including women, men and children, and not only did the United States stand by, we fed them the arms and protected them at the U.N.

“It seems like our humanitarianism is triggered only when it comes time to assert control over oil-rich areas.

“And I don’t think it’s any secret to anybody who has studied the region, including the important oil locations in Kurdistan, as Patrick Cockburn was just saying, that this became an issue for the U.S. government.

“Not when certain minorities became [lives were threatened], but when the flow of oil in that area [was]jeopardized.”

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.