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Caliphate in the Middle East: The Rise of ISIS
As non-state actors begin to rise into the international system, terrorism becomes more intertwined under the umbrella of “conflict”. Terrorism is a level up radicalization, as non-state actors use violence against innocent civilians and the government in order to achieve a political goal. In Iraq and Syria, corrupt governments and ethnic divisions caused the rise of ISIS, a terrorist group based in the Middle East. Their ultimate political goals were to implement a caliphate ruled by Islamic Law, as they overtook multiple cities and civilians. Their progress in expanding their caliphate resulted in severe human rights violations targeting minority groups, women, and children.. ISIS became so dangerously powerful that it motivated a regional and global response. In this security memo, I will analyze the rise and downfall of ISIS, the human security violations the group targeted, the regional and global response to its threat, and the flaws of those responses.
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In 2003, the infamous terrorist network grew from its roots in Iraq. At the time, Iraq was under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni dictator who consistently oppressed the Shiite ethnic group. Hussein’s corrupt leadership resulted in the Bush Administration’s decision to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein and demobilize the Iraqi army, costing thousands of Sunni soldiers to lose their jobs. (Harris and Fisher, 2016). Thus, these angry fighters were eager to a jihadist group, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, (AQI), led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, in order to ignite a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites and establish a caliphate, the idea of a land ruled by its extreme interpretation of Islamic law (Hassan, 2018). However, after Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike in 2006 and the number of U.S. troops in Iraq increased in 2008, his successors could not maintain its power (Laub, 2016). The Wilson Center acknowledges the decline of AQI’s power, stating that “By early 2008, 2,400 ISI members had been killed and 8,800 were captured, out of a previous membership of 15,000. The flow of foreign fighters into Iraq decreases from 120 per month to five or six per month by 2009” (Glenn et al., 2016). In addition, Iraq Prime Minister Maliki, a Shiite leader, continued to diminish ISIS’s power as he oppressed and excluded Sunnis (Laub, 2016). Hence, it was not until after a few years that the group would rise again under a new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
As power vacuums swept through the Middle East region , the terrorist networks gained back its power. Led by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the terrorist group renamed itself from AQI to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Similar to Zarqawi, Baghdadi’s desire was to invade territories in order to declare its Caliphate. To begin their process, Baghdadi initiated multiple bombings in prison camps in Iraq to free jihadist prisoners from their captures in 2008 (Glenn et al. 2016). Additionally, as the Arab Spring spread into Syria, Bashar al-Assad began to oppress protestors, starting a civil war. As the war went on and the Syrian military focused on fighting rebels, it created a power vacuum in Syria (Specia, 2019). ISIS took advantage of that power vacuum and became so powerful, in part because Bashar al-Assad supported them, since he wanted foreign powers to focus on ISIS, rather than the Syrian Civil War and his corrupt government (Harris and Fisher 2015). With Iraq and Syria’s corrupt governments and the long-term ethnic divide between Sunnis and Shiites, ISIS began taking control of a third of Iraq and Northeastern Syria (Laub, 2016). Thus, the power vacuum in Syria and Iraq led to the re-emergence of ISIS.
ISIS marks its religious and political goals as it successfully establishes its caliphate. In 2014, ISIS seized and controlled major cities in Syria and Iraq, including Raqqa and Mosul (“Al-Qaeda leader urges attacks on the West on 9/11 anniversary”, 2019). Days after the seize, al-Baghdadi, at the Great Mosque of Mosul, announced to the world that he was the caliph of the new caliphate. The Islamic State’s purpose was to implement Islamic Law globally by radical means. After their declaration, ISIS used religious propaganda to persuade fighters from different regions to join the Islamic State, finally recruiting over 40,000 individuals from 100 countries. ISIS’s propaganda included its own online magazine, Dabiq, and viral murders of journalists, such as the beheading of James Foley, an American journalist. The Islamic State also continued mass murders, crucifixions, beheadings, destroying religious sites, and targeting religious groups (Specia, 2019). However, with regional forces and United States aid and airstrikes, Iraq and Syria were able to take back Raqqa and Mosul and diminish ISIS’s power (Laub, 2016). Nonetheless, ISIS still has branches in some countries, and continues to spread its ideology as it keeps a low profile.
ISIS violated multiple pillars of human security, which became a prominent tactic towards their goals. Fighters of ISIS targeted innocent civilians’ personal security, especially towards women and children. During ISIS’s rise as a terrorist group, women from different countries would join ISIS as brides or sex slaves. Although many women willingly joined ISIS, there were also children and young adults who were forced to become brides. They also raped and murdered Yazidis. For instance, Nadia Murad, a Yazidi survivor, witnessed 5,000 Yazidis killed daily, calling it an attempted genocide (“Nobel Peace Prize Winner Nadia Murad Speaks at Duke”, 2018). The violations support Jacqui Tru’s argument in “Winning the Battle, but Losing the War on Violence”, where she believes that gender-based violence is still trending in the world, which is clearly a main target of ISIS. Additionally, children are barred from going to school because they do not have civil documentation that the Iraq requires for registration and the government will not accept children whose fathers were a part of ISIS. Since the children have no control over their parents’ wrongdoings, refusing education for children is a basic human violation (Iraq: School Doors Barred to Many Children, 2019). Health security is also violated by ISIS. In the Al Hol refugee camp in Syria, medical care is lacking, water is contaminated, and with 70,000 displaced people, mostly women and children, in the camp, there are overcrowded bathrooms. With human security threatened, child deaths have tripled since March of 2019 (Yee, 2019). Overall, personal and health securities of many individuals, including women and children, are violated by the terrorist organization, both directly and indirectly.
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As ISIS poses a major threat to the international system, the global response attempts to diminish their power in multiple ways. First, the United States is a crucial actor in the fight against terrorism. Under President Barack Obama’s administration, the United States created an alliance with sixty countries in order to combat terrorism, particularly ISIS. Obama deployed over 3,000 troops in Iraq, but he did not want to start another war like the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan. Instead, he focused on smaller interventions by aiding local forces and conducting airstrikes (Laub, 2016). Similarly, the Trump administration followed his predecessor’s style in combating ISIS. Trump maintains troops in Iraq and Syria as they continue to train local forces, like the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Kurdish YPG militia (Goldenberg and Heras, 2018). Additionally, President Trump has been demanding European countries to repatriate their native fighters after ISIS fighters broke out of prison camps in Syria and Iraq. After Trump’s demand, countries like The Republic of North Macedonia have repatriated seven fighters. However, countries like France and Germany are attempting to avoid the situation, as the German Foreign Ministry claimed, “The federal government is examining all options for a possible return of German nationals.” (Kennedy, 2019). Thus, the United States plays a major role in responding to ISIS.
Along with the global response, there are regional responses in the Middle East that help contain ISIS. For example, Shiite militias supported by Iran are one of the local forces that has been successful in containing ISIS. With over 100,000 militants, their success comes after the weakened Iraqi forces, which only have about 48,000 troops (Sly, 2015). In Syria, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, are also successfully pushing back on ISIS, but they have another conflict that emerged with Turkey. Turkey believes that the YPG is a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which they believe is a terrorist organization. With that being said, Turkey and the United States established a joint operation center in order to decrease tensions, after Turkey threatened to attack YPG (Laub, 2016). Additionally, the Syrian Democractic Forces, made of Syrian Kurds and Arabs, slowly re-captured ISIS territories with the help of United States aid. However, regional forces are not enough. With prison networks and low profile sleeper cells in multiple countries, ISIS still maintains itself as a group (Kelly and Koren, 2016). Thus, regional forces need responses from other parts of the world, like the United States and Europe.
With ongoing responses attempting to contain ISIS, there are counter-terrorism motives that need to be avoided. Overall, the main goals should be to protect civilians and contain ISIS, as well as other terrorist networks. There are several factors to discuss before counter-terrorism measures take place. First, the language towards Muslims need to change, especially within the Trump administration (“Counter-terrorism Pitfalls: What the U.S. Fight Against ISIS and al-Qaeda Should Avoid”, 2017). With Trump’s Muslim Ban in 2017, and general anti-Muslim discrimination, there is a general misunderstanding that attacks all Muslims, not terrorists. In addition, Obama and Trump’s constant airstrikes in the region are counterproductive. The airstrikes do not just kill terrorists: they also kill innocent civilians. Thus, the United States could lose a lot of support if their actions begin to anger states and civilians. Thus, responses need to utilize more soft power instead of hard power. With that being said, diplomacy and peace-making is the key for long-term political efforts to counter-terrorism. Countries, like the United States, need to work with institutions, like the UN or the U.S. Agency for International Development in order to rebuild communities and cities, such as Raqqa and Mosul (“Counter-terrorism Pitfalls: What the U.S. Fight Against ISIS and al-Qaeda Should Avoid”, 2017). Additionally, there is a lack of humanitarian aid. Because it is difficult to know who is or is not connected to ISIS, security concerns prevail over humanitarian concerns. However, if those priorities continue, individuals can be radicalized if they are mistreated or neglected (Yee, 2019). Overall, there needs to be more productive countermeasures in order to successfully combat terrorism.
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