What is the Islamic State?

The Islamic State (IS), as it is now known, is a Sunni Muslim Jihadist group led by a mysterious Iraqi named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, based mainly in Iraq and Syria. The group originated from an al-Qaeda cell in Iraq known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which then formed the al-Nusra jihadist group in Syria as the civil war intensified over the past three years. The two jihadist groups (al-Qaeda cells) worked together in the Syrian civil war expanding ISI to becoming ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), until differences over ideology and strategy led to intense infighting.

So is it still associated with al-Qaeda?

It could be said that ISIS were too extreme for the extremists. Their violent methods in taking over parts of Iraq and Syria caused a backlash within parts of the Sunni population, and from other jihadist groups in the region. They split completely from al-Qaeda and al-Nusra after al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s public repudiation of the group earlier this year.

Is ISIS the same as ISIL or IS?

ISIS changed their name to ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) as they their targets on other regions within the Levant: Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Cyprus, and parts of southern Turkey. In June, ISIS officially declared its occupied territories in Iraq and Syria as the new self proclaimed Islamic State, removing Iraq and the Levant from its name, becoming the Islamic State.

What do they want?

The main aim of IS is to establish and expand an Islamic Caliphate across the middle east. As their previous name (ISIL) suggests, the group aims to expand its Caliphate to cover the Levant which includes; Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Cyprus, and parts of southern Turkey. IS demands a “convert or die” rule in their occupied territories while enforcing strict Sharia law which governs all aspects of life across the self proclaimed Caliphate.

Who are their targets?

Victims are mainly military and rebel fighters, and civilians including Christians, Shias (and other sects of Islam besides Sunni), those they consider to be apostates or infidels, and anyone else who don’t adhere to their version of Sunni Sharia law. Public executions have become a common weekly spectacle. In early August IS moved in towards the Yazidi tribe, one of Iraq’s oldest minorities in the Iraqi north-west region, trapping some 40,000 people, many of them women and children. They have also abducted and killed foreign journalists.

How big is IS?

According to UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, IS has an army of more than 50,000 in Syria alone.  Although these numbers are difficult to verify, an Islamic State source backed the statement and told Al Jazeera that IS also has 30,000 fighters in Iraq, amounting to roughly 80,000 altogether in the self proclaimed Caliphate. Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also added that out of the 50,000 fighters in Syria, up to 20,000 are non-Syrians.

Are there Malaysians among IS?

The Malaysian police suspect there are over 20 Malaysians fighting in Syria and Iraq alongside IS, while reports surface of three Malaysian women who have travelled to the Middle East to participate in “sexual jihad”. Jihad Al-Nikah refers to a controversial concept where Sunni women offer themselves for sexual comfort to jihadi fighters in the process of establishing Islamic rule.

How did IS grow so rapidly?

IS has gained plenty of ground, and managed to declare their self proclaimed caliphate in a comparatively small period of time, while inflicting excessive violence as they continue and grow in numbers.The group is strongly anti Shia and took advantage of the instability in Iraq and Syria in order to gain popularity and power, including the marginsaliation of the Sunni population in Iraq. Now the Caliphate spans across northern Syria dissolving parts of the border with Iraq with no signs of slowing down.

How do they operate?

IS uses jihadist terrorist tactics and strategies of warfare; using surprise attacks while inflicting maximum damage before withdrawing without taking heavy losses. They are also known to use untrained foreign fighters for suicide missions; including a Malaysian, 26 year old Ahmad Tarmimi Maliki responsible for a suicide attack on Iraqi soldiers at Iraq’s SWAT headquarters in al-Anbar in May.

Update: In December 2014, a second Malaysian suicide bomber linked to ISIS killed approximately 50 Syrian soldiers.

Who funds them?

In the beginning, the group were more dependent on private donors from the Gulf, but this support is diminishing in 2014. The group is estimated to be earning around US $2 million a day from smuggling and selling crude oil alone. IS also gains income through terrorist activities such as extortion, looting, and kidnapping in its captured territories, and from affiliated cells across the globe. The group has also been looting weapons from defeated military and and rebel forces across Iraq and Syria.

What is the global response?

Global attention has been steadily increasing since IS started their rapidly advancing takeover of the region. The threat and possible genocide towards the Yazidi tribe, increasing number of foreign fighters, and the recent beheadings of captured Americans have outraged and shocked the international world. The new U.N. human rights chief Jordan Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein has urged world powers to protect civilians targeted by IS. US President, Barack Obama outlined an open-ended campaign to combat IS in a televised speech from the White House.

What is Malaysia’s stance?

In June, during a speech to United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Prime Minister Najib Razak stirred up some controversy when he said that UMNO youth members should emulate certain traits of IS, particularly the bravery they possess in fighting for their cause. Then later in August, Najib released a press statement officially condemning the actions of IS. His statement came after several Muslim leaders around the world denounced IS, including Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who said IS was an embarrassment to Islam.

Navshed Navin

Updated 16 December 2014.