ISIS makes front-page news on a weekly basis. Understanding ISIS requires understanding a wealth of background in Middle Eastern politics and Muslim history.
ISIS stands for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIL or simply Islamic State. The organization works less as a terrorist group and more as a militant organization with active recruiting, an organized administration and a treasury amounting to about 2 billion dollars, according to reports by a June 16 article from The Guardian.
ISIS began as a terrorist group associated with al-Qaeda, pushing the ideals of Sunni Islam, especially of a subsect called Wahibism—a strain of Islam so conservative that even the celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday are considered too Christian.
In a time when most groups were attacking foreign troops or minority groups, this precursor to ISIS went after Shiite Muslims.
With the troop surge in 2011, much of al-Qaeda was driving out of Iraq, and ISIS went to Syria.
Then and now, Syria was ruled by Bashar al-Assad, against whom there was a mostly secular uprising among Syrians. ISIS took advantage of increasing violence between the Syrian government and their citizens, using the chaos as a foothold by supporting rebels and taking a stand against atrocities committed by Assad.
With this support, Syrian civilians began to view the organization as a society of heroes fighting persecution and the disenfranchisement of Sunni Muslims by the Syrian and Iraqi governments. Over time, it became apparent that ISIS is driven by religious rather than humanitarian principles.
ISIS no longer wishes to cause fear and undermine non-Muslim ideals.
“We are fighting to make the word of Allah the highest,” an ISIS spokesman said in reference to the organization’s commitment to freeing Palestine.
ISIS militants believe that they can form a perfect state of Islam. This is further evidenced by the fact that as of June 29, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was declared by ISIS to be Caliph, a title reserved for religious leaders in Islam.
Unfortunately, ISIS has a surprising amount of credibility. Their ideals are radical, but not so radical that many Sunni Muslims find themselves approving of their ideology, if not their methods. What’s more, they often establish schools and stable administration in the areas they invade.
ISIS’s mass recruitment is pulling not only from the Middle East, but now from France, the United Kingdom and the United States.
“A lot of young people have been recruited in a very exploitative way,” said Mia Bloom with the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies. “The recruiters are like predators, so they are looking for young people who very often may be seeking out some involvement, and may not necessarily know what their individual obligation is to their religion.”
“So what they do is they combine feelings of guilt that they live in the West, and that there are people, there are Muslims suffering in the Middle East with this distortion of the Islamic faith,” Bloom said, to say that, ‘You have to go to the jihad in order to fulfill your individual obligation.’”
ISIS continues to earn money through donors and by smuggling and stealing from minorities — many of whom they kill or force to leave their homes.
As ISIS has moved into Iraq, it has continued to attack Christians, most famously the Ancient Christian community in Monsul, but also ethnic minorities such as Turkmen, Yazidis and Shabaks.
Christians are subject to special taxes and are forced to convert, leave or, in many cases, die.
ISIS raped and beheaded children and adults alike, documenting its work with photographs and videos.
Help from neighboring countries is not forthcoming. ISIS is still somewhat sympathetic to many Muslims, and governments are hesitant to be seen condemning ISIS if it means supporting Assad. The Obama administration has been loath to get involved, lest the United States repeat the mistakes of the eighties, when Americans sent aid to the Taliban.
As ISIS takes more territory, beginning to own entire cities, Americans can feel very distant from the crisis. John Brown University Sophomore Timothy Merrill said Americans should remove this distance by staying up to date with the news and praying for the people of Iraq and Syria.
“It’s important to be updated,” Merrill said. “We need to know where everything stems from in these situations.”