The brutal killing of journalist James Foley by the Islamist group Islamic State in Iraq and the Syria-Levant (ISIS) has sent shockwaves across the world. Although the killing of Foley was not the first one carried out by the militant group, the latest tragedy reinforced the brutality and ruthlessness of the extremist Islamist outfit. Quick was to acknowledge this was US defence secretary Chuck Hagel who said that the magnitude of threat posed by the militant group was much higher than that of al Qaeda.
ISIS, now known just as the Islamic State, gained prominence since the Syrian civil war in 2010. With its multi-pronged assault firstly in Syria and recently in Iraq, the group has emerged as a much more fanatical and extremist group in comparison to the dreaded al Qaeda. The threat is not just limited to the US but to the countries all over the globe. With its rising strength, the Islamic State is now looking to fulfil the gap created by a relatively weaker al Qaeda.
So what makes the newbie group so dreaded? Firstly, it is the group’s unbelievably swift rise to power. In a matter of four years, ISIS has been able to accomplish what many much older organisations could not in years. It controls swathes of territory in eastern Syria and western and central Iraq including major cities like Mosul and Tikrit. The group’s offensive in Iraq has taken it almost to the country’s capital, Baghdad. With the aim of an establishing Islamic state primarily in the Middle Eastern region, the militant group’s deadly attacks have been possible thanks to its heavy financial resources. Although initially the group relied on private donations from the Middle East, today it is said to earn significant amounts from the oil fields it controls in eastern Syria. It is also believed to have been selling looted antiquities from historical sites. The group is thought to have cash and assets worth 2 billion dollar making it one of the richest militant groups ever.
While Al Qaeda was predominantly successful in roping in young Arab Muslims to fight in wars, the Islamic State has used propaganda to attract Muslims from all over the globe. Islamic State claims to have fighters from the US, the UK, France, Germany and other European countries. This has been possible thanks to the group’s extensive use of social media and other propaganda tools to appeal and brainwash young Muslims. It has not only been filming and distributing its footage of vicious attacks but also disseminating subtle and softer narratives via Twitter and other channels. A total of about 3000 Muslims from the western countries have reportedly joined the group since its formation. According to the British government records, about 500 of the foreign fighters are British alone. Hundreds others continue to flock the Syrian border and Iraq. Among them have been Muslims from eminent professions like doctors, former military soldiers and officers. This is a dangerous sign of the ideological impact the group has been having towards young Muslims, particularly from the west. A major fear with this trend is that the western-born jihadists have capacity of creating even greater damage given their knowledge and exposure.
Perhaps what makes the group deadlier than any other militant group is its radical approach and brutality. It has declared Shia Muslims and other rivals as heretics that deserve death. From beheadings and summary executions to amputations and crucifixions, savagery has become a defining aspect of the Islamic State. Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers were mercilessly killed after the group captured the town of Mosul. Many foreign workers and journalists have been held as captive or killed.
While the US has begun limited airstrikes in Iraq to control the influence of the group which it says posed much bigger threat than the al Qaeda did, things are not expected to change much. At least not in the immediate future.