The rise of Islamic State has caused widespread fear and revulsion. But how has it become so powerful and what does it mean for the rest of the world? Chris Bond reports.
RISING out of the shimmering desert, the rose-golden ruins of Palmyra have long been regarded as one of the wonders of the Middle East.
For centuries this ancient Syrian city, dubbed the “Venice of the Sands”, was a prosperous trade centre on the Silk Road linking the East and West. In years gone by visitors travelled here to marvel at the well-preserved remains of edifices such as the Temple of Bel.
Today, however, there are no tourists at this World Heritage Site. Instead a plume of smoke rises above the city, the latest to fall into the clutches of “Islamic State” (IS) militants – just days after they seized Ramadi in Iraq.
The militants have previously demolished ancient sites in Iraq that pre-date Islam, but although no damage has yet been reported at Palmyra the fact it has caused international concern might spur the jihadists, who seem to delight in horrifying the world, into destroying it.
During the past two years the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” has conquered territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria and established a “caliphate”. It has brought fear to religious and ethnic minority groups caught up in its murderous path and become a byword for terror.
Earlier this year, following a series of counterattacks and air strikes, it appeared as though the tide was turning against the radical Islamists. But since then they have shown their ability to fight, and win, on several different fronts simultaneously.
Dr Andreas Armborst, from the Centre for Criminal Justice Studies at the University of Leeds, says it’s clear the militant group has established a strong foothold in the Middle East. “If you look at the causes of the conflict in Iraq and Syria it becomes clear that it will not end any time soon, either with or without foreign military intervention.”
He says that ordinary men and women have become victims of ruthless power struggles in both countries which, in some cases, is driving them into the arms of jihadists. “Some people in the region are so desperate that IS seems to them not to be the problem, but the solution.”
IS now effectively controls a large swathe that cuts across Iraq and Syria. But who are the people behind this brutal organisation and how have they been able to become so powerful? Dr Armborst says its roots can be traced back to the Iraq War in 2003.
The conflict saw numerous jihadist groups head to Iraq, with IS becoming an offshoot of al-Qaida. “IS was part of the al-Qaida network until June 2014 when it broke away from its parental organisation over a dispute about leadership in Syria and Iraq.”
Of all the extremist groups that have splintered from al-Qaida during the past decade, IS has undoubtedly grown into the biggest threat.
Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, says there are key differences between the two groups.
“IS has a fundamentally different view in that it wants to take territory. That’s why it was key for them to establish the caliphate in Mosul last year. It’s far less concerned about expanding abroad. There might be the occasional lone wolf carrying out attacks in its name, but IS is very much focused on the Middle East where it’s a potent force.”
Many people have perhaps come to associate IS with Syria, and the struggle to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, but Prof Rogers says its incubation was in Iraq, where many of the group’s future paramilitary leaders were trained as part of Saddam Hussein’s infamous Republican Guard.
A systematic campaign led by US Special Forces teams effectively knocked the stuffing out of the insurgency during the war in Iraq. However, many of those detained became even more radicalised while imprisoned.
The withdrawal of US troops in 2011 then coincided with the slide into civil war in Syria, as well as a series of prison raids in Iraq that saw hundreds of former insurgents released – in the attack on Abu Ghraib it’s estimated that as many as 500 prisoners were released.
IS quickly established itself as a formidable military force despite being constantly harassed by US drone attacks. “They have a hardline core who are very well trained, very well equipped and capable of fighting the world’s best soldiers, and this new Iraqi army has been no match for them,” says Prof Rogers.
He points to last year’s capture of Mosul, in northern Iraq, as a key moment as this gave them access to a large amount of military equipment and ammunition, along with money from the city’s banks.
Their power base has also spread at an alarming rate in a short space of time. “They now have between six and eight million people under their control who pay taxes. They have oil money coming in and cash from selling antiquities. They have mobilised ways of making money and they’re making a lot of it – they’re not badly funded.”
Prof Rogers says the ranks of IS have been swollen by an influx of overseas fighters and Islamic militia. “Its heart is in Iraq and Syria with people drawn from across the Middle East, like Libya, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, plus a sprinkling of others from Chechnya and Pakistan.”
It’s estimated that more than 5,000 have joined from Western countries, including up to 700 from the UK. This has prompted a flurry of headlines like those surrounding so-called “Jihadi John” and the troubling story of the three British schoolgirls who travelled to Syria to join IS.
But Prof Rogers believes that many of those that do join the radical Islamist group don’t find it to be the utopia they perhaps expected. “A lot have actually come home and although the evidence is sketchy most have come back very disillusioned by their experiences.
“They could be used to convince others not to go and I think that’s something the government is quietly doing.”
He says the jihadists’ use of terror is aimed at inciting a response from the Americans and striking fear into soldiers in the Iraqi army. “They want the US to send in troops so that they can show themselves as standing up against the foreign crusaders. It might be a travesty and facile but it strikes a chord with some people.
“They have no qualms about burning people alive or beheading people and sending these images around the world because they believe it furthers their cause. Some people might call them madmen but they’re not, they are hard-headed which makes them more dangerous.”
He warns, too, that as long as there is deep-rooted marginalisation in the Middle East then IS will continue to feed off this. “IS is significant, but the wider context is far more meaningful. Rather than this being a clash of civilisations we could be entering an age of insurgency that we failed to see coming.”
What is the ‘Islamic State’?
This radical Islamist group, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has seized large swathes of territory in eastern Syria and across northern and western Iraq.
Its brutal tactics – including mass killings and abductions of members of religious and ethnic minorities, as well as the beheadings of soldiers and journalists – have sparked fear and outrage across the world and prompted US military intervention.
The group has established a “caliphate”, a state ruled by a single political and religious leader according to Islamic law.
Although its power is limited to Iraq and Syria, IS has pledged to “break the borders” of Jordan and to “free Palestine”.
It has drawn support from extremists right across the world.