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Four years ago the Islamic State (IS, ISIL, ISIS, Da’esh) did not exist. Today it controls large parts of Iraq and Syria. How did this happen?

ISIS is an offshoot of the terrorist organization, Al-Qaeda, which took responsibility for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.

However, following the American military campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan, the acting leader of Al-Qaeda Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in an American air strike north of Iraq. This put an end to Al-Qaeda as we came to know it before and after 9/11.

His successor, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (not to be confused with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – we will get to him shortly) took over the reins of the organization and changed the name from Al-Qaeda to ISI – The Islamic State in Iraq.

However, the organization was battered down at the time and did not have anything to show for, regarding its grandiose epithet in its name.

From 2006 and onwards Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Iraq made several decisions that fuelled sectarian tensions, and gave violent extremist Sunni organizations more and more legitimacy as an opposition to Maliki’s Shia government.

For example, Maliki arrested several of his own cabinet ministers, accusing them of terrorism and other trumped-up charges. These ministers were exclusively Sunni. Maliki’s rule resulted in many Iraqi’s seeing themselves as being misrepresented, or simply not at all.

This resulted in many Sunni tribes and regions opting for autonomy from Maliki’s government, and mass protests broke out. Maliki responded with a lethal crackdown on descent.

In 2009 Iraq’s foreign and finance ministries – some of the most well guarded buildings in the country – were bombed and hundreds were killed. The following year, the Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was killed in an air strike. That is when ISIS’s current leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took control over the organization.

However, it wasn’t until the Syrian war broke out that the Islamic State became what it is today. Without the visually accessible horrors of the Syrian war as an emotional incentive, the Islamic State would not have the resources or manpower it currently commands.

The images of men, women, and children killed and mutilated by Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons fuelled hate and fear within the Sunni community. Certain Sunni tribes banded together with former Iraqi soldiers and military officers, and embraced the ISIS jihad.

Powerful backers poured money into the organization, which today is a fully-fledged propaganda machine, war machine, and charity organization. Several of Iraq’s Anbar provinces fell within days, and large swathes of Syria came under the control of the Islamic State. At one point Mosul even came under the control of the Islamic State.

Through its success and its powerful propaganda network, ISIS has managed to recruit thousands of young, disillusioned Muslim men and women from all around the world to participate in its “holy Jihad” in what many people see as the heart of the Muslim “Ummah”: al-Sham, or greater Syria.





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