Four Years After Baghouz: How ISIS Emerged & Remains
By Lazghine Ya’qoube
On March 23, 2019, the General Command of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – which includes the YPG (People’s Protection Units) and YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) – announced the defeat of ISIS and their so-called ‘Islamic State’ (in the territorial sense of the word) following the capture of the group’s last enclave in the Syrian hamlet of Baghouz, on the border with Iraq. This town would later be immortalized by their adherents as the place where ISIS made their ‘last stand’.
Many were hopeful that ISIS losing all of their territory would heal wounds, restore security, and usher in a new era of stability and safety in the region. Regrettably, that did not take place, as the radical Salafi jihadist group remains active and lethal in a number of areas throughout Syria. Although the group geographically no longer exists as a proto state, it still ideologically garners sympathy and support in many areas it once controlled. To understand why, one must look at how ISIS emerged years before in Iraq and evolved throughout the Syrian crisis which began in 2011.
Zarqawi to Baghdadi
Although ISIS had peripheral roots in Iraq since 2006, it did not garner world attention until April 2013. More broadly however, the origin of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” dates back to existing jihadist groups in the 1990s, led by the Jordanian Islamist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who came to prominence in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Structurally, Zarqawi gave the pledge of allegiance to al-Qaeda’s Osama Bin Laden adopting the name ‘al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).’
In 2004, the man who would later lead the Islamic State – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – was captured by the US military in the Iraqi city of Fallujah and was detained in Camp Bucca, where he was introduced to other detained jihadists who had fought US forces in Iraq. In June 2006, Zarqawi was allegedly killed in a US air raid and was replaced by Abu Ayub al-Masri. In October of the same year, some jihadist factions created the “Islamic State in Iraq” (ISI). Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was put in charge of the Sharia Committee, while the group’s leadership was assigned to Abu Umar al-Baghdadi.
In 2010, after the death of al-Masri and Abu Umar in a US aerial bombardment, Abu Bakr took over the leadership of ISI. Two years later, the barely known Abu Bakr would command one of the most extremist groups in world history (ISIS). At its furthest extension, the flag of the Islamic State was fluttering from Aleppo in north Syria, up to Diyala in north Iraq – vast territory of terror, that shocked many around the world. But understanding how this de facto state arose remains instructive on how to prevent its reemergence.
In late 2010 and early 2011, and within the false dawn of the supposed Arab Spring, a number of Arab countries were swept up by popular upheavals (largely peaceful) against ruling regimes, which ushered in new waves of turbulence and violence in both the Middle East and North Africa. Syria under the Assad regime had the lion’s share of violence, as the country which was once dubbed the ‘Kingdom of Silence’ would soon become a breeding ground and a magnate for Islamist extremists converging from all corners of the globe. Exacerbating the situation, regionalism and sectarianism in the Syrian conflict would lead to the emergence of a number of Islamist groups, including the Islamic State.
The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and eventually in Syria was not by accident. In late 2011, Baghdadi – while still in Iraq – sent a contingent of fighters to Syria to form a jihadist group. The ‘Al-Nusra Front’ soon gained ground and garnered Syrian’s sympathy in the fight against the Syrian regime.
In an audio statement aired on April 9, 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the intention to officially expand the Islamic State to ‘Sham’, or Greater Syria, noting at the same time that the ‘al-Nusra Front’ was an extension of the ‘Islamic State in Iraq’. He, therefore, annulled both groups in the same audio and retitled and merged both into the “Islamic State of Iraq and Sham” (hence the letters I-S-I-S, as they would come to be known). However, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, who had been an affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq and was sent to Syria with a number of colleagues on a secret mission in 2011, refused to grant Baghdadi a pledge of allegiance. Of note, al-Julani, currently heads Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group similar to ISIS which controls Idlib and coordinates with Turkey, while acting as an enforcer group against the other Turkish-backed jihadist factions.
Consolidation Amidst Chaos
At some points during the Syrian crisis, there were allegedly over 1,000 separate groups and factions opposed to the Assad regime throughout Syria. These groups widely varied in size, scope, capability, and resources. Exceptionally, ISIS soon had the capacity to impose its tenets and governance on many of these opposing armed factions and sweep them away under their black flag of fear. Alongside terror, the Islamic State invested successfully in many isolated tribal areas, whose control remained contested among anti-Assad opposing rebel factions. Out of this anarchic and chaotic situation, ISIS emerged as the most dominating and beneficiary force.
By this time, in the Kurdish north of Syria (Rojava), the Kurds had announced three autonomous yet non-contiguous cantons of Afrin, Jazira, and Kobanê as a transitional Kurdish government (administration). Notably, this emergence of a Kurdish entity would catch the attention of Erdoğan’s regime in Turkey, who would begin considering plans to weaponize Islamists with similar worldviews to himself against the Kurds (which would include ISIS themselves). However, a few years later by 2016, these small cantons would be transformed into a large multi-ethnic Federated Region comprising Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians, and Circassians, alongside other religious and ethnic minorities. Though, this achievement would only come after years of fighting and sacrifice, where the YPG and YPJ would bear the brunt of ISIS brutality, and lose over 12,000 martyrs to defeat ISIS.
From Raqqa to Mosul
Elsewhere in Raqqa, the hot and unsolved theological debate between the al-Nusra Front and ISIS developed into violent encounters on the ground. On January 14, 2014, the Islamic State announced it had fully wrested control over the city of Raqqa. The takeover of Raqqa was both symbolic and strategic. Added to its strategic position on the Euphrates River at a juncture that leads to Hasaka, Manbij, Tabqa, Kobanê, Deir Ezzor, and Aleppo – Raqqa was the very first Syrian governorate to expel Syrian regime authorities in March 2013. It was a prelude to a new dark and gloomy era for the largely tribally led Syrian city.
While Raqqa remained the de facto ISIS capital, the blitzkrieg-styled capture of Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul, was fundamental to the longevity and expansion of the group. In late June 2014, and following the capture of the strategically important city of Tal Afar and Mosul, the Islamic State announced its self-styled caliphate straddling Syria and Iraq.
Footage soon emerged of horrific violence committed against Iraqi cadets in Camp Speicher and Syrian soldiers at the headquarters of the 17th Division and 93rd Brigade garrison, among many others. In the grand spectacles to follow, ISIS would commit every atrocity imaginable, including mass beheadings, group executions carried out by children, and burning people alive in cages. Their growth was also spurred by large amounts of weapons seized from Iraqi military bases and depots, which helped the group trundle across large swathes of Syria and Iraq and dissolve the porous and unbridled colonial border between Syria and Iraq, laid down by the terms of the forcibly imposed Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916.
In a religious sermon delivered in the Nuri Mosque in Mosul, ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ called on all Muslims to pledge allegiance to the newly announced caliphate. With the declaration of the Caliphate, ISIS surpassed all the other Islamist-leaning groups in Syria. Not only this, but obligatory jihad was also announced against the enemies of the Islamic State, placing all Muslim apostates, and ‘infidel’ Alawites, Shi’ites, and Yazidis in the crosshairs of ISIS.
Turkey, Yazidis, Kobanê
The re-installing of the ‘Caliphate’ – a Muslim system of governance which dates to the early dawn of Islam – was tactical and strategic. The last Caliphate had ironically been abolished by Ataturk on March 3, 1924, following the creation of the secular-oriented Republic of Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. Yet now, Turkey led by Erdoğan – an Islamist with expansionist neo-Ottoman aspirations – would soon be assisting, arming, and funding ISIS fighters as a means to counter the Kurds.
In a chaotic battleground where jihadists from all around the world soon converged on Syria to live under the mythical theocratic caliphate, ISIS was the most credible force to channel those fighter’s delusions to serve its ends. While al-Nusra Front remained largely Syrian, ISIS became a trans-national group, who began funneling through Turkey with Turkish MİT (intelligence) assistance.
Within their campaign ‘Expanding and Remaining’, ISIS gained ground and devoured large territories early on without much resistance, or through sowing terror with their massacres. For instance, ISIS killed nearly 700 people of the Syrian Arab tribe of al-Shaitat in east Deir Ezzor.
On August 3, 2014, the group then converged on the Yazidi stronghold of Şengal (Sinjar) in the Nineveh Province of northwest Iraq, where it killed hundreds of people and abducted many more over the course of a few days. Notably, ISIS could have killed over 40,000 Yazidis who had fled to Mount Sinjar (Çiyayê Şingalê), but they were rescued by groups of Kurdish PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) guerrilla fighters, who came to repel ISIS’s advance and prevent their wholescale slaughter.
Not only this, the following month on September 13, 2014, ISIS mounted an attack to capture the Kurdish city of Kobanê on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in Rojava. Eight days later (September 21), the group’s spokesperson Abu Mohamed al-Adnani called on all supporters and adherents of the group to kill Westerners and their allies (both civilians and military personnel) arbitrarily throughout the world. The threat was ostensibly a reaction to US President Barrack Obama’s ordered air strikes against the group in Şengal initiated on August 7. Soon, the beheadings of American photojournalists James Foley in late August and that of Steven Sotloff in early September, were clear messages of retaliation sent by the group.
Back around Kobanê, by early October, nearly 350 villages were captured by ISIS. However, the tide soon turned, thanks to the heroic actions of the Kurdish resistance, which galvanized public support from all around the world. After months of fierce street by street fighting amidst rubble, by January 2015, with air support from the US, Kurdish forces (YPG & YPJ) began to liberate the city. The ISIS assault on Kobanê, and the Kurds’ recapture of the now symbolic ‘Kurdish Stalingrad’, was a turning point not only in the fight against the radical group, but also in the Syrian conflict whose map would now be drawn and re-drawn.
It was in the aftermath of the battle of Kobanê when the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS was first forged, once they realized they now had a capable partner who would fight ISIS (the Kurds), since their NATO ‘ally’ Turkey – who was doing the opposite – clearly would not. In October 2015, the multi-ethnic and multi-religious coalition of the Syrian Democratic Forces was announced. With YPG and YPJ fighters forming the main component, the newly formed SDF also brought onboard Arabs, Syriacs, Assyrians, and Armenians alongside symbolic Chechen, Turkmen, and Circassian fighters.
As an interesting aside, the Islamic State onslaught mounted against the Kurdish city of Kobanê remains a mystery. Detained high-profile commanders of the group later revealed the decision to attack Kobane was taken haphazardly (and many have speculated at the behest of Turkey) as the group was supposed to head to Damascus to topple the Syrian regime. However, Turkish MİT was already embedded within ISIS and it is possible that Turkey’s Erdoğan prioritized stopping what he saw as an emerging Western Kurdistan (Rojava) more than bringing down Assad.
Crumbling Caliphate & Turkish Rebranding
At the height of its power and expansion (in late 2014 and early 2015), the ISIS Caliphate held about 60% of Syria and 40% of Iraq, making it the size of Great Britain. Functioning as a proto state for over four years, the group was able to amass nearly 40,000 foreign fighters (mostly through Turkey’s ‘Jihadi Highway’ via Istanbul to Gaziantep), representing more than 130 countries from all corners of the globe.
However, by 2017, the Islamic State was on the decline, and by December the group had lost 95% of its territory, including its two biggest cities: Mosul and Raqqa. At the end of 2018, the group was squeezed into separate areas in Deir Ezzor. By March 2019, the battle of Baghouz in east Deir Ezzor brought to a close the territoriality of ISIS, but that did not bring the dilemma to an end.
Prior to the final days of Baghouz, while thousands of ISIS fighters and families were given safe passage by the Syrian Democratic Forces to secure holding areas in Hasaka, many other fighters dispersed deep into the desert. The others headed towards the Turkish-backed opposition factions of Turkey’s ‘Syrian National Army’ (SNA) in the north (Jarablus, al-Bab, Azaz, Serê Kaniyê, and Girê Spî) and northwest Syria (Afrin), to trade out their ISIS patches for new allegiances.
As proof of how the Turkish occupation essentially converted many of these ex-ISIS militants into their own rebranded mercenaries, one only needs to look at the most recent March 20, 2023, murder of a Kurdish family in the occupied Afrin village of Hakicha. They were murdered for lighting a Newroz fire and trying to celebrate the Kurdish New Year, by members of Ahrar al-Sharqiya – one of the many jihadist factions that now call Turkish-occupied Syria their home, with Ankara’s blessing.
Ahrar al-Sharqiya is also a notorious faction of Turkey’s ‘Syrian National Army’ (SNA) which has been operating in the region since 2019. The group, whose fighters are mainly from Deir Ezzor, have a history of malice, hatred, and grudges against the Kurds. In October 2019, fighters of the same group killed the Kurdish female politician Hevrin Khalaf on the Aleppo-Hasaka highway, commonly referred to as M4. Khalaf was serving as head of Syria’s Future Party at the time, and was dragged from her car and abused before being riddled with bullets.
Remarkably, ISIS remained mostly silent in 2019 and 2020 – a combination of having suffered so many defeats from the SDF/YPG/YPJ and owing to the fact that many of them had swapped out their ISIS uniforms to join other Turkish-backed factions in the northwest of Syria. But the years 2021 and 2022 were marked by a reemergence in the group’s activities.
In January 2021, the woman co-chair of Hasaka’s Tal al-Shayer Council, Saada al-Hirmas and her deputy Hind al-Khideir were killed in an appalling manner by the group’s sleeper cells in the southern countryside of Hasaka. The ISIS-style decapitation of both al-Hirmas and al-Khideir was an indication that the group still possessed the capacity and desire to sadistically strike targets.
Again, in January 2022, sleeper cells of the group (emboldened by the threat of a Turkish invasion to rescue them) attacked the heavily fortified Ghweiran Prison located in the city of Hasaka, where fighters of the group were held by the SDF. Although the attack was quelled following long days of battles which necessitated the engagement of the US-led Coalition, it was a clear indication how the group could still cause bloodshed.
Moreover, gruesome and appalling photos of decapitations which emerged later from the prison were evidence that the mentality of ISIS adherents had not changed and could still germinate if not fully defeated. Inside the prison and during the ensuing battles, 121 SDF fighters and prison personnel (including civilians) were killed. Later, while the year 2022 was coming to a close, another daring attack was mounted by the group’s sleeper cells, this time in its former capital of Raqqa.
Repeatedly on a weekly (or sometimes daily basis) the SDF supported by the Global Coalition have mounted campaigns against ISIS sleeper cells throughout Rojava and southeast Syria, yet the group still remains.
A Twisted Ideological Salafism
The rapid expansion of ISIS owes not only to the highly advanced weapons the group seized from Iraqi Army bases (which had been supplied to Baghdad by the West), or to the support it received from Erdoğan’s regime in Turkey who wanted to utilize it as a proxy force against the Kurds of Rojava. Accompanying their savage brutality towards foes, was also a strict ideology that demands blind subordination to the group’s dictates. ISIS then crafted its own medieval and outdated institutions to shape every aspect of modern life inside their ruled areas. Paradoxically, these rigid restrictions brought a semblance of ‘order’ and ‘calm’ (through fear) to the areas they ruled, which previously had been scenes of chaos and disorder.
The group also controlled vast oil resources in Syria and Iraq that made its caliphate one of the richest organizations in modern times. Border crossings, livestock in the largely tribal areas, and cereal products from eastern Syria, all had their role in making the group a thriving one economically, which helped fund its security grip and gave them the resources to convince followers that they were crafting a ‘paradise’ (simultaneous to the hell being inflicted on their Yazidi slave women).
Additionally, ISIS jurists introduced their educational curricula in order to hold sway over future generations of the caliphate. With special textbooks ISIS could instill its ideology into the brains of their “Cubs of the Caliphate” (a demented form of jihadi Boy Scouts), who would grow up to become the future fighters of the group. There were two basic aims sought by ISIS jurists running the education system of the caliphate. The first was the complete jihadization of Islam and the second was the ISIS-azation of Salafism.
Salafism is a fundamental Sunni movement adhering to theological views of early Salafists or companions (Sahaba) of the prophet, their followers (Tabi’un), and all those adhering to their beliefs. The scholar and theologian Ibn Taymiyyah (died in 1328, Damascus), best known for his monotheist views of Islam occupies a colossal position in the jihadist ideology. To the ‘Sheikh of Islam’ and ‘father of Salafism’ attributes a famous saying that: “Religion is based on two pillars, a Quran that guides and a sword that attains victories. It is God that all guides and all supports.”
In the lands of the Islamic State, showing any independence of thought or saying no was also deadly. This could be ascertained in the case of the mass murder of the Arab tribe of al-Shaitat in east Deir Ezzor, when ISIS judge Abu Abdullah al-Kuwaiti issued a fatwa (religious binding decree) against the al-Shaitat. The fatwa sanctioned their lives and allowed their properties to be taken forcibly since they were “misguided and disobedient” to the rightly guided ISIS caliphate, which was supposedly God’s representation on earth.
Ideologically, ISIS also adopted a more exclusionist view compared to other jihadist groups, being less tolerant of those considered to be “deviant” Islamic sects. In 2014, and prior to the genocidal attacks against the Yazidis, Sharia Law jurists of the group met and studied thoroughly how they could deal with Yazidis in case Şengal was captured. After many deliberations and research based on their strict interpretation of Islam, a conclusion was reached that since Yazidis were in existence prior to the Muslim conquest of the region, and since they had never embraced Islam, they could not be viewed as reneges or apostates, but rather as polytheists. The hypothesis concluded that since Yazidis had never embraced Islam; and they do not believe in ‘God’ (Allah), they had no souls and could be killed and their properties seized.
ISIS applied a similar religious view to justify their murder of the ruling Syrian Alawite minority (which they derogatorily deemed “Nusairian”) and the Shi’ite regime in Iraq (which they demonized as “Rafida”). These distorted and extremist interpretations of Islam also meant that alongside Yazidis, ISIS began killing large numbers of people who saw themselves as ‘fellow Muslims’.
Foreign Women of ISIS
There remains one more aspect by which ISIS dominated society and the psyche of people: women. On the surface, women have been depicted as being subjugated by the misogynistic organization – which was certainly true of Yazidi women captives who would be enslaved and raped by ISIS men. Moreover, women believers in ISIS, were seen as possessing a “sublime” mission in the home, consisting of procreation, childbearing, and raising “Cubs of the Caliphate”. This was true of Syrian and Iraqi women (Ansar) who were expected to remain confined to the home. But an added nuance, is that foreign ISIS women were given positions in both civil affairs and military arenas. While the group was in its prime, a female al-Hisba structure (governing the ‘community morals’) was assigned to regulate the feminine aspects of the caliphate. Interestingly, and contrary to all other jihadist groups, ISIS also employed women on the front lines, specifically when the group was on the decline and losing ground in 2018 and 2019.
While this move or rather precedence of women taking a role in ISIS could be viewed as desperation amid impending defeat, it has turned out to be more than just strategic, following the territorial collapse of the caliphate since 2019. Today, the main ISIS enclave in east Hasaka; the al-Hol Camp, is actually run by women (largely foreigners). In the Annex in the al-Hol Camp, women of the caliphate hold sway over the rest of the camp’s residents and rule it with a calculating brutality. They are also very hostile to the periphery they live within and refuse to remove their full black burqas that conceal them entirely. This creates not only a security challenge to the SDF guarding the camp (who they often attack), but also symbolically keeps alive the caliphate visually, as these rounded black shapes (with no identifiable human characteristics: eyes, face, arms, legs etc) all seemingly glide in mass unison around the camp.
Containment & Assisting Kurds
In the aftermath of the territorial dismantlement of the group in Baghouz, ISIS fighters have resorted to hit-and-run military tactics, garrisoning in the endless and topographically rugged Syrian Desert extending from Raqqa, Hama, Homs, and Deir Ezzor up to Sweida in the south. In addition, the Syrian-Iraqi border area remains a breeding ground for fighters of the group, which still garners supports in many isolated forgotten areas in both Syria and Iraq.
For their part, male captives of ISIS are held in a number of detention centers throughout Rojava (north and east Syria) run by the SDF, and families of the group (including children driven by ISIS exclusionist ideology) are mostly held in the notorious al-Hol Camp some 45 kilometers east of Hasaka.
Recently published studies indicate that ISIS still has the capability to mount attacks wherever and whenever it wants. It is also beyond doubt that the ideology the group instilled into the brains of its rabid devotees remains inflexible and impervious to erosion with the passage of time. Especially because many of them perceive their extremist ideology as the only antidote to domination from fundamentalist Shi’ite groups.
And while it is true that the state ISIS constructed no longer exists, the ideology remains, and many of the jihadist factions in Turkish-occupied areas are mostly ISIS in everything but name only. While their beards may be slightly shorter, and their beheadings not held in public, their torture, targeting of women, and war crimes (especially in places like occupied Afrin) often times have the same effect.
In stark contrast, the Kurds have made colossal sacrifices in first defending their areas and secondly liberating others from the rule of the Islamic State. Today, Kurds of the YPG and YPJ point out that they fought ISIS on behalf of the whole world, and that the world should in turn acknowledge and recognize their contributions.
Additionally, the Kurdish administration in Rojava requires more assistance from the international community to hold ISIS war criminals. As it should not be the responsibility of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration to house tens of thousands of ISIS sympathizers in perpetuity, only because Western states fear housing their ISIS nationals in their own prisons.
Time and again, officials of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) have appealed to the international community to either repatriate foreign fighters of ISIS to their countries of origin or set up special tribunals in Rojava to prosecute perpetrators of the genocidal acts against the people of Syria. Up to now, largely only children have been repatriated, while appeals and calls of the Kurdish authorities for prosecutions seem to fall on deaf Western ears.
But the squalid al-Hol camp only perpetuates and incubates the Islamic State as an ideology. Which is why it should be dismantled and its residents face justice in a court of law. That is what separates ISIS from their enemies, as Kurds have abolished the death penalty in Rojava and will give them a fair hearing and render impartial judgement, something they would never have received in kind.
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