They’re called by many names: ISIS, ISIL, SIC, Da’esh or simply the Islamic State. Whatever you want to call them, they may be the most powerful terrorist group in history.
“These are not guys like Osama Bin Laden that live in a cave in the mountains somewhere,” said Jonathan Landay, national security and intelligence correspondent for McClatchy news. “These are people that control territory in which eight million people live.”
Having just returned from Baghdad, Landay — an award-winning journalist with over 25 years of international conflict reporting under his belt — stopped by The Seattle Times building Saturday for a discussion sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists Western Washington Chapter and the Seattle Globalist.
He came to discuss the Islamic State, the American response to their activities, and his work as a journalist in Iraq and Syria, two countries where 39 reporters lost their lives in 2013 alone.
“I call them the Islamic State because that’s what they call themselves,” Landay said. But a name is just a name, and there’s much more to figuring out the Islamic State than finding a definitive label.
The group responsible for the videotaped executions of James Foley, Steven Sotlof, David Haines, Alan Henning and Peter Kassig are both shrouded in mystery and extremely visible, leaving many Americans with more questions than answers about the most recent incarnation of the War on Terror.
Where did they come from?
The U.S. currently finds itself at war in the Middle East for the third time in as many decades. But the Islamic State’s historical roots don’t run as deep as one would imagine.
“Unfortunately, the real root of what happened, of what’s happened in Iraq, is the American invasion in 2003,” Landay said. After all, the Islamic State’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), wasn’t fully formed until after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Having pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden, the group spent much of the 2000s fighting both the American forces and local Shia populations, finding themselves severely weakened by 2007. By 2010, Gen Ray Odierno had estimated that 80 percent of AQIs leaders had been either killed or captured.
Newly appointed leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi replenished AQIs forces through continuous assaults on prisons housing former AQI members, a campaign that culminated with the escape of over 500 prisoners from Taji and Abu Ghraib prisons.
Seeing the Syrian civil war as an opportunity for expansion, al-Baghdadi dispersed forces to Syria to recoup and recruit new members, a move which would eventually give birth to another terrorist organization, the al-Nusra Front, who subsequently acquired widespread support among the Syrian opposition. In April 2013 al-Baghdadi announced a re-merging of the two groups and dubbed the new organization the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS.
What do they want?
The ultimate goal of the Islamic State is the same as that of its predecessor: to establish a caliphate, or an Islamic political state.
Last summer al-Baghdadi claimed to be the leader of that caliphate, but it has yet to be recognized by any country with a Muslim majority. Still, they have done more than AQI ever did to establish social services like continuous electricity or consistent court systems (although these court consistencies include punishments like beatings, whippings, stonings, and beheadings for violations of sharia law).
“They believe they can create a society that reproduces what they think was the perfect society: the one established under the prophet Muhammad,” Landay said. “That’s essentially what they see as their raison d’être.”
However, their methods have led to a widespread rejection of the group by previous allies like Al Qaeda — who condemns the Islamic State for killing Muslims — and the current incarnation of al-Nusra, who opposed the declaration of the caliphate, causing a substantial rift between the once unified groups.
So why release all the execution videos?
The circulation of the footage of Foley’s beheading was a turning point in the average American’s relationship with the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. For the first time, the majority of the U.S. population was in support of at least an aerial military intervention in Syria, a notion which was overwhelmingly rejected by the public only a year earlier.
The U.S. has since unleashed a rigorous bombing campaign against Islamic State militants in both Iraq and Syria. This response likely does not come as a surprise to the terrorist group, however. In fact, they may have been counting on it.
“I think there’s a certain calculation that the more they do this, the greater the chance America is going to send more troops there that they can fight,” said Landay. “That way, they can build up a greater reputation and attract more followers for fighting the country that is thought to be responsible for all their suffering.”
The grabs for international attention seem to be working. In fact, a handful of Islamic State fighters (including the viral executioner known only as Jihadi John) are thought to be Europeans themselves — mostly young Muslims who have faced marginalization and discrimination back home.
But do they actually pose a threat?
In a national address following the executions of Foley and Sotlof, President Barack Obama speculated that if the Islamic State’s activities were to continue without repercussions the organization “could pose a growing threat beyond [the Middle East], including to the United States.”
Landay, on the other hand, remains skeptical.
“The National Security establishment within the government always operates on a worst-case-scenario,” he said. “So they build up Al Qaeda and these Islamist terrorist groups as the modern day equivalent of the Soviet nuclear arsenal — existential threats to the way we know life in the United States — which is not true.”
The close proximity of the Islamic State’s activities to countries like Jordan, Israel and Saudi Arabia does stand as an issue of concern for some of the U.S.’s strongest regional allies. But the real threat they pose to the U.S., Landay proposes, is a political one.
“They are a threat to whoever is in the White House, who can then be blamed by his opposition for failing to do what has to be done and stop these kind of attacks from endangering Americans,” he said. “Going overboard on these kinds of threats has resulted in the creation of a multi-billion dollar security industry, and I’m not sure that’s made us any safer.”
So what does this mean for the future?
Due to the extreme danger for Western journalist of entering areas controlled by the Islamic State, it’s difficult know what it’s like for those living under the group’s sway, or even what the eventual ramifications of our intervention against them will be. The number of journalists stationed in Baghdad is dwindling, and the future is looking more and more uncertain.
“The question is where is this going, and I have no idea. I don’t think anyone else can tell you either,” said Landay. “A lot of us have been writing for a long time that simply tackling this from the air is not going to work, and yet Americans still only support intervention from the air. Boots on the ground? No. But that’s where this is slowly going, again.”
Currently there are 1600 American soldiers stationed in Iraq and on November 7 the Department of Defense announced plans to deploy an additional 1500 troops to the region over the coming months.
“Bottom line,” Landay said, “this isn’t going away for a long time.”