History of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant

The history of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant began with the group's foundation in 1999 by Jordanian Salafi jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi under the name Jamāʻat al-Tawḥīd wa-al-Jihād (transl."The Organisation of Monotheism and Jihad").[1] In a letter published by the Coalition in February 2004, Zarqawi wrote that jihadis should use bombings to start an open sectarian war so that Sunnis from the Islamic world would mobilize against assassinations carried out by Shia, specifically the Badr Brigade, against Ba'athists and Sunnis.[2]

Jamāʻat al-Tawḥīd wa-al-Jihād (1999–2004)

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant was founded in 1999 by Jordanian Salafi jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi under the name Jamāʻat al-Tawḥīd wa-al-Jihād (transl."The Organisation of Monotheism and Jihad").[3] In a letter published by the Coalition in February 2004, Zarqawi wrote that jihadis should use bombings to start an open sectarian war so that Sunnis from the Islamic world would mobilize against assassinations carried out by Shia, specifically the Badr Brigade, against Ba'athists and Sunnis.[4] Colonel Derek Harvey told Reuters that "the U.S. military detained Badr assassination teams possessing target lists of Sunni officers and pilots in 2003 and 2004 but did not hold them. Harvey said his superiors told him that 'this stuff had to play itself out' – implying that revenge attacks by returning Shi'ite groups were to be expected."[5] Jerry Burke, an adviser to the Iraqi Interior Ministry, said that in 2005 a plan from him and several colleagues to surveil and stop suspected Badr Brigade death squads in the special police forces was rejected when it got to an American Flag (General) Officer.[6]

Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq by Western forces, al-Zarqawi and Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad achieved notoriety in the early stages of the Iraqi insurgency for their suicide attacks on Shia mosques, civilians, Iraqi government institutions and Italian soldiers of the US-led 'Multi-National Force'.

Tanẓīm Qāʻidat al-Jihād fī Bilād al-Rāfidayn (2004–2006)

In October 2004, when al-Zarqawi swore loyalty to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, he renamed the group Tanẓīm Qāʻidat al-Jihād fī Bilād al-Rāfidayn (transl."The Organisation of Jihad's Base in Mesopotamia"), commonly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).[7][8][9][10][11] Although the group never called itself al-Qaeda in Iraq, this remained its informal name for many years.[12] Attacks by the group on civilians, Iraqi government forces, foreign diplomats and soldiers, and American convoys continued with roughly the same intensity. In a letter to al-Zarqawi in July 2005, al-Qaeda's then deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri outlined a four-stage plan to expand the Iraq War. The plan included expelling US forces from Iraq, establishing an Islamic authority as a caliphate, spreading the conflict to Iraq's secular neighbours, and clashing with Israel, which the letter said, "[...] was established only to challenge any new Islamic entity".[13]

In January 2006, AQI joined with several smaller Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups under an umbrella organisation called the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC). According to counterterrorism researcher Brian Fishman, the merger was an attempt to give the group a more Iraqi flavour, and perhaps to distance al-Qaeda from some of al-Zarqawi's tactical errors, such as the 2005 bombings by AQI of three hotels in Amman.[14] On 7 June 2006, a US airstrike killed al-Zarqawi, who was succeeded as leader of the group by the Egyptian militant Abu Ayyub al-Masri.[15][16][17]

Islamic State of Iraq (2006–2013)

On 12 October 2006, MSC united with three smaller groups and six Sunni tribes to form the Mutayibeen Coalition, pledging "To rid Sunnis from the oppression of the rejectionists (Shi'ite Muslims) and the crusader occupiers ... to restore rights even at the price of our own lives ... to make Allah's word supreme in the world, and to restore the glory of Islam".[18][19] A day later, MSC declared the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), comprising Iraq's six mostly Sunni Arab governorates,[20] with Abu Omar al-Baghdadi its emir[21][22] and al-Masri Minister of War within ISI's ten-member cabinet.[23]

According to a study compiled by United States intelligence agencies in early 2007, ISI planned to seize power in the central and western areas of Iraq and turn it into a Sunni caliphate.[24] The group built in strength and at its height enjoyed a significant presence in the Iraqi governorates of Al Anbar, Diyala and Baghdad, claiming Baqubah as a capital city.[25][26][27][28]

The Iraq War troop surge of 2007 supplied the US military with more manpower for operations, and dozens of high-level AQI members being captured or killed.[29] Between July and October 2007, al-Qaeda in Iraq was reported to have lost its secure military bases in Al Anbar province and the Baghdad area.[30] During 2008, a series of US and Iraqi offensives managed to drive out AQI-aligned insurgents from their former safe havens, such as the Diyala and Al Anbar governorates, to the area of the northern city of Mosul.[31]

By 2008, the ISI was describing itself as being in a state of "extraordinary crisis".[32] Its violent attempts to govern territory led to a backlash from Sunni Arab Iraqis and other insurgent groups and a temporary decline in the group, which was attributable to a number of factors,[33] notably the Anbar Awakening.

In late 2009, the commander of US forces in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, stated that ISI "has transformed significantly in the last two years. What once was dominated by foreign individuals has now become more and more dominated by Iraqi citizens".[34] On 18 April 2010, ISI's two top leaders, al-Masri and Omar al-Baghdadi, were killed in a joint US-Iraqi raid near Tikrit.[35] In a press conference in June 2010, General Odierno reported that 80% of ISI's top 42 leaders, including recruiters and financiers, had been killed or captured, with only eight remaining at large. He said that they had been cut off from al-Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan.[36][37][38]

On 16 May 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was appointed the new leader of ISI.[39][40] Al-Baghdadi replenished the group's leadership by appointing former Iraqi military and Intelligence Service officers who had served during Saddam Hussein's rule.[41][42] These men, nearly all of whom had spent time imprisoned by the US military at Camp Bucca, came to make up about one third of Baghdadi's top 25 commanders, including Abu Abdulrahman al-Bilawi, Abu Ayman al-Iraqi, and Abu Muslim al-Turkmani. One of them, a former colonel called Samir al-Khlifawi, also known as Haji Bakr, became the overall military commander in charge of overseeing the group's operations.[43][44] Al-Khlifawi was instrumental in doing the ground work that led to the growth of ISIL.[45][46]

In July 2012, al-Baghdadi released an audio statement online announcing that the group was returning to former strongholds from which US troops and the Sons of Iraq had driven them in 2007 and 2008.[47] He declared the start of a new offensive in Iraq called Breaking the Walls, aimed at freeing members of the group held in Iraqi prisons.[47] Violence in Iraq had begun to escalate in June 2012, primarily with AQI's car bomb attacks, and by July 2013, monthly fatalities exceeded 1,000 for the first time since April 2008.[48]

Syrian Civil War

In March 2011, protests began in Syria against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. In the following months, violence between demonstrators and security forces led to a gradual militarisation of the conflict.[49] In August 2011, following the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, al-Baghdadi began sending Syrian and Iraqi ISI members experienced in guerilla warfare across the border into Syria to establish an organisation there. Under the name Jabhat an-Nuṣrah li-Ahli ash-Shām (or al-Nusra Front), it established a large presence in Sunni-majority Raqqa, Idlib, Deir ez-Zor, and Aleppo provinces. Led by a Syrian known as Abu Muhammad al-Julani, this group began to recruit fighters and establish cells throughout the country.[50][51]

On 23 January 2012, the Syrian group called itself Jabhat al-Nusra li Ahl as-Sham,[52] more commonly known as the al-Nusra Front. Al-Nusra grew rapidly into a capable fighting force, with popular support among Syrians opposed to the Assad government.[50]

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (2013–2014)

On 8 April 2013, al-Baghdadi released an audio statement in which he announced that the al-Nusra Front had been established, financed, and supported by ISI,[53] and that the two groups were merging under the name Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIL, Al-Sham also translates as the Levant).[54] However, Abu Mohammad al-Julani and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leaders of al-Nusra and al-Qaeda respectively, rejected the merger. Al-Julani issued a statement denying the merger, and complaining that neither he nor anyone else in al-Nusra's leadership had been consulted about it.[55] In June 2013, Al Jazeera reported that it had obtained a letter written by al-Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, addressed to both leaders, in which he ruled against the merger, and appointed an emissary to oversee relations between them to put an end to tensions.[56] That same month, al-Baghdadi released an audio message rejecting al-Zawahiri's ruling and declaring that the merger was going ahead.[57]

Meanwhile, the ISIL campaign to free its imprisoned members culminated in simultaneous raids on Taji and Abu Ghraib prisons in July 2013, freeing more than 500 prisoners, many of them veterans of the Iraqi insurgency.[48][58] In October 2013, al-Zawahiri ordered the disbanding of ISIL, putting al-Nusra Front in charge of jihadist efforts in Syria,[59] but al-Baghdadi rejected al-Zawahiri's order,[57] and his group continued to operate in Syria. In February 2014, after an eight-month power struggle, al-Qaeda publicly disavowed any relations with ISIL.[60]

According to journalist Sarah Birke, there are "significant differences" between al-Nusra Front and ISIL. While al-Nusra actively calls for the overthrow of the Assad government, ISIL "tends to be more focused on establishing its own rule on conquered territory". ISIL is "far more ruthless" in building an Islamic state, "carrying out sectarian attacks and imposing sharia law immediately". While al-Nusra has a "large contingent of foreign fighters", it is seen as a home-grown group by many Syrians; by contrast, ISIL fighters have been described as "foreign 'occupiers'" by many Syrian refugees.[61] Foreign fighters in Syria include Russian-speaking jihadists who were part of Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA).[62] In November 2013, Abu Omar al-Shishani, leader of the Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA), swore an oath of allegiance to al-Baghdadi;[63] the group then split between those who followed al-Shishani in joining ISIL and those who continued to operate independently in the JMA under new leadership.[64]

In January 2014, rebels affiliated with the Islamic Front and the US-trained Free Syrian Army[65] launched an offensive against ISIL militants in and around the city of Aleppo, following months of tensions over ISIL's behavior, which included the seizure of property and weapons from rebel groups, and the arrests and killings of activists.[66][67] Months of clashes ensued, causing thousands of casualties, with ISIL withdrawing its forces from Idlib and Latakia provinces and redeploying them to reinforce its strongholds in Raqqa and Aleppo.[68] It also launched an offensive against all other opposition forces active in the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor, on the border with Iraq.[69][70] By June 2014, ISIL had largely defeated its rivals in the province, with many who had not been killed or driven away pledging allegiance to it.[71][72]

In Iraq, ISIL was able to capture most of Fallujah in January 2014,[73] and in June 2014 was able to seize control of Mosul.[74]

After an eight-month power struggle, al-Qaeda cut all ties with ISIL by February 2014, citing its failure to consult and "notorious intransigence".[75][60]

In early 2014, ISIL drove Iraqi government forces out of key cities in its Anbar campaign,[76] which was followed by the capture of Mosul[74] and the Sinjar massacre.[77] The loss of control almost caused a collapse of the Iraqi government and prompted a renewal of US military action in Iraq. In Syria, ISIL has conducted ground attacks on both the Syrian Arab Army and rebel factions.

Islamic State (2014–present)

On 29 June 2014, ISIL proclaimed itself to be a worldwide caliphate.[78] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – known by his supporters as Amir al-Mu'minin, Caliph Ibrahim – was named its caliph, and the group renamed itself ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah ("Islamic State" (IS)).[79] As a "Caliphate", it claims religious, political and military authority over all Muslims worldwide.[80] The concept of it being a caliphate and the name "Islamic State" have been rejected by governments and Muslim leaders worldwide.[81][82][83][84][85][86][87]

In June and July 2014, Jordan and Saudi Arabia moved at least 30,000 troops to their borders with Iraq, after the Iraqi government lost control of (or withdrew from) strategic crossing points that were captured by either ISIL or tribes that supported it.[88][89] There was speculation that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had ordered a withdrawal of troops from the Iraq–Saudi crossings in order "to increase pressure on Saudi Arabia and bring the threat of ISIS over-running its borders as well".[90]

In July 2014, ISIL recruited more than 6,300 fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, some of whom were thought to have previously fought for the Free Syrian Army.[91] On 23 July 2014, Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Totoni Hapilon and some masked men swore loyalty to al-Baghdadi in a video, giving ISIL a presence in the Philippines.[92][93] In September 2014, the group began kidnapping people for ransom.[94]

In 2016, according to the daily, La Stampa, officials from Europol conducted an investigation into the trafficking of fake documents for ISIL. They have identified fake Syrian passports in the refugee camps in Greece that were destined to supposed members of ISIL, in order to avoid Greek government controls and make their way to other parts of Europe.[95] Also, the chief of Europol said that a new task force of 200 counter terrorism officers will be deployed to the Greek islands alongside Greek border guards in order to help Greece thwart a "strategic" level campaign by Islamic State to infiltrate terrorists into Europe.[96]

In early May 2019, after almost 5 years since his last public appearance in the summer of 2014, al-Baghdadi appeared in a video declaring his organisation's new geographical ambitions. After the loss of the territories it once occupied in the Levant and the crumbling of the 'Caliphate' project, the leader of the group boasted in his speech of "new oaths of allegiance extended to him from jihadis in Mali, Burkina Faso, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka" as well as in Turkey. According to Syrian-American journalist Hassan Hassan, in a comment in Foreign Policy magazine, "Baghdadi's video marks the failure of the U.S.-led coalition to capture Baghdadi and dismantle his organization. It demonstrates the health of both Baghdadi and his organization—refuting recent rumors that he was ailing—and allows them to boast about a major terrorist attack, their expansion to new places, and the recruitment of new members."[97]

Capture of territory

On 3 August 2014, ISIL captured the cities of Zumar, Sinjar and Wana in northern Iraq.[77] Thousands of Yazidis fled up Mount Sinjar, fearful of the approaching hostile ISIL militants. The stranded Yazidis' need for food and water, the threat of genocide to them and to others announced by ISIL, along with the desire to protect US citizens in Iraq and support the Iraqi government in its fight against ISIL, were all reasons given for the 2014 American intervention in Iraq, which began on 7 August.[98] A US aerial bombing campaign began the following day.

At the end of October 2014, 800 militants gained partial control of the Libyan city of Derna and pledged their allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, thus making Derna the first city outside Syria and Iraq to be a part of the "Islamic State Caliphate".[99] On 10 November 2014, a major faction of the Egyptian militant group Ansar Bait al-Maqdis also pledged its allegiance to ISIL.[100] In mid-January 2015, a Yemeni official said that ISIL had "dozens" of members in Yemen, and that they were coming into direct competition with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula because of their recruitment drive.[101] The same month, Afghan officials confirmed that ISIL had a military presence in Afghanistan.[102] However, by February 2015, 65 of the militants were either captured or killed by the Taliban, and ISIL's top Afghan recruiter, Mullah Abdul Rauf, was killed in a US drone strike.[103][104][105]

In early February 2015, ISIL militants in Libya managed to capture part of the countryside to the west of Sabha, and later, an area encompassing the cities of Sirte, Nofolia, and a military base to the south of both cities. By March, ISIL had captured additional territory, including a city to the west of Derna, additional areas near Sirte, a stretch of land in southern Libya, some areas around Benghazi, and an area to the east of Tripoli.

On 7 March 2015, Boko Haram swore formal allegiance to ISIL, giving ISIL an official presence in Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon.[106][107][108] On 13 March 2015, a group of militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan swore allegiance to ISIL;[109] the group released another video on 31 July 2015 showing its spiritual leader also pledging allegiance.[110] In June 2015, the US Deputy Secretary of State announced that ISIL had lost more than 10,000 members in airstrikes over the preceding nine months.[111][112]

Loss of territory and declarations of victory by opponents

Since 2015, ISIL lost territory in Iraq and Syria, including Tikrit in March and April 2015,[113] Baiji in October,[114] Sinjar in November 2015,[115][116] Ramadi in December 2015,[117] Fallujah in June 2016[118] and Palmyra in March 2017.[119]

On 10 July 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi formally declared a local Iraqi victory over ISIL in the recent Iraqi army expulsion of ISIL from the city of Mosul.[120] Since the fall of ISIL in Mosul, the overall extent of ISIL held territory in both Syria and Iraq has significantly diminished.[121] On 17 October 2017, ISIL lost control of Raqqa in the second battle of Raqqa.[122] On 3 November, Deir ez-Zor, ISIL's last major city in Syria, was recaptured,[123] as well as Rawa, the last town held by ISIL in Iraq.[124]

On 21 November 2017, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani declared victory over ISIL.[125] Qasem Soleimani, senior military officer of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, wrote to Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei that ISIL had been defeated.[125] Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, declared victory over ISIL in Syria as well.[126] Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, also announced the military defeat of ISIL in Iraq.[127]

On 23 November 2018, Britain's Chief of the General Staff General Mark Carleton-Smith said that the "physical manifestation of the Islamist threat has diminished with the complete destruction of the geography of the so-called Caliphate."[128]

On 19 December 2018, US president Donald Trump declared ISIL to have been defeated.[129] The UK's junior Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood said he “strongly” disagreed with Trump that ISIL had been defeated.[130] German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that "IS has been pushed back but the threat is not yet over. There is a danger that the consequences of Trump's Syria withdrawal will damage the fight against IS and jeopardise the successes already achieved."[130] The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces declared military victory over ISIL on 23 March 2019 following the Battle of Baghuz Fawqani, although the group maintains a scattered presence and sleeper cells across Syria and Iraq.[131]

Shift to insurgency

Beginning primarily in 2017, as the Islamic State lost more swathes of territory and lost control over major settlements and cities, the group increasingly resorted to more terror bombings and insurgency operations, using its scattered underground networks of sleeper cells across regions in the middle east and various offshoots and adherents. The collapse of its final Middle Eastern territories in 2019 after the Battle of Baghuz Fawqani propelled the group into full insurgency phase in the regions it once controlled, while retaining influence via propaganda efforts and in remote hideouts, such as in the Syrian Desert.[132][133]

In July 2019, United Nations analysts on the Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee warned al-Baghdadi is plotting to comeback from Iraq.[134][135] He could launch international terrorist attacks before the end of the year in European nations.[136][137] By 7 October 2019, it was thought that ISIL could re-emerge with the withdrawal of American troops from the region.[138][139][140]

On 27 October 2019, al-Baghdadi was targeted by US military and died after he detonated a suicide vest in Barisha, Idlib, Northwest Syria.[141][142] Trump confirmed in a televised announcement from the White House later that day that al-Baghdadi had died during a raid by US special forces in Idlib.[143][144]

In September 2019, a statement attributed to ISIL's propaganda arm, the Amaq news agency, claimed that Abdullah Qardash was named as al-Baghdadi's successor.[145][146] Analysts dismissed this statement as a fabrication, and relatives were reported as saying that Qardash died in 2017.[147] Rita Katz, a terrorism analyst and the co-founder of SITE Intelligence, noted that the alleged statement used a different font when compared to other statements and it was never distributed on Amaq or ISIL channels.[148]

On 29 October 2019, Trump stated on social media that al-Baghdadi's "number one replacement" had been killed by American forces, adding: "Most likely would have taken the top spot - Now he is also Dead!"[149] While Trump did not specify a name, a U.S. official later confirmed that Trump was referring ISIL spokesman and senior leader Abul-Hasan al-Muhajir,[150] who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Syria two days earlier.[151] Less than a week after the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on 31 October, ISIL named Abu Ibrahim al Hashimi al-Qurayshi as Baghdadi's successor,[152] indicating that the group still considers itself a caliphate despite having lost all of its territory in Iraq and Syria.[153] Two other individuals close to Baghdadi and believed to have been present in his last video appearance,[154] the Saudi Abu Saleh al-Juzrawi and the Tunisian Abu Othman al-Tunsi, were also named as possible candidates to succeed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.[147][155]

Terrorist attacks outside Iraq and Syria

ISIL claimed responsibility for a number of high-profile terrorist attacks outside Iraq and Syria, including a mass shooting at a Tunisian tourist resort (38 European tourists killed),[156] the Suruç bombing in Turkey (33 leftist and pro-Kurdish activists killed), the Tunisian National Museum attack (24 foreign tourists and Tunisians killed), the Sana'a mosque bombings (142 Shia civilians killed), the crash of Metrojet Flight 9268 (224 killed, mostly Russian tourists), the bombings in Ankara (102 pro-Kurdish and leftist activists killed), the bombings in Beirut (43 Shia civilians killed), the November 2015 Paris attacks (130 civilians killed), the killing of Jaafar Mohammed Saad, the governor of Aden, the January 2016 Istanbul bombing (11 foreign tourists killed), the 2016 Brussels bombings (32 civilians killed), the 2016 Atatürk Airport attack (48 foreign and Turkish civilians killed), the 2016 Nice attack (86 civilians killed), the July 2016 Kabul bombing (at least 80 civilians killed, mostly Shia Hazaras), the 2016 Berlin attack (12 civilians killed), the 2017 Istanbul nightclub shooting (39 foreigners and Turks killed), the 2017 Saint Petersburg Metro bombing (15 civilians killed), the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing (22 civilians killed), the 2017 Catalonia attacks (16 civilians killed), 2017 Tehran attacks (18 civilians killed),[157][158][159][160] 13 July 2018 Pakistan bombings (at least 131 killed).[161]

The Saudi Arabian government reports that in one relatively short period—the first eight months of 2016—there were 25 attacks in the kingdom by ISIL.[162]

Mass killings

On 30 August 2016, a survey conducted by the Associated Press found that around 72 mass graves have been discovered in areas that have been liberated from ISIL control. In total, these mass graves contain the bodies of approximately 15,000 people killed by ISIL. The report stated that the mass graves were evidence of genocides conducted by ISIL in the region, including the genocide of Yazidis. Seventeen graves were discovered in Syria, with the rest being found in Iraq. At least 16 of the graves in Iraq contained remains that were not counted, as they are located in dangerous conflict zones. Instead, the number of dead in these graves has been estimated.[163]

On 6 November 2018, a United Nations report revealed over 200 mass graves of thousands of ISIL's victims were discovered. The grave sites, which may contain up to 12,000 bodies, were found in the northern and western Iraqi provinces of Nineveh, Kirkuk, Salah al-Din and Anbar.[164]

Timelines of events

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Bibliography

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