Skip to main content

How ISIS and Iraq upheaval threatens the wider world

By Charlie Cooper, Middle East researcher at Quilliam, Special to CNN
June 12, 2014 -- Updated 0352 GMT (1152 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has taken over Iraq's second largest city, Mosul
  • Charlie Cooper of anti-extremism think tank Quilliam says development is worrying
  • "Rejected by al Qaeda because of its ferocity," ISIS "has a fetish for anti-Shia sectarianism"
  • International community -- and Iraq -- must act against ISIS's gains, says Cooper

Editor's note: Charlie Cooper is a researcher on the Middle East at Quilliam, a think tank formed to combat extremism. The opinions in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN) -- The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has taken over much of the Iraqi province of Nineveh, including the country's second largest city, Mosul. In the course of doing so, they have released thousands of jihadist prisoners, reportedly taken hundreds of people hostage and -- perhaps most worryingly of all -- fortified their already strong territorial position in the region.

The group has made impressive gains in the last year. Besides this week's achievements, ISIS have come to dominate the international media discourse on the war in Syria and wrested control of the city of Falluja, which, astonishingly, is less than an hour from Baghdad.

We should be worried. This, after all, is a group that was rejected by al Qaeda because of its ferocity. Its mysterious leaders are far beyond the extremist pale, and that they seem to be consolidating a territorial base must be put at the forefront of international counter-terrorism policy.

Charlie Cooper from think tank Quilliam
Charlie Cooper from think tank Quilliam

ISIS, currently led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is an al Qaeda offshoot and a spawn of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). For the ISI, the last few years have been rocky to say the least, but the unprecedented instability caused by the Syrian civil war has given the group a new lease of life.

Since it was formed when al-Baghdadi announced an unanticipated (by all sides) merger with Jabhat al-Nusra in April 2013, ISIS has gone from strength to strength.

Militants seize Iraqi city of Mosul
Militants seize Iraqi city of Mosul
Militants take control of Iraqi city

Commentators on Syria often refer to ISIS as the most radical of the myriad jihadist factions operating there. For some reason, though, coverage from Iraq this week has stuck to calling them Sunni "rebels," "insurgents" or "militants." These terms of reference are woefully unsuitable -- ISIS fighters in Iraq are of exactly the same inclination as those in Syria, who have repeatedly been called out for their unparalleled barbarity on -- and off -- the battlefield.

This doesn't just matter to Iraq, though, it matters to the rest of the world as well. In the wider region, ISIS's presence in Syria will continue to skew the fight against the Assad regime for the worse. After all, these "rebels" are fighting the same people as the Syrian army.

On an international level, any gains for ISIS are particularly troubling because it is by far the most popular group for foreign fighters to join. This is because, more than anything else, their membership requirements are minimal -- far less, for example than those for Jabhat al-Nusra. Citizens from across the world who have been going to fight in Syria -- Europeans and Americans included -- usually end up fighting alongside ISIS.

Syria commentators and counter-terrorism experts alike have warned time and again of the threat posed by ISIS returnees: if they are already extremists when they go out to Syria, what they are when they return is significantly more dangerous, not least because of the weapons training they receive.

The Long War Journal has also reported that foreign ISIS fighters operate in single-nation battalions, something which equips them even better to bring the terrorist threat back home.

The shooting in May at Brussels' Jewish Museum was probably the first instance of a returnee ISIS fighter committing a terrorist offence. It will most likely not be the last.

Iraq violence leaves more than 100 dead
EXCLUSIVE: ISIS uses Twitter to recruit
Brutal terrorist video surfaces

A frequently-referenced study into foreign fighters in 1980s Afghanistan concluded that about one in nine returnees went on to commit terrorism offences. That may not sound like much, but if one considers that there are an estimated 2,000 EU citizens fighting in Syria now (according to Europol, the European Union's law enforcement agency) it becomes a far more troubling statistic.

Syria aside, ISIS's new dominance in northwestern Iraq will be the principal destabiliser of the region. If left alone, Nineveh will become a jihadist's playground, one that will welcome -- and train up -- any foreigner sympathetic to ISIS's ideology.

Besides that, though, the world needs to act because of the terrible risk this runs for Iraq's Shi'ite population, a minority in Nineveh but still numbering in the thousands. ISIS has a fetish for anti-Shia sectarianism and is also reported to have targeted Christians. They are certain to perpetrate many more horrific offences there if left unchallenged.

The international community has a humanitarian and strategic prerogative to act against ISIS's most recent gains in Iraq; the Iraqi government needs as much support as it can get in challenging ISIS.

Aside from a robust military response, Iraqi President Nuri al Maliki's government needs to challenge the jihadists ideologically. He needs to reach out to the disenfranchised Sunni population, a group that has become marginalised economically and socially during his time in power, for this is the well from which most ISIS fighters are drawn. Taking a purely heavy-handed approach will just feed into the jihadist propaganda.

Encouragingly, al Maliki seemed receptive to such suggestions in March when he attended, alongside Quilliam representatives, Baghdad's first anti-terrorism conference. One thing is for sure, though, and that is that this is Iraq's war now, and no one else's.

READ MORE: 500,000 civilians flee Mosul fighting
READ MORE: Siege of Mosul: What's happening?

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Iraq
Get all the latest news and updates on Iraq in Arabic by visiting CNN Arabic.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 0350 GMT (1150 HKT)
The beheading of American journalist James Foley by ISIS militants brings into focus once again the risks faced by reporters in modern conflicts.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1720 GMT (0120 HKT)
When war reporter James Foley wasn't writing for GlobalPost or recording video for AFP, he occasionally shared stories on his own blog, aptly titled "A World of Troubles."
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1517 GMT (2317 HKT)
A video released by ISIS shows the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley and threatens the life of another American if President Obama doesn't end military operations in Iraq.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
"May God help you," the speaker of Iraq's parliament told Haider al-Abadi the day he was nominated prime minister.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 0219 GMT (1019 HKT)
The answers to this question lie in some clear differences in the two conflicts.
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2227 GMT (0627 HKT)
Framing the intervention in religious terms bolsters theories of U.S. bias, says Fahad Nazer.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1314 GMT (2114 HKT)
They are the faces of an entire community on the run.
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 0854 GMT (1654 HKT)
In an exodus of almost biblical proportions, thousands trudge across a river to escape killers belonging to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1313 GMT (2113 HKT)
Theirs were the faces that stood out in the chaotic helicopter evacuation off the Sinjar Mountains.
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 0013 GMT (0813 HKT)
Browse through photos of thousands of refugees trudging across a river to escape ISIS.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1541 GMT (2341 HKT)
The face of 15-year-old Aziza -- rescued from Mount Sinjar in Iraq -- says it all.
August 11, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
CNN's Ivan Watson flies along with the Iraqi military as they drop emergency supplies.
Why do the militant Islamists have the Yazidis in their cross hairs?
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Images illustrate the ongoing violence in Iraq.
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1608 GMT (0008 HKT)
The message from a growing number of actors inside and outside Iraq is the same: Maliki must go if the country is to be saved.
August 11, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
ISIS gives young men "cars to drive, guns, cell phones and cash money."
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1015 GMT (1815 HKT)
Which is worse: Running desperately for your life, or seeing others' lives end without enough to eat or drink?
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1701 GMT (0101 HKT)
The Sinjar Mountains have always been a special place of refuge for the Yazidis.
August 9, 2014 -- Updated 1910 GMT (0310 HKT)
Will the U.S. air strikes increase the terrorist threat in the U.S. and Europe?
August 9, 2014 -- Updated 0251 GMT (1051 HKT)
Which religious and ethnic groups are under threat from ISIS militants?
ISIS has spread from Syria into Iraq. Learn where the militant strongholds are.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0156 GMT (0956 HKT)
'Why do these people kill other people?" For Iraq's youngest residents, the tragedy is almost incomprehensible.
Even those who aren't in the line of fire feel the effects of the chaos that has engulfed Iraq since extremists attacked.
ADVERTISEMENT