Out of the ashes of the aftermath of the Iraq war that saw Saddam Hussein convicted and hanged, came the terror group ISIL. During the Obama presidency ISIS or ISIL as Obama called them, became a household name. Through kidnappings, beheadings, and suicide bombings ISIS became the most feared terrorist regime in America, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. How did a group that President Obama refer to as the JV team rise to such power? What is the difference between ISIS and ISIL? Wherefrom does a group known for suicide bombings recruit? How do they finance operations on multiple continents? These are the questions I’ve had that led me to seek answers to.

Originally known as Jama-at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, the militant group was established by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 1999. After which they became known as the islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. This is why Obama referred to them as ISIL. The Levant is a region located in the Eastern Mediterranean, most of which is in Western Asia. It was in October 2004 after joining the Osama bin Laden network that the militant group became known as Al-Queda in Iraq. Unknown to many, Al-Queda has condemned ISIS and their style of jihad. Nonetheless, ISIS has become the leading jihadist group fighting against the Syrian government. On June 29, 2014, under its current leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the terror group declared an Islamic State in Syria and parts of Northern Iraq. This is when ISIS became the terror groups official name.

ISIS stands for the Islamic State of Iraq al-Sham, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Officially they prefer to be called the Islamic State or Daesh, the Arabic acronym. Daesh is a Salafi jihadist militant group. Salafism as described by the Brookings Institute, “is found in the lived examples of the early, righteous generations of Muslims, known as the Salaf, who were closest in both time and proximity to the Prophet Muhammed.” Jihadism or jihad is an individual Muslim’s fight against any enemy of Islam. Bringing Salafism and Jihadism together. Wikipedia describes the two as a transitional religious – political ideology based on a belief in physical  jihadism, and the Salafi movement of returning to what adherents believe to be true Sunni Islam. This is why you see those that support the movement dress as Muslims did in the days of Muhammed.

al-Baghdadi Releases a Message to the World

As to be expected, not much is known about Baghdadi. As a disciple of bin Laden, Baghdadi understood the importance of leaving enemies with more questions than answers. His birth year is assumed to be 1971 while his birthplace is assumed to be Samana, which is north of Baghdad. Baghdadi is said to have been born into a family of religious preachers. In contrast to strategic leader of Al-Queda, Ayman al-Zarwahiri, Baghdadi is tactical and known to be a battlefield commander. This fact is said to make the Islamic State more attractive to young jihadists. On July 4, 2014, Baghdadi made his first, and to date his only public appearance. During the first prayer service of Ramadan a video was released of al-Baghdadi speaking at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul. It was on that day that Baghdadi declared himself as the caliph of the Islamic State. Baghdadi has appeared on the Forbes list of most powerful people in the world at number 54.

Baghdadi became leader of the Islamic State after previous leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was killed by American airstrikes in 2012. Not mentioned much in America is the fact that Baghdadi has been dubbed the ‘New bin Laden’. Since declaring himself as caliph he has transformed the Islamic State from a regional Junior Varsity team, into an international army waging war on multiple continents. In 2014 just two years after what became known as the ‘Benghazi Attack’, Baghdadi declared Benghazi an islamic Emirate.  After gaining control over areas of Iraq and Syria, ISIS planted its flag over Libyan government buildings while also displaying its control over law and order through police cars displaying the ISIS insignia.

Since his only video appearance in 2014, the only Baghdadi communications to the non-islamic world have been through six audio recordings dating from November 2014 to August 2018. There has been only two confirmed photos of of Baghdadi, and it is said that he never appears to speak in front of ISIS soldiers without his face being covered. This fact has earned him the name amongst his supporters, the ‘Invisible Sheik’. Every year from 2015 to 2018 there have been unconfirmed reports of injury or death to al-Baghdadi. August 23, 2018 would be the day that all such rumors would be put to rest. On that day fell Eid al-Adha, which is a Muslim holiday. On that day Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released an audio recording called “Good Tidings to the Steadfast”. In that recording Baghdadi is calling on fellow Muslims in all lands to join the jihad saying, “And we call upon every Muslim in every place to perform hijrah (emigration) to the Islamic State or fight in his land wherever that may be”. He goes on to say, “Islam was never a religion of peace. Islam is the religion of fighting. No one should believe that the war that we are waging is the war of the Islamic State. It is the war of all Muslims, but the Islamic State is spearheading it. It is the war of Muslims against infidels.” As seen by the numbers of ISIS recruits from the unlikeliest of countries, the message of Baghdadi’s call to jihad has been heard far and wide.

Foreign ISIS Recruits

Whether seen or unseen, injured, paralyzed, dead or alive Baghdadi has been able to recruit from some high-profile countries. For instance, Tunisia is the global leader in per capita rate for citizens leaving to join ISIS. An estimated 6,000 Tunisians have left to join ISIS. The Wahhabi sect of Saudi Arabia provides ISIS with its second largest source of foreign fighters. Russia is a seemingly unlikely location to recruit jihadists. To the contrary, the Northern Caucus areas that have sought independence from Moscow, such as Chechnya and Dagestan, are predominantly Muslim areas. According to Vladimir Putin, the Northern Caucuses and migrant communities in major cities have produced 5,000 to 7,000 ISIS recruits. An estimated 2,100 Turkish citizens have joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Although Jordan is rarely mentioned when it comes to Middle East conflicts, it is estimated that 2,000 Jordanians have joined ISIS.

ISIS has also found luck recruiting members in America. George Washington University’s Program on Extremism Report says that “around 300 Americans have attempted to join ISIS and other radical Islamist groups in Syria since 2011.” According to the report 64 were successful, 34% died in other countries, the whereabouts of 44% are unknown, twelve are back in America and nine are being detained. You’d be mistaking if you were to think that all of the ISIS recruits in America were men.

A Woman from Middle America

Woman have also been known to be targets of jihadist groups. Not far from where I grew up is Elkhart, Indiana. Samantha Sally is from Elkhart, and she says that she was tricked by her husband into joining ISIS. Sally and her husband Moussa El-hassani were managing a delivery business in Elkhart. Sometime about 4 years ago Sally thought her, her two children 10-year old Matthew and 5-year old Sarah, and her husband were going on a vacation to Turkey. Once in Turkey Moussa led the family to a border town where on the other side was ISIS territory. Sally says that, once at the border things began to rapidly change. She says Moussa grabbed her 5-year old daughter Sarah, and crossed the border into ISIS territory. According to Sally, “The position I was in was to stay there with my son or watch my daughter leave with my husband, and I had to make a decision,” Sally explains. “I thought — like I said — we could just walk across the border and we could come back again.” Once in ISIS territory she tells stories of a once loving husband becoming an abusive monster. Eventually Sally went on to have two more children with Moussa while in Raqqa. She says that Moussa suggested they by slave girls from amongst the Yazidi girls that were captured by ISIS in 2014. His reasoning was to rescue the girls from slavery and to give Sally company. According to Sally the couple spent $20,000 on Yazidi slave girls. A girl named Soad was one of the slave girls purchased and repeatedly raped by her husband. In late 2017 Moussa was killed in a drone airstrike.

On December 21, 2018, 32-year old Sally El-hassani was in a U.S. Court in Hammond, Indiana for a custody hearing while also facing charges of aiding the ISIS terrorist organization, and conspiracy. The Northern Indiana District judge ruled that Sally will remain in custody until her trial hearing begins in January 2020.

ISIS Fights Against the Syrian Government

In August of 2011 the Syrian Civil War began. At that time al-Baghdadi started sending guerrilla trained trained ISIS fighters from Iraq to Syria. Known as the al-Nusra front, the guerrilla fighters set up shop in the provinces of Aleppo, Dier ez-Zor, Raqqa, and Idlib, which are all Sunni Muslim areas. As with any war, war costs money. Many people probably figure that President Trump’s insistence during the 2016 presidential campaign that Obama should’ve taken control of Iraqi oil was, because the U.S. is known to fight wars for control of oil. while that may be true in many cases, I think President Trump’s reasoning may have been different. I believe the reason candidate Trump was adamant about taking Iraq’s oil is because the smuggling and production of oil is the largest source of income for ISIS. Being aware of the importance of oil to the lifeline of of their jihad, ISIS refers to its oil production as “black gold feeding the black flag”. In 2014, estimates showed that ISIS was making $3 million per day from oil it controlled in Syria and Iraq. In 2015, estimates showed ISIS was pumping 34,000 to 40,000 barrels of oil per day to the tune of $1.5 million per day, generating $40 million per month for the extremist group. Eventually airstrikes had an impact dropping oil revenue to about $20 million per month in 2016. With a fleet of about 1,000 delivery trucks ISIS also controls the price at the pump in territories in which they operate.

Has ISIS in Syria Been Defeated?

According to President Trump, ISIS in Syria has been defeated.On December 19, 2018, President Trump announced that ISIS in Syria had been defeated and it was time to bring American troops in Syria home. This proclamation sent ripples throughout America, Europe, and the Middle East with differing reactions from enemies and allies alike. It is true that 95% of the areas in Syria that ISIS controlled have been lost, leading the rebel group back to the land where it all began, a small piece of land along the Euphrates River that borders Syria and Iraq. This is where Kurdish led forces backed by the U.S. have been fighting it out with ISIS in towns and villages in Dier ez-Zor. Estimates are that roughly 2,500 ISIS fighters remain there. Although the Kurds haven’t been mentioned in the conflict until now, they have fought a long hard war with ISIS resulting in the loss of more than 1,500 men. However, the UK Defense Minister says the Islamic State is ‘very much alive’. He is also quoted as saying, “But much remains to be done and we must not lose sight of the threat they pose. Even without territory, Daesh will remain a threat. As the United States has made clear, these developments in Syria do not signal the end of the global coalition or its campaign. We will continue to work with members of the coalition on achieving this.” For now it is uncertain how many U.S. troops are in Syria, if President Trump will indeed remove the troops from Syria, and most uncertain is will ISIS be able to rebuild from the damage it has suffered.

James Cheef