ISIS and Iraq: Five Things You Need to Know

The Euphrates Institute is deeply saddened and shocked by the tragic execution of ISIS hostages. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families.

The crisis in Iraq has grown deeper and more complex since the sweeping incursion of ISIS militants through nearly a third of the country over the last year. Recently, however, we have witnessed some positive developments in the form of military and humanitarian aid and high-level international cooperation to bolster local forces and save the lives of those at risk. Amid the myriad religious sects, alliances, charged narratives, and rapidly-shifting combat climate, it’s hard to stay up-to-date and accurate–so we’ve outlined the basics for you.

What is ISIS?

ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), is a former Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda that in April 2013 splintered off and expanded thanks to the crisis in Syria, spilling over the Iraqi border and recruiting thousands of Syrian rebels. Estimates number them at anywhere between 10,000 and 17,000 fighters. The group adheres to a hardline interpretation of Islam influenced by the Salafi movement, attacking, threatening, and murdering religious minorities and those who do not conform to their ideals.

Now estimated to have around $1.4 billion in money and assets, the Sunni fighters have been called the world’s “richest terror organization”, having obtained their funds from extortion, smuggling, looting, capturing oilfields, robbing banks, and seizing American military equipment given to the Iraqi army. This money helped their sweeping takeover of several Syrian cities from Bashar al-Assad’s forces, as well as the Iraqi cities of Fallujah last winter and Mosul—Iraq’s second-largest city—in June. Amid the chaos, the Iraqi army fled Mosul and its residents were left to run or face ISIS’s brutality.

ISIS has killed thousands of innocent people already, and continues to gain strength as it pursues its goal of an Islamic emirate comprised of Syria and Iraq. The group has not only defied the demands of Al Qaeda’s leadership to focus on Iraq and leave Syria to the extremist Al-Nusra front, it has also taken up fighting against Al-Nusra itself and other rebel groups. In the latest developments, ISIS has captured territory surrounding Mt. Sinjar in Iraq’s north, where it trapped thousands of Yazidis, a religious minority. Evidence has revealed brutal killings of Yazidis as well as Christians and Shi’a Muslims. These groups are in grave danger, and as of recent months, the international community is mobilizing in efforts to rescue these threatened communities and prevent more killings.


Who are the Yazidis?

The Yazidis are one of Iraq’s oldest religious minorities, founded in the 11th century by an Ummayyad sheikh. Predominantly ethnic Kurds, there are about 700,000 Yazidis worldwide, and those in Iraq are concentrated in the north. Their religion takes on elements of Christianity, Islam, and ancient Zoroastrianism (the world’s first monotheistic faith), yet they are regarded as heretics and labeled “devil-worshippers” by Al Qaeda and ISIS, who call for their indiscriminate killing. The Yazidis have been subject to persecution for centuries, suffering numerous massacres while under Ottoman rule. Yet they have always been a peaceful people, isolated from their neighbors and tenacious in keeping their faith alive against repression and threatened extermination.

Iraq’s religious and ethnic composition is incredibly rich and diverse, and underlies the loyalties, rifts, and complex alliances and conflicts we see determining Iraq’s politics today.


What is at stake?

The long-term fear of Western officials is that ISIS will follow Al Qaeda’s trajectory of attacking overseas targets. However, one of the most crucial problems right now is the vast recruitment and eventual return home of tens of thousands of trained jihadists. The Syrian conflict is now host to the largest concentration of foreign fighters of any conflict in the Muslim world’s history, including that of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan. An estimated 12,000 people have left their home countries to fight in Syria, and at least 3,000 of them are from Europe or the United States. And like Afghanistan under the Taliban, ISIS-controlled land will be a haven for terrorist activity.

ISIS threatens anyone who opposes its control and religious ideals, but especially Shi’a Muslims and religious minorities like the region’s numerous Christian sects and its ancient Yazidi population. Basic human rights for millions of innocent people are under attack and will continue to be eroded as the chaos spreads. Over 500,000 Iraqis have already been displaced from their homes as they flee ISIS’s terror.

The dissemination of fighters and weapons across Syria and Iraq threatens to dismantle any semblance of structure or government control that remains, culminating in the perfect conditions for ISIS to completely dominate the region. This is a terrifying thought for the international community and especially for the region, as the fighting could easily spill over to neighboring countries, continuing indefinitely and with irreversible damage to future generations.


How is the international community taking action?

While the conflict on the ground is very grim, we’ve seen some positive developments in the push against ISIS on both military and humanitarian fronts. Nearly two weeks ago, President Obama authorized US airstrikes on ISIS strongholds in Iraq. Since then, Kurdish and Iraqi military forces have been able to push ISIS out of Mosul, securing the highly strategic Mosul dam and protecting the Kurdish capital of Erbil.

At the same time, thousands of Yazidis trapped on Mt. Sinjar in Iraq’s north and surrounded by ISIS fighters managed to escape unharmed thanks to Kurdish Peshmerga forces, American airstrikes, a secret team of Marines and Special Operations forces sent directly to the mountain, and significant humanitarian airdrops. The United Nations just began a four-day airlift of humanitarian supplies like tents, medical aid, and food from Turkey and Jordan to the half-million Iraqi refugees in need. The World Food Program has already delivered over one million meals to people since the offensive against ISIS began.

UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards called the recent efforts a “very, very serious aid push and one of the largest I can recall in awhile.” Britain and France have agreed to send arms and munitions to the Kurdish forces fighting to protect Iraq’s north from ISIS, and Germany has promised shipments of nonlethal aid like trucks, tents, and bulletproof vests.

Amid all the chaos and killing, Iraqi gains against ISIS and the cooperation of international governments has sent a jolt of motivation to our allies in the region. The likelihood for prolonged involvement is high, but we are grateful for these successes and are hopeful that precise and targeted missions will continue to save innocent lives without slipping into mission creep.


This is not about Muslims versus Christians.

Too many “news” sources out there publish headlines and story titles juxtaposing Islam with Christianity as if the conflict were a simple binary. The narrative of the evil Muslims out to get Christians is simply wrong—to bunch all Muslims together as if they were a monolith is misleading and dangerous. These suggestions are loaded with sectarian sentiment and employed to elicit fear. For one thing, Christians are themselves are comprised of many different sects in Iraq, and they are not the only faith facing danger right now. Furthermore, ISIS is in no way representative of Muslims as a whole.

Is ISIS Muslim? Sohaib N. Sultan says a resounding no, in his article for TIME Magazine, “ISIS is Ignoring Islam’s Teachings on Christians and Yazidis.”  He says:

“I join the chorus of Muslims worldwide, Sunnis and Shi‘ites, who oppose al-Baghdadi and ISIS as a whole. The killing and oppression of innocent people and the destruction of land and property is completely antithetical to Islam’s normative teachings. It’s as pure and as simple as that.”


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