The Islamic State in Iraq and Al Sham has taken world leaders and policy experts by surprise with its recent victories over the Iraqi army. Over the past two weeks, ISIS forces have managed to take over the cities of Fallujah and Tikrit, as well as Mosul, Iraq’s second most populous city. Given the group’s historical ties to al-Qaeda, and its agenda as explained by its spokesman in this video of creating a merged Islamic state of Iraq and Syria, the victories have led to a great deal of speculation about the degree of danger ISIS poses, both for the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader world.
But what is ISIS?
ISIS is an Islamist militant group operating within Syria and Iraq. ISIS ideology derives from the radical Sunni Wahhabi sect, an ultra-orthodox branch of Islam that has deep roots in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The group was established after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2004. Though membership waxed and waned during the Second Gulf War, the outfit has since become the foremost militant group operating within both Iraq and Syria. In February, after an eight-month localised struggle for supremacy, al-Qaeda announced they had cut all ties with ISIS.
ISIS, as is evident from video above, presents itself as a militant voice for Sunni-Muslims, and has been known for its chilling hatred of members of the Shi’a sect of Islam, as well as non-Muslims. ISIS has steadily opposed the authority of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, both of whom head predominantly Shi’a governments.
The group has been accused of committing mass atrocities in both Iraq and Syria, allegedly executing opposing forces and civilians by firing squad, beheading, and even, as some evidence indicates, crucifixion. This extremely graphic video purports to show an ISIS gun squad in action.
ISIS paints their battle in Iraq and Syria as a war for the greater good of Sunni Islam. Under current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shi’a-dominated government, traditionally Sunni regions of the country have fallen into disrepair, and the country’s military is increasingly stocked with Shi’a soldiers. This is why it is important to remember that the most significant ISIS victories have come in these northern, traditionally Sunni regions. ISIS has not suddenly become an all-conquering power. The governance vacuum in the region, and the Sunni-Shi’a divide, have both contributed to the ease with which victory has been claimed.
Where Does India Fit In?
Security: The first urgent issue the Indian government faces relates to the status of Indian citizens within Iraq. As many as 18,000 Indian workers are in Iraq, with many of them providing manual labour for the country’s construction and oil industries. The Ministry of External Affairs has confirmed that 46 Indian nurses remain in the city of Tikrit, and despite the deteriorating security situation, representatives from the International Red Crescent have confirmed that they are safe and accounted for. The same cannot be said, however, of 40 Indian construction workers who went missing near the city of Mosul, who have yet to be heard from.
Economy: On Tuesday, Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan stated that the Reserve Bank was carefully monitoring the situation in Iraq to gauge the impact it would have on oil imports. With India importing more than 500,000 barrels of oil per day from Iraq, political instability there directly affects the price index and the Indian economy.
Contagion The rise of ISIS also leaves India with a potentially vexing security problem. The spectre of what could be broadly termed Islamist terrorism could send reverberations through West Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
While ISIS operates as a distinct organisation, its international affiliates have drawn steady example from its acts, as can be surmised from the Chechen, Afghan, and Pakistani fighters within the group. In fact, al-Qaeda’s media arm, al Sahab, released a video in Urdu last Friday in which they called upon Muslims in Pakistan and India to follow the example of their “brothers” in Syria and Iraq. The video includes statements by Maulana Asim Umar, one of al-Qaeda’s Pakistani propagandists, in which he refers directly to the situation of Muslims in Kashmir, and speaks of one day flying the flag of Islam above the Red Fort, in New Delhi.