The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) used to be known by a different name: al Qaeda in Iraq. Although US troops and allied Sunni militants defeated al Qaeda in Iraq during the post-2006 “surge” – they were not destroyed. They were a relatively minor force confined to fighting British and US troops in the areas around Baghdad. Despite this, the group’s extreme radical ideology strained their relationship with al-Qaeda central, leading to the group ultimately rebranding as ‘ISIS’ in April 2013, taking advantage of the chaos caused by Syria’s ongoing civil war to expand beyond Iraq’s borders and recruiting vast numbers of Syrian rebels. However, what no world politician or government could have predicted was the extent of their influence in surpassing international borders.
According to the Soufan Group, a New York-based consultancy, it is estimated that 12,000 foreign fighters have travelled to Syria, including 3,000 from the West. This is further compounded by King’s College London Professor Peter Neumann who estimates 80 per cent of Western fighters in Syria are likely to join the group. Compared to al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria, Al-Nursa Front, ISIS seems to have lower entry barriers. Thus, the biggest worry for the west is that the eventual return home of foreign fighters will be compromised by ISIS and its ideals. For example, in June 2014, a video emerged showing British fighters appealing to other westerners to join the jihad in Iraq. ISIS has undoubtedly attracted recruits far beyond the borders of just Iraq and Syria. Today, some experts believe that ISIS may overtake al-Qaeda as the most influential group in this area globally.
ISIS have managed to establish a reputation of extreme brutality through their kidnappings and executions, gaining the attention of international news headlines. Some of the most notable events include the viral video clip of the beheading of American conflict reporter James Foley on August 19, 2014, followed by the death of a second American journalist, Steven Sotloff as a warning to the US to stop air strikes against the group in Iraq.
The most recent piece of news to hit our headlines concerning ISIS-related activities was the disappearance of three British school girls: Shamima Begum, 15, Kadiza Sultana, 16 and Amira Abase, 15 at the beginning of March this year. They were believed to have travelled from east London to Turkey, before intending to cross into ISIS-controlled areas of Syria to embark on life as Jihadi brides.
But what reactions has this recent occurrence sparked? For one thing, questions have been raised about border controls and why Turkish Airlines allowed the three unaccompanied teenagers onto the flight without generating suspicion. As many as 550 young Britons are thought to have made the journey to join the Islamic State. This has prompted calls by Prime Minister David Cameron to tighten up security checks on youngsters flying out of the UK along with urging schools to recognize their role in the “fight against Islamist extremist terror”.
The event shocked the tight-knit community the girls had once belonged to, but also shed light on the powerful impact of religious ideology on youth today, especially those who had grown up and were fully integrated into Western society. The fact that they were bright and high-achieving A-grade students who took the initiative to carefully plan and execute their swift departure without being caught prompts even greater worry in society. It has alerted key authoritative figures, namely politicians, police, parents and members of the community to the power of persuasion ISIS possesses and that their ability to stop young people potentially being used as weapons of war is more out of their control than they were willing to admit.
At The WorldPost Future of Work Conference, Queen Raina of Jordan condemned the organization for their actions which threatened to divide the world along fault lines of religion and culture. However, she urged the international community to play a more supportive role in monitoring the social media and online messaging today’s youths have access to in order to counter their attacks.
For now though, whether the departure of the three missing British high schoolers was voluntary or due to their vulnerable subjection to religious fundamentalism remains unclear. What is clear is that ISIS continues to grow in numbers and influence, especially composing of increasingly younger recruits from the west, and will continue to be an existential threat to the already unstable conditions of the Middle East. Its complex and radical ideology will also likely flummox the world politicians, intrigue political analysts and bombard the news outlets of our contemporary world for many years to come.