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IS: key developments

Elizabeth Schumacher
September 14, 2014

Beginning in 1999 as an organization intended to bring down the Jordanian government, the 'Islamic State' has swollen in size and violent scope in recent months. The terror group wants to restore the Islamic caliphate.

Islamic State propaganda
Image: picture alliance/abaca

As US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Egypt for talks on forming a coalition against the "Islamic State" (IS, also known as ISIS and ISIL), and President Barack Obama promises more armed support in the fight against IS, around the world concern is mounting about a group that seemed to come out of nowhere and sweep through large swaths of territory with little to stand in their way.

Growing out of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (although the group has never called itself that), far from coming out of nowhere, Islamic State has been around in some form since 1999. Strengthening itself during the US-led invasion of Iraq and compounded by various American foreign policy errors, IS's Islamic jihadist vision has been simmering a long time.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi speaking in a video released by ISImage: picture alliance/AP Photo

Origins and development

1999: Originally called Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (The Group of Monotheism and Jihad) or JTJ, and founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian national living in Iraq, the Sunni Islamist group forms with the purpose of overthrowing the government of Jordan.

2004-06: After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, al-Zarqawi pledges his loyalty to Osama Bin Laden. The group now calls itself Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn or "Organization of Jihad's Base in the Land of the Two Rivers," although it is often described as "Al Qaeda in Iraq." The group's new stated objective is to fight US coalition troops and their Iraqi allies. Beginning in 2006, Nuri al-Maliki's predominantly Shiite government begins to exclude Sunnis from government positions.

2005-09: Although the US Department of Defense claims that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was held in Camp Bucca, a detention camp in southeastern Iraq, for only a matter of months in 2004, newspapers including the Washington Post and New York Times say it was four years. Today al-Baghdadi is the leader of IS.

2011: As the US finishes its withdrawal from Iraq, the "Islamic State of Iraq" sees its ranks double in size. The group continues to launch attacks against Shiite tribal militias, Iraqi police and the Iraqi army, which is largely Shiite. Next door, the Syrian Civil War begins in March.

Break with al-Qaeda

October 2013: Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri demands that the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" disband and leave the formerly allied Syrian rebel group the al-Nusra Front in charge of operations against Bashar al-Assad's government. Al-Baghdadi refuses.

Destruction in Mosul
Destruction in the city of MosulImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

February 2014: Following months of internal strife, ISIL or ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) breaks away from al-Qaeda and al-Nusra. ISIS changes its focus from challenging al-Assads government to creating an Islamic caliphate that covers the region.

April 30, 2014: Elections are held in Iraq. Prime Minister al-Maliki's coalition looks to be in a strong position, setting off what will become the worst wave of violence in Iraq since 2008.

ISIS ramps up its violent profile

June 7, 2014: ISIS fighters storm Anbar University in Ramadi, blowing up a bridge on campus and detaining dozens of students.

Yezidi refugees (Photo: Reese Erlich)
Thousands of Yezidi refugees have fled their homesImage: DW/R. Erlich

June 10, 2014: ISIS militants seize Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, overnight. They take control of government buildings, prisons, and TV stations. The Iraqi army isn't strong enough to stop them. This garners ISIS widespread media attention, where their large numbers and unprecedented financial safety net is highlighted. Neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan begin to strengthen their border patrols in the wake of this attack.

June 11, 2014: The day after taking Mosul, ISIS fighters capture the city of Tikrit. Representatives of the US Department of State as well as Iran's Foreign Minister offer their support to the Iraqi government. Refugees flee to Iraqi Kurdistan.

June 15, 2014: Whereas many militant groups or governments try to hide evidence of massacres, ISIS posts pictures on the Internet of thousands of bodies, those of Iraqi soldiers who fled a nearby base for fear of the extremists.

June 29, 2014: The terrorist group shortens its name to "Islamic State" or IS and declares al-Baghdadi caliph of all Muslims.

July 10, 2014: Kurdish leaders call on al-Maliki to resign after he accuses Kurdistan of hiding IS troops, a charge they vehemently deny.

July 19, 2014: The jihadists in Mosul give Christians still living in the city the choice to convert to Islam or leave the "caliphate". Thousands flee before the 'deadline' two days later.

August 6, 2014: Kurds join the fight against IS as militants take the city of Sinjar, stronghold of the minority Yazidi community. Yazidism is an ancient monotheistic religion found primarily in Iraq's Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital. Misunderstood as 'devil worshippers,' Yazidis were persecuted by Saddam Hussein's government as well.

Haider al-Abadi (Photo: REUTERS/Mahmoud Raouf Mahmoud)
Newly sworn-in Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-AbadiImage: Reuters

The West intervenes

August 8, 2014: The United States military begins a series of airstrikes on IS targets in Northern Iraq, but President Obama rules out the use of ground troops.

August 14, 2014: Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki resigns after having previously refused to step aside despite mounting pressure to do so. He expresses his support for his replacement, Haider al-Abadi, during a televised statement. The UN Security Council and the US call on al-Abadi to form a more inclusive government than that of al-Maliki.

August 20, 2014: The FBI confirms that a video alleging to show the beheading of US journalist James Foley by an IS fighter is authentic. In the video, Foley reads a prepared statement criticizing President Obama's actions in the Middle East. The jihadist threatens that if President Obama does not end his aerial attacks on IS, the group will also kill journalist Steven Sotloff. The militant's British accent brings attention to the large number of Western Muslims who have joined the jihadist cause, some of whom come from Germany.

August 25, 2014: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad offers to help the West fight Islamic State, though many Western countries have actively opposed his regime since the Syrian Civil War began in 2011. Berlin makes it clear it has no intention of working with Damascus.

August 31, 2014: The German government decides to send machine guns and anti-tank missiles to Kurdish troops fighting IS in Iraq. This represents a major change to Germany's normally pacifist international outlook.

September 2, 2014: IS release a video they claim shows the beheading of US citizen and journalist Steven Sotloff. Like Foley, Sotloff was forced to read an anti-American statement. Also like the previous video, another man, this time British aid worker David Cawthorne Haines, is threatened with death if Barack Obama does not halt US airstrikes in Iraq.

September 8, 2014: The Iraqi parliament approves Prime Minister al-Abadi's new government. It is conditionally supported by Kurdistan's autonomous government as long as it meets their demands with regards to their share of the federal budget and Kurdistan's oil reserves.

September 10, 2014: US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Baghdad, an unannounced stop on a tour of the Middle East meant to build an anti-Islamic State coalition. Kerry expresses support for al-Abadi but reiterates that it depends on the condition he creates an ethnically inclusive government.

September 10, 2014: Speaking the night before the 13th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, President Obama gives a television address in which he promises to "degrade and ultimately destroy" Islamic State and announces a broader anti-terrorism strategy that will expand to include targets in Syria. On the same day, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière announces at a press conference that membership in the extremist organization is now banned in Germany.

Islamic State continues to hold on to the cities of Mosul, Tikrit, and Irbil. It remains to be seen whether the developing West-Arab coalition will be able to stop this unprecedented insurgence in its tracks.

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