Four years ago, US Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden; many Americans believed Al Qaida had been broken and the terrorist threat eliminated. The November 13th Paris Massacre demonstrated that terrorism has a new face: ISIL -- the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Where should the US do?
There are several acronyms used for the same group of jihadi terrorists: ISIL, ISIS -- the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria -- and DAESH -- an acronym based upon the group's full Arabic name. The US government uses ISIL most of the time. While a tiny minority within Islam, ISIL is an ultra-conservative Muslim sect.
ISIL's roots go back to 2010 when the group, then known as Al Qaida in Iraq, was decimated by American forces. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi then became ISIL's leader. Al-Baghdadi is an Iraqi-born ultra-conservative (Salafi) Sunni Muslim cleric who fought against the US troops.
At the end of 2011, US forces left Iraq, as a consequence of the 2008 "Status of Forces Agreement" negotiated by President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. (Jeb Bush has implied that President Obama had the option to keep 10,000 troops in Iraq but Politifact has ruled this assertion "mostly false.")
Shortly thereafter, Iraq began to come apart. The New York Times observed that after US troops left: "" tensions began rising between the Sunnis and the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki" Salaries and jobs promised to cooperating [Sunni] tribes were not paid. There seemed little room for Sunnis in the new Iraq. The old Sunni insurgents began to look appealing again."
The New York Times noted that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was briefly imprisoned. In US Camp Bucca he met Sunni military officers (Baathists) who had served Saddam Hussein. Beginning in 2011, Al-Baghdadi recruited them to serve in ISIL.
In the spring of 2011, civil war began in Syria. ISIL saw this as an opportunity and moved in from the east. In 2013 it claimed Raqqa, a Syrian city of 200,000, as its capital.
In June of 2014, ISIL seized the northern Iraq city of Mosul and mountains of weapons left behind by fleeing Iraqi troops. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared at Mosul's Nuri Mosque announcing the formation of the Levant caliphate and his role as caliph. Atlantic writer Graeme Wood observed that al-Baghdadi was in a unique position to become caliph because he was a Sunni Muslim, Salafi cleri), and Quraysh, a descendant of the tribe of the prophet Mohammed.
Pew Research estimates there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. 87-90 percent are Sunni Muslims, 1.4 billion. The remaining 10-13 percent are Shias who are concentrated in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and India. Many Middle-East countries contain Sunnis and Shias (for example, Shias are two-thirds of the population of Iraq and roughly one-quarter of the population of Turkey.)
There are significant differences between the Sunni and Shiite practices. Pew Research observed, "Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa tend to be most keenly aware of the distinction between the two main branches of Islam, Sunni and Shia. In most countries surveyed in the region, at least 40% of Sunnis do not accept Shias as fellow Muslims."
Among the most intolerant Sunni sects are al-Baghdadi's Salafi, which constitutes less than one percent of the 1.4 billion, roughly 8 million. ISIL's forces are composed of Salafis from Iraq and Syria, and foreign recruits who are attracted to the notion of a modern caliphate.
Several things are clear about ISIL/ISIS/DAESH.
1. Unlike Al Qaida, ISIL occupies substantial physical territory; it is in effect a state. We can declare war on them. (President Obama has been trying to get Congress to do this but so far they have punted.)
2. It's a theocracy, like Iran. The leaders of ISIL teach a fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam that advocates slavery or death for apostates (among whom are other Muslims). Graeme Wood observed that to understand ISIL Americans have to imagine that a splinter group of Christians took over a US State and preached a form of Christianity based upon the book of Leviticus: a "dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million."
3. ISIL is Islamic but not representative of all Islam. Its adherents are less than one-half of one percent of the total number of Muslims in the world.
4. ISIL seeks a holy war in the Middle East. Graeme Wood believes their theology prophesizes that, before the end times, there will be a final battle in northern Iraq between "the armies of Islam" and "the armies of Rome" (Christians, the west.).