Al-Qaida-Linked Group Faces Backlash In Iraq

Jan 11, 2014
Originally published on January 11, 2014 11:53 am
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This week, the war in Syria jumped two borders - East into Iraq and west into Lebanon. And the combatants come in at all three countries, but belong to an extremist group affiliated with al Qaida, know by the name ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. Now, they claimed a car bombing in Lebanon and seized parts of two towns in Iraq's Anbar Province. But in Syria, the homegrown rebel groups mounted a surprising challenge to the extremists, kicking them out of some safe havens in Northern Syria.

I'm going to try to step back now and look at ISIS and ask some basic questions. Joined now from Beirut by NPR's Deborah Amos, who's been watching regional developments there. Deb, thanks for being with us.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Most basic question. Who are these guys?

AMOS: ISIS is an Iraqi-based al-Qaida affiliate. They've gained strength in the past two years since the U.S. military pulled out of Iraq. These militants have been wreaking havoc in Iraq, terrorizing the population with almost daily suicide bombings. So the group has its roots in Iraq, but they first appeared in the Syrian conflict last year as a rebranded al-Qaida affiliate. Now they call themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham.

And it's the name that explains their ideology. Sham means greater Syria. All of this means they don't recognize the borders set more than 100 years ago. What they want to do is set up a radical Islamic state. The chaos in Syria has given them a huge boast. Here's how Chris Looney, a Washington-based analyst, describes their goals.

CHRIS LOONEY: ISIS views this conflict not as an Iraqi front and a Syrian front. It's the same conflict that transcends borders. That's what they're looking to do, is establish a safe haven, an area of control that goes across the Iraq-Syria border.

SIMON: Now, this is a group, of course, that this last week has taken over parts of Anbar Province, Ramadi, Fallujah, places certainly that U.S. troops fought to try and subdue al-Qaida. What happened there? How did they gain a foothold?

AMOS: We'll do a little history. The battles in Fallujah started in 2004. The U.S. military dealt a devastating blow to al-Qaida in 2007. The U.S. military also worked with Sunni Muslims in Anbar Province and they built an alliance. It was called the Sunni Awakening. Iraqi Sunnis turned on al-Qaida, they worked with the U.S. military, but by 2009 the Iraqi government, which is a Shiite-dominated government, reversed that relationship with the Sunni Awakening.

Iraqi Sunnis feel marginalized by this government. They see it as a puppet of neighboring Iran, which is also a Shiite power. So al-Qaida, this Islamic state of Iraq, started to make a comeback. They could say to these aggrieved Sunnis, we hear you and we'll protect you. But al-Qaida was also doing other things like carrying out sectarian targeted bombing. And again, listen to Chris Looney. He describes them.

LOONEY: Out of all the al-Qaida affiliates, ISIS is probably the most anti-Shia. It is the most sectarian and it has shown that in Iraq with this string of suicide bombings that have taken place almost daily throughout this year and killed upwards of 6,000 people.

AMOS: The U.N. figures are even higher. So this is a death count that is approaching the worst days of Iraq's civil war. So the Maliki government, with a lot of U.S. pressure, has been reaching out to Sunnis in Anbar because Maliki is finding out that he can't combat al-Qaida with military power alone. He needs the support of these Sunnis in Anbar.

SIMON: Of course, Secretary of State Kerry has been talking about the inroads that ISIS has made in Iraq. He said this is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis. The U.S. has certainly kept its distance in Syria. There have been no U.S. casualties as a result, but are there other consequences?

AMOS: What we are seeing is that both conflicts are feeding on each other. There has been a surprising development in Syria. This week, Syria's homegrown rebels have turned on ISIS and they appear to be routing them from some of those safe havens in the north. In fact, the Western-backed Free Syrian Army that a lot of people were writing off just a month ago as a spent force has been revived. They've been horrified that ISIS has stolen their revolt, and also kicked them out of some of these towns that they took from the regime. The problem is, Scott, that these extremists, as they are being kicked out of Syria, will most likely go back to Iraq.

SIMON: NPR's Deborah Amos in Beirut. Thanks so much.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.