Part of the ISIS Explained series.
ISIS have taken responsibility for several attacks across Paris, Baghdad and Beirut that occurred within a few days of each other. This is the first in a series of explainers on ISIS, this lays the foundations of what those four letters mean.
According to Wikipedia, ISIS/ISIL/ Daesh is a Wahhabi/Salafi jihadist extremist militant group and self-proclaimed Islamic State and caliphate. What’s not to understand?
One word at a time.
ISIS are an armed group, they use violent and coercive methods to achieve their goals.
This word is often translated as “holy war”, but is more accurately translated as “struggle in the way of God/Allah.” It is a religious duty to defend Islam and to seek self improvement as a Muslim. The word has become associated with the violent tactics of a minority of Muslim groups like ISIS, but many Muslims want to reclaim the word and take it back to its nicer origins.
Salafi and Wahhabi are often used interchangeably to mean the same thing. Wahhabism is an interpretation of Islam that ISIS has been strongly influenced by. Wahhabi Islam started with the founder Mohammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab in the 1700s who thought that, rather than listening to what religious leaders of the day thought about Islam, we should live more closely in line with the original religious texts. This approach to Islam now has a very bad rep these days, as being a version of the faith that is used to justify the very graphic forms of execution and control of women used by ISIS (and also Saudi Arabia). People have very strong and varying views on its relation to the broader faith and whether the way ISIS practise it is representative of the Muslim faith. While Sharia law, an Islamic version of law, does allow the death penalty under very specific circumstances, it should be emphasised that many feel ISIS distorts what the Islamic texts say to the point that they are no longer practising a kind of Islam that most Muslims would recognise as their faith. “Wahhabi” is considered by some who practise this form of Islam to be insulting, preferring “Salafi” instead. “Wahhabi” emphasises the name of the guy who started the movement, whereas “Salafi” emphasises the earlier Muslims and their practices whom the Salafist movement aims to emulate.
It’s important to mention that ISIS should not simply be described as Wahhabi/Salafi but as Wahhabi/Salafi jihadists. This refers to a specific movement from within Wahhabi/Salafis which emerged in the 1990s in the context of Afghanistan’s US-backed war with the Soviet Union. In a nutshell, some members of the Salafist movement came to feel that violence was a necessary means to achieve their political goals. These political goals essentially included leading a return to a society based on a “purer” form of Islam, which did not include democracy and which rejected the Shia political rule that had dominated parts of the region. So not all Wahhabi/Salafists are violent Wahhabi/Salafi jihadists. Early Salafi jihadist groups include Al Qaeda.
What should be understood by the word “extremism” really depends on your point of view. When this word is used in conjunction with Islam, people might be talking about a strict and conservative approach to interpreting religious texts and practising religion. However, people using the word “extremist” might be talking about people who think grisly violence is a reasonable way to get what they want, in which case they actually mean militant. Words are tricky things, so it’s best to be sure we know what we mean.
ISIS want to set up an Islamic State: a country run according to laws drawn directly from the Islamic faith. A caliphate is an Islamic state. It’s led by a caliph, a person considered to be a political religious successor to the Islamic prophet Mohammed. The laws of Western countries draw heavily on Christian morality, and Israel was set up as a Jewish state. ISIS control large areas of Syria and Iraq, and claim to have already set up an Islamic State there, and are running it according to a very controversial interpretation of Islam. Plus, the aim doesn’t stop at turning the current occupied territories into a full on Islamic State. To say that ISIS want world domination sounds like fear mongering, but they did say in their Dabiq magazine that they want to “expand” until their “blessed flag…covers all eastern and western extents of the Earth.”
All these names refer to the same organisation and they’re all based on the same thing. However, ISIS has had even more different names in the past. The group used to be a chummy affiliate with Al Qaeda, and so were known to us as Al Qaeda in Iraq. The group became known as ISIS after they split off from Al Qaeda. They had aggressively taken over large areas of Iraq and had stopped being a team player. Al Qaeda cut ties with them, fearing they were giving them a bad name. Declaring itself a country of its own in northern Iraq around 2006, the organization began calling itself Islamic State in Iraq. Then they took a bunch of territory in Syria in 2013. This is when they became ISIS – which stands for Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shām.
Some people translate al-Shām to mean “the Levant”, which is a loose term for a large region in the Middle East . This gets you the name ISIL. Others go for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which gets you ISIS. Daesh is another name for ISIL used by a bunch of state leaders and media outlets, but ISIS have banned the use of this name. It comes from taking the first letters of the full Arabic name for ISIS: al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq we al-Sham, which gives you DAIISH. ISIS take this acronym as an insult, because it sounds a lot like the Arabic word “dahes”, which can be translated to mean “one who sows discord”.
“So-called Islamic State” is how the BBC choose to refer to the group. This is a way to sass them on the regular by refusing to recognise Islamic State as a legitimate country.
ISIS Explained: Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shām are an armed group who use violence to achieve the goals they have set themselves based on their controversial interpretations of the Muslim faith and the religious duty to defend the faith.
Hostages are people that have been kidnapped and taken prisoner. Their safe return is then offered in exchange for ransom money. Pay up, and the hostage is returned in one piece. Refuse and… well, then it gets really nasty.
Hostage taking is big business for terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and Islamic State. The New York Times reported that Al-Qaeda have made $125 million from hostage taking.
More worryingly; this article in The Telegraph suggests that recent ransom demands from IS are part of a battle with Al-Qaeda to outperform one another.
The question is; should we pay up to get our loved ones home?
Both the UK and USA governments are clear; no ransom will be paid to terrorists. Their view is that paying ransoms just encourages the groups.
Some European countries take a different stance. Despite all major western countries agreeing to a G8 commitment not to pay terrorists, countries like France and Germany have not stuck to the bargain. The more that gets paid; the higher the ransoms go. C’mon guys, get with the programme.
When US journalist James Foley was murdered by Islamic State a few months after his European co-worker was freed people asked; why didn’t the US government just pay up? The amount demanded for Foley’s release was $132 million. The average amount asked for a Western hostage is £6 million. The amount asked for Foley was higher because as a US journalist, he had immense political value. As well as being illegal, hostage ransoms are just really unfair.
For years the US were also pretty tough on members of the public paying off ransoms. People paying to get loved ones home could face prosecution. Even discussing a ransom with a terrorist could be seen as a “concession”.
In the UK the Terrorism Act 2000 made funding terrorists illegal. “It’s a criminal offence to provide, use or possess funds or property where an individual intends or has reasonable cause to suspect that such funds/property will be used for the purposes of terrorism”
And in 2014 Home Secretary Teresa May made further changes; insurance companies would no longer be able to reimburse people if they had sent ransom money to terrorist groups.
So far, so tough. However, President Obama recently made an announcement that may change things.
President Obama says families will no longer be prosecuted if they send money to hostage takers.
The US government’s official policy is the same; no deals for terrorists. But the White House now also says this “does not mean ‘no communication'”.
So they won’t pay up, but they will communicate with terrorists sometimes on behalf of the families.
Does Obama’s U-turn mean the UK government will also reconsider?
We decided to ask the Home Office that very question;
“The UK’s position on payment of terrorist ransoms is very clear: we do not pay, on the basis that providing money or property to a terrorist group fuels terrorist activity; and encourages further kidnaps.”
That’s a no then.
It’s impossible to tell if Obama’s changes will lead to a rise in kidnappings across America. What is certain is that the price of hostages is being pushed up. This leads to a difficult situation. All ransom demands are different, and are calculated on the financial and political worth of the hostage. We are reaching a situation where some families will be able to afford ransom demands, whilst others may not.
Sure it does. However you really shouldn’t confuse a MILF with The MILF or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
They are a rebel extremist group in the Philippine Islands, in the South China Sea. The MILF are fighting for increased powers for the Muslim community. Their original aim was the liberation of the Bangsamoro Land; an area to the south of Mindanao (the second largest island in the Philippines and one of the most important).
The MILF want control of the area returned to the Muslim people.
The MILF was officially formed in 1977 by local Moro Muslims in the area. Since then an estimated 120,000 people have died in the conflict between the MILF and the government. The MILF have kidnapped important government officials and other high-profile targets and have attacked security forces. They’ve also been responsible for bombings of civilians. Guys, could you not just sit down and talk it through?
The Philippines are made up of 7,000 islands, but most of the population only live on 11 of these. When the Spanish conquered the islands in the 1500s they called the locals “moors”. The word literally means “black” in Greek. This later merged into Moro. Nothing like a bit of casual racism to make friends and influence people.
The Philippines were given independence in 1946. However the area’s Spanish history is clear; most of the population are Catholic, apart from small pockets of Moro Muslims in various areas.
You mean, apart from having the awesome acronym “MILF”?
Well, The Moro Islamic Liberation Front are in the news this week. They’ve started handing over their weapons after peace talks with the government. In return the government will pay out 25,000 Philippine peso (around £350) to 145 members, designed to give them a chance at a new start in the community. Somehow I can’t see the British government following suit and giving cash to extremists.
In the south of Mindanao island the majority of people are Muslim. Thanks to the deal more powers will be given to them; they’ll be allowed to govern under Islamic Sharia Law. The Philippine government will keep control over foreign policy and the economy.
The deal with the MILF has taken around 17 years to succeed. Better late than never, I guess? But not everyone is convinced. The peace deal didn’t go down too well in the Philippine Congress due to a fight in January where many police were killed.
And despite the Moro Islamic Liberation Front having around 10,000 soldiers, only 75 weapons have been handed over. So, it may be a while before we hear the end of the MILF.