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TematicheMedio Oriente e Nord AfricaISIS and its hostages: an overview

ISIS and its hostages: an overview


In the last few months, a great part of the Iraqi and Syrian’s territory have fallen under the control of one of the most extremist Islamist Sunni group of all time: the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), also known as Daesh (the equivalent of ISIS in Arabic), The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS).

The group is not a newly formed one. Previously under the name of Al Qaeda Iraq (AQI), due to different views and objectives from Al Qaeda Central (AQC) and thanks to the opportunity of territorial expansion offered by the outbreak of the civil conflict in Syria, in 2013 the group decided to re-organize itself and to change its name, with the aim of creating a “Greater Syria”, unified under the creation of the Islamic Caliphate.

ISIS is a very particular organization that defines itself as a State and not as a group and that, in order to reach its goals, uses extremely violent means, including the kidnapping and the broadcasting worldwide decapitation of its hostages. According to Lawrence Wright, violence, brutality and savagery are key elements of the group’s action, especially when directed against Shiite Muslims, who are considered as a weaker and amoral version of Muslims, and as the cause of impurity of the Muslim world.

In order to justify their violent behavior, ISIS’ militants claim several reasons; the need to redraw the Iraqi-Syrian borders resulted from the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the urge to return to those moral values that have been “dangerously jeopardized” by the influence of the West in the Arab world, and by the misconduct of weaker (read Shiite) Muslims, are probably the most recurring ones. These same reasons have pushed numerous “foreign fighters” (people from countries outside Iraq and Syria) to join ISIS’ cause. The CIA, the United Nations and other International Organizations have estimated that 20-30 thousand people from at least 80 different countries have so far joined the group.

In order to understand ISIS’ motifs, it is also important to take into consideration the use that ISIS does of religion. Bridget Moix argues that incorporating religion as a level of analysis is imperative in the study of violent conflicts. ISIS uses religion, and particularly the most extreme interpretation of the Coran, as a way to reach out to masses and persuade them to become militants. It refers to the history of Islam, and to the contraposition between Sunni and Shiite that originated in 632 after C, leveraging Sunni’s sense of unrepresented minority. In fact, despite being the majority in the rest of the world, representing over the 80% of the entire Muslim population, Sunni are a small minority in Iraq. They have been often subjected to policies of intolerance by the former Iraqi Primer ministers, and this has further exacerbated the contraposition between the two groups. According to the historian Ennio di Nolfo, ISIS’ behavior and, more generally, what has recently happened in Iraq, are a result of a deeper political and religious conflict through the Islamic world that opposes Sunni and Shiite. “A religious war similar to the one in 1500 that divided the Protestants and the Catholics”.

Through the lens of the main conflict resolution’s theories and models, imagining a Machiavellian interpretation of events, it is easy to comprehend ISIS fighters’ resort to violence. The perpetration of extremely cruel and ferocious acts, including the bloody decapitation of hostages, is just a well-constructed way to prove their strength and send an affirming message of their identity.

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