The Islamic State

Development of IS

The Middle Eastern-based Islamic State (IS) goes by many names, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), but these are only recent denominations for an organization whose origins predate al-Qaeda's presence in Iraq. The forerunner of IS began as Jama'at al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad, meaning "the Group of Monotheism and Jihad." Some sources claim [PDF] the organization's roots stretch back to 1999 while others place its origins in the turmoil that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2001. Its founder, a Jordanian named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, though originally refusing to join with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization, eventually assented to mutual cooperation. The two groups merged in 2004, following the agreement to form al-Qaeda in Iraq (AIQ). Al-Zarqawi was killed during a US airstrike in 2006. Following his death, his successors faced the Sunni Awakening, a counteroffensive of Iraqi Sunni tribesmen, backed by the US, rallying against the crimes of AIQ. The rift between al-Qaeda and the followers of the late al-Zarqawi began to surface after his death, as the faction that would later become IS began to call itself the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).

In 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a tenured member of AIQ, became the leader of the organization. Baghdadi, like his predecessor, engaged in terrorism, mass killings and enslavement of women, among other crimes, all directed against the Shiite-dominated population of Iraq. The al-Qaeda leadership, under bin Laden's successor, Zawahiri, began criticizing the brutal conduct of Baghdadi and his followers. Then, in April 2013, Baghdadi and his followers broke away from al-Qaeda and adopted the name for which they are now known: IS. The creation of IS coincided with an extension of the organization's domain into Syria. In the wake of their new emergence, crimes allegedly committed by IS militants increased; 2013 was the bloodiest year in IS-controlled areas of Iraq and Syria since 2008.

Al-Qaeda, known throughout the late 1990s up through the early 2000s as a preeminent worldwide terrorist group, now denounces the actions of IS as extreme. By June 2014 IS had overrun the Iraqi army in major conflicts, and had come to control most of Iraq, from Mosul to Baghdad. Just how much territory currently under IS control is a matter of dispute. While exact estimates of total civilians under the dominion of ISIS are hard to calculate, BBC estimates the number at eight million people spread over five major cities. IS, in seeking to extend its influence further into Syria and over the portions of Iraq not already under its control, continues to commit mass executions and other human rights violations.

US Intervention Against IS

On August 8, 2014 the US began airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq. The US has since expanded its operations into neighboring Syria. President Obama and his administration proceeded with the airstrike campaign without official congressional approval. Debate surrounding the legality of the US actions began almost immediately.

Article 1 of the US Constitution vests traditional war powers to congress, including the powers to declare war and authorize military use in hostilities. However, in 1973, congress passed the War Powers Act, which grants the president limited power to authorize use of military in times of need. The act stipulates reporting requirements and limits any engagement to 60 days absent congressional authorization. President Obama cited this authority under the War Powers Act in an initial letter to congress for airstrikes targeting IS, dated August 8, 2014. In late September 2014, the president expanded this, citing both his power under the War Powers Act and the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). Congress passed the AUMF following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in an effort to give President George W. Bush unilateral power to use force against any nations, groups or persons deemed to have planned, carried out or aided in those attacks. The AUMF has since been used to support attacks against the Taliban, Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations associated with September 11, 2001.

In a press conference, US Press Secretary Josh Earnest and US Deputy of National Security Ben Rhodes claimed IS is included under the law given its origination from a sect of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Controversy surrounds this invocation of the AUMF and some, including US Senator Rand Paul, argue that there is no ground to use this law as justification for action against IS. Critics of the Obama administration's decision also point out that the president is using the same law that his administration urged congress to repeal in July 2014. The Obama administration's approval of airstrikes caused similar debates in 2011 when the administration invoked its "constitutional to conduct foreign relations" under the War Powers Act to justify similar air strikes and aid to Libya.

President Obama has also defended airstrikes against IS under international law. At the UN Security Council in September 2014, Obama argued that the strikes were legal under Article 51 of the UN Charter. In cooperation with the Iraqi government and with the support of other nations, the US department holds that these actions are in line with a nation's right to participate in collective self-defense against the acts of IS.

IS and Human Rights Violations

Human rights violations committed by IS [news archive] continue to escalate throughout 2014, raising concern in the international community. Critics state [PDF],

Armed operations and insurgency tactics are bound to produce casualties; it is when the perpetrators of these actions do not execute certain precautions to minimize its impacts on civilians, especially at-risk groups such as women and children, that these operations become magnified under the scrutiny of the international community.
Since the 2013 insurgence of IS into Iraq and Syria, international organizations have continuously received reports alleging serious human rights abuses perpetrated by IS. Such violations include threats of execution, targeted killing, abductions, rape, sexual and physical violence, forced recruitment of children and denial of fundamental rights.

In September 2014, the United Nations (UN) Assistance Mission for Iraq and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights [official website] released a report [PDF] detailing the extensive human rights violations in Iraq that occurred during a nine-week period:

According to information corroborated by different sources, ISIL and associated armed groups carried out attacks deliberately and systematically targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure, with the intention of killing and wounding civilians. ISIL and associated armed groups also continued to systematically perpetrate targeted assassinations and abductions, including community, political, and religious leaders, government employees, education professionals, journalists, and health workers.
This report highlights the kinds of concerns the international community has about the impact of IS.

Women have repeatedly been targets in IS controlled areas provoking an outcry [JURIST report] from Prince Zeid bin Ra'ad al-Hussein [professional profile], UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. IS has abducted, tortured and sexually exploited women in areas captured by IS. After the September 2014 public execution of Sameera Salih Ali Al-Nuaimy, an Iraqi lawyer and human rights defender, by firing squad, Prince Zeid warns that prominent, professional and educated women are at high-risk of becoming IS targets. Humans Rights Watch (HRW) reports that during the capture and detainment of hundreds of Yezidi peoples, a minority group in Iraq, IS "systematically separated young women and teenage girls from their families and has forced some of them to marry its fighters, according to dozens of relatives of the detainees." According to Dabiq [text, PDF], an online magazine published by IS, IS believes that the Qur'an establishes the practice of capturing the enemy's women and children and enslaving them.

Another at-risk group targeted by IS are children. HRW released a report [] [PDF] in June covering the experiences of children in Syria's armed conflict. In the press release [] [HRW press release], HRW states:

Extremist Islamist groups including the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham have specifically recruited children through free schooling campaigns that include weapons training, and have given them dangerous tasks, including suicide bombing missions.

These tactics were evident in the May 29th, 2014 abduction of 153 Kurdish boys and the accounts of human rights abuses by the released boys. The Report states that the Kurdish boys were tortured and repeatedly beaten by their captures for the purpose of religious trainings. Targeting children for recruitment violates international humanitarian law and causes gross concerns among human rights organizations.

The actions of IS since its insurgence have amounted to crimes against humanity, along with war crimes. Reports claim that ISIS has systematically targeted its victims based on their ethnic, religious or sectarian affiliation. Following the execution of up to 670 in Mosul, Iraq on August 25, 2014, the then UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, stated that the actions of IS in Iraq amounted to war crimes. Human rights abuses perpetrated by IS continue to be reported in Iraq and Syria.

Statehood Recognition and IS

The international community generally recognizes three elements for statehood: territory, population and recognition by other nation states. It is understood that these states must be sovereign, with the ability to enter into diplomatic and other relationships with its fellow states.

Many Western countries have reacted against IS and rejected its authority in Iraq and surrounding areas. For example, the US has lead airstrikes against IS, and Germany has banned support of IS in the country. Because of this lack of recognition by world powers, and the human rights violations that have occurred during the time IS has been in control, IS is not being recognized by other countries and global organizations. The UN has reported on the violence and potential war crimes in Iraq under IS, which may hinder the group if it were to seek statehood recognition.

The UN does not have the authority to grant official statehood to a country, but it can admit states to membership in the General Assembly after nine Council members vote to recommend admission and two-thirds of the Assembly votes to admit the state. After a state obtains the required votes, its membership in the UN becomes effective from the day the resolution passes. However, gaining admission to the UN does not result in immediate recognition by other countries, even the countries who are fellow UN members.

Since Iraq itself is a recognized state, it has the right to request aid to expel extra-governmental groups within its territory. In this case, ISIS would be considered a non-state actor, and therefore would not be recognized as a state on its own. Technically Iraq must consent to any armed invasion by other countries who would be in conflict with IS, and while Iraq did request such help from the US in June, the outcome remains unclear.


11/14/2014: UN investigators blamed Islamic State commanders for war crimes in Syria.

11/04/2014: HRW: Islamic States militants tortured and abused Kurdish children in Syria

10/30/2014: HRW: Islamic State conducted mass executions of Shiite prisoners

10/17/2014: US-led airstrikes in Syria killed ten civilians: rights group

09/12/2014: Germany passed bill banning support of Islamic State

08/30/2014: Lebanon official urged punishment for Islamic State flag burning

08/25/2014: UN rights chief cited potential war crimes in Iraq

07/18/2014: UN reported possible war crimes in Iraq

07/12/2014: HRW: Iraq forces summarily executed Sunni prisoners

06/26/2014: HRW reported mass executions in Iraq


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