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The year the world met ISIL
December 30, 2014, 7:10 am

ISIL has left in its wake hundreds of thousands of terrified refugees since conquering large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria [Xinhua]

ISIL has left in its wake hundreds of thousands of terrified refugees since conquering large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria [Xinhua]

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) exploded onto the global scene quite literally with a bang in 2014.

And it ends the year with the downing of an F-16 fighter jet last week and the reported capture of its Jordanian pilot.

The coming days will reveal whether ISIL will comply with Western calls for negotiation over his fate or will revert to their general practice of beheading the hostage.

Meanwhile, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters finally managed in the last week of December to lift the siege of Mount Sinjar in Iraq’s north. Dramatic images of ethnic Yazidi women and children being airlifted from Sinjar captivated audiences in August and brought the ISIL threat into real time.

These two latest incidents cap off the year that saw the brutal organization commit horrendous crimes against the people of Iraq and Syria, displacing thousands of families who fear the persecution and destruction that have become synonymous with ISIL.

ISIL dominated the headlines this year by adding a new dimension to the ongoing Syrian civil war; a critical fall-out between Islamic Jihadi groups initially united by a common goal – to end the rule of President Bashar Al-Assad.

ISIL has also manipulated and taken advantage of the existing tensions in the fragile Iraqi political landscape following the withdrawal of American troops.

Using the weakened hold of both Baghdad and Damascus, ISIL became more than an Al-Qaeda offshoot and a particularly painful thorn in the Middle East’s side.

From out of nowhere?

ISIL’s rise as an entity independent of Al-Qaeda and its rapid growth has turned heads and left politicians at a loss for action until late this year.

But the split is significant, as it marks the first deep rift between Jihadi groups.

Earlier in 2013, Al-Qaeda Chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri ordered ISIL to disband and for its leaders to return to Iraq.

In February, an online statement credited to Al-Qaeda’s general command criticized ISIL rebels, saying “we affirm our disavowal from the sedition that is occurring in Syria between factions of jihadists, and from the blood that was shed by any party.”

The tactical and even ideological rift that arose between Al-Qaeda and ISIL has not only made the latter a self-marketing recruitment hub for disenfranchised youth from all over the world, but arguably more of a threat than the former managed in all of its years of operations.

Stealing the spotlight from the primary exporter of Islamic Jihad is only one of ISIL’s achievements in its rise to the international platform.

Psychological warfare

ISIL employed flagrant tactics of psychological warfare, constructing a powerful social media ‘army’ to spread propaganda and terror to both spark fear and recruit potential followers.

Throughout March and April, ISIL-affiliated Twitter accounts circulated horrifying images of beheaded locals and fighters atop buildings in various cities in Iraq’s provinces and the Syrian city of Raqqaa.

By August, ISIL beheaded American journalist James Foley in retaliation against US-led Coalition airstrikes on ISIL strongholds in Iraq – the footage was widely circulated.

The outrage that followed Foley’s murder appeared to encourage the group, which murdered in much the same savage manner Steven Sotloff, David Haines, Alan Henning, Peter Kassig and soldiers from Kurdish and Syrian ranks.

These tactics also served to terrify local populations which fled the ISIL juggernaut.

The International Displacement Monitoring Center estimates that the number of displaced people in Iraq alone is at least three million people, around two million of which escaped violence and fighting in ISIL-held territories.

Those who fled told of instances of forced religious conversion, rape, public executions and lashings, and the selling of women and children from the minority Yazidi sect into slavery, sexual or otherwise.

Seizing territory

In June, Iraq’s second largest city Mosul fell to ISIL, bringing with it the crucial northern dam which is a main contributor to Iraq’s electricity grid.

US President Barack Obama told reporters at the time, “If that dam was breached, it could have proven catastrophic.”

The dam was retaken by Kurdish forces in August. An ISIL attempt to occupy the dam in December was thwarted by the Peshmerga.

But ISIL maintains control of large swathes of Iraqi and Syrian territory with significant oil wells in both countries. This has provided ISIL with a cash flow selling oil.

While the main buyer of ISIL oil remains unclear, the sale is allowing ISIL to finance its expansion efforts and warfare.

With their steady cash income, influx of international fighters, and stable internal command network, it appears ISIL is set for a continued path of horrific success.

The Baiji oil refinery, one of Iraq’s largest and most important energy facilities, was seized by ISIL in July and only retaken by Iraqi special forces in late November after several months of bitter fighting.

The Pentagon and Iraqi Army said they plan to retake the city of Mosul as early as January 2015.

Kurdish intelligence officials say ISIL has been for weeks consolidating and reinforcing its hold on the outskirts of Mosul.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Army efforts to liberate Tikrit in the center of the country, and cities in the Western province of Anbar, have proved largely unsuccessful despite continued aerial support from the Coalition.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the airstrikes have left around 1,000 ISIL fighters dead since September 2014.

The Kobani gambit

In August, ISIL fighters attacked the predominantly Kurdish town of Kobani in northeastern Syria a stone’s throw from the Turkish border.

Kobani is considered to have strategic significance as it would give IS control of territory extending from its self-declared capital of Raqqa, some 90 kilometers to the south, to the Turkish border.

Six weeks after ISIL started to make significant gains and near the complete control of Kobani, the US-led Coalition carried out hundreds of sorties striking the group’s positions.

Despite the aerial bombardment and the Peshmerga reinforcements allowed to travel from Iraq through Turkey to relieve Syrian Kurdish fighters, more than a third of Kobani remains under ISIL control.

While it is unlikely that ISIL can disappear as rapidly as it rose to power, 2015 will reveal whether it will be capable of continuing to spread terror throughout the region and cement itself firmly into the Middle East.

By Nadine Awadalla for The BRICS Post in Cairo, Egypt

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