• The Secret History of ISIS. (SBS)Source: SBS
How an al-Qaeda spinoff became an aspiring caliphate of terror.
Shane Cubis

26 Aug 2016 - 1:08 PM  UPDATED 31 Aug 2016 - 1:12 PM

They’re the latest in a long line of international villains known for their needless brutality, destruction of ancient heritage areas and horrific social media expertise. But where did the organisation we call ISIS, ISIL or Daesh come from?

SBS's The Secret History of ISIS looks at the inside story, with a focus on the US intelligence failures that allowed the group’s brutal flourishing. Taking a very straight forward approach, the fascinating documentary explains the existence of the organisation in a way you've never seen before.

In the meantime, here’s a relatively uncomplicated history of a very complicated organisation.


In the beginning...

At the turn of the millennium (1999), a Jordanian militant Islamist named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was released from prison under a general amnesty. After some shady doings, he fled to Pakistan, crossed the border to Afghanistan and received thousands of dollars of seed funding from Osama Bin Laden to found a group called Soldiers of the Levant. The group was keen to spread the Sunni-inflected version of their faith at the point of a sword.

Rebranding as an al-Qaeda franchise

Five years later, al-Zarqawi renamed his organisation Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), as part of a broader declaration of allegiance to Bin Laden – although Al-Qaeda HQ advised them to cut down on the beheadings and sectarians killings that were already part of their modus operandi, or risk losing popular support.

AQI took part in the insurgency against the Coalition forces, sowing chaos by attacking prominent Shi’ite targets to trigger retaliation, and joined forces with other anti-Western groups to form the Mujahideen Shura Council in 2006.

Al-Zarqawi was killed in a targeted bombing run later that year, leaving the organisation – under the leadership of a man known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri – to merge with even more insurgent factions to become the Islamic State of Iraq.

The Islamic State is born

After al-Masri was killed during a surprise attack from a joint US-Iraqi operation in 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took the reins. The group’s use of social media and marketing was at an apex by this stage, flipping the usual terrorist narrative to emphasise their strength and stability – as well as welcoming non-combatants like doctors and wives to join them.

The Syrian Civil War was a boon for ISIS, letting them flex their muscles outside Iraq’s dissolving borders. They helped set up a satellite organisation in the chaotic country, under the leadership of Abu Mohammad al-Julani, called the al-Nusra Front.

Before long, they had established a strong presence in several Sunni-majority provinces.

Broken alliances and an international caliphate

In 2014, ISIS declared it had the go-ahead from Allah to rule a worldwide caliphate, with al-Baghdadi at the helm (apparently he can trace his bloodline back to Muhammad).

This announcement followed major breakdowns in communication with both al-Nusra – who rejected al-Baghdadi’s attempt to bring them back under the ISIS umbrella – and Al-Qaeda, who weren’t happy with the group’s actions and formally kicked them out of the al-Qaeda network.

Undeterred, ISIS had some successes on the battlefield that year, seizing Mosul, Tikrit, Fallujah and Raqqa; massacring 5000 Yazidi men in Sinjar and launching devastating raids against both government and rebel forces in Syria. By this point the group had conquered a territory about the size of the UK, and were rumoured to be raking in US$3 million a day.

Videotaped beheadings and total jihad

This increased aggression was met with equal measures from the USA and regional allies. After President Obama authorised air strikes against ISIS in an attempt to stave off the capture of further cities, US journalist James Foley was beheaded in a video called “A Message to America”.

When this failed to dissuade the US from continuing their war, another journo, Steven Sotloff, was also executed on video. His death was followed by the killing of British aid worker David Haines, Jack Hensley and several other prisoners.

What's happening now?

They may have inspired copycat suicide bombings and assaults on civilians across the globe, but it looks like ISIS is in retreat. Iraqi forces have retaken Fallujah and Tikrit, Kurdish forces have retaken Kobani and other towns, and the group seem to have reverted to inspiring high-profile acts of terror rather than the military gains they once trumpeted.


For a more in-depth look at the organisation’s rise, watch The Secret History of ISIS right here:

And be sure to check out these other great documentaries from SBS On Demand...

Isis: The British Women Supporters Unveiled

Frontline Fighting: Battling Isis

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