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Middle East

Islamic State armed group strong in Middle East and abroad a year after caliphate declaration

media A board bearing the Islamic State armed group's insignia in the Iraqi town of Saadiya after its capture by Iraqi troops and Shia-Muslim militias. Reuters

Monday marked one year since the Islamic State armed group declared itself a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. With the group claiming and inspiring deadly attacks most recently in Tunisia and France, it appears to hold influence beyond the land it controls.

The Islamic State armed group currently controls about half the surface of Syria and a third of Iraq, where it emerged and continues to thrive on sectarian tensions and the lack of strong central governments in the region.

“In capturing territory, they captured bombs, oil wells, banks with vaults, and this helped them set up something resembling a territorial state,” says Rosemary Hollis, professor of Middle East Policy Studies at City University in London.

“Unless there’s a plan for what to replace them with – at the moment it’s a reconstituted Syrian government and a reconstituted Iraqi government, but that doesn’t look very plausible in either case – and unless there’s a plan for how to defeat them and do something with the people on their side, I don’t see that they will go away.”

There is indeed little consensus about what to do among the group’s neighbours, who include Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, as well as Iran, Turkey and others whose own relations are not always cordial.

To date, the armed group has attracted affiliates in countries including Libya, Pakistan and Tunisia, as evident in last Friday’s deadly seaside resort attack.

In the Western world, it has presented a dilemma for security forces by acting as an ideological trigger for dangerous individuals, as evident in the same day’s attack at an industrial site near the French city of Lyon, whose suspect appears to have been inspired by the group.

“Each time, we see that intelligence files have classified these people as dangerous individuals, but who are no longer being followed,” says Nathalie Goulet, a French senator who heads a commission on counterterrorism.

“Files have to be up-to-date, and the different security services have to have full access to them, which is not the case today.”

But Western officials attempt to “tackle the problem from the perspective of their domestic audience, and thereby get into a muddle in terms of how they characterise the phenomenon and the danger coming from outside,” Hollis says.

Complicating matters is the way the Islamic State armed group finds a sympathetic audience in the West through an elaborate recruitment strategy that employs wide-reaching and brutal propaganda, which Hollis suggests can be clarified by the context of the turmoil in the Middle East.

“The hideous use of violence that they deploy in their video recordings, which they distribute through social media to reach young people across the planet, are a kind of response to Western governments who have been using bombing raids and air superiority,” she says.

“They are saying whereas you cannot bear to think about what you are doing to people on the ground, we are so unafraid of hands-on violence that we are going to shove it in your face and terrify you.”

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