Islamic militants stormed Mosul last week, capturing Iraq’s second-largest city. They robbed banks of hundreds of millions of dollars, burned army vehicles, and opened prison gates. What did the residents of the city do? Some greeted them as liberators and threw rocks at retreating Iraqi soldiers.
Two days later, these “liberators” declared that they would govern by harsh Sharia law and began executing police officers and government workers. Now they claim to have massacred hundreds of captured Iraqi soldiers and are advancing on Baghdad, the capital of Iraq.
Why does this conflict matter to America and the West?
House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, says: “This is a problem that we will have to face and we’re either going to face it in New York City or we’re going to face it [in Iraq].” He explains: “These are sophisticated, command and controlled, seasoned combat veterans who understand the value of terrorism operations external to the region, meaning Europe and the United States. That is about as dangerous a recipe as you can put together.”
Retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli adds that “all Americans should be concerned” by ISIS’s rise in Iraq. According to Sen. Lindsey Graham, “the seeds of 9/11s are being planted all over Iraq and Syria. They want an Islamic caliphate that runs through Syria and Iraq . . . and they plan to drive us out of the Mideast by attacking us here at home.”
As we’ll see in this essay, Sen. Graham is exactly right.
The forming of ISIS
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was founded in 2006. This group of Sunni extremists was formed in response to Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government after the fall of the Hussein government.
The group is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who received a doctorate in Islamic studies from a Baghdad university. After the American invasion of Iraq, he relocated to Syria. There he began recruiting jihadists from American prisons and virtual universities. His movement was at one time linked to al-Qaeda, but the two split when he refused to leave Syria so the local al-Qaeda affiliate could continue its insurrection.
His followers in Syria have been seizing territory from other rebel groups. In Iraq, however, he has been much more successful in unifying opposition to the Shiite government. For example, former officers of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party have joined his coalition, as have other tribal militias. They have a common enemy in Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Malaki and his Shiite government. Now they are more united than ever and committed to destroying the Iraqi security forces and killing their Shiite enemies.
A strategy seven years in the making
In 2007, the Islamic State in Iraq (which evolved into ISIS) laid out its vision for Iraq. It intends to free Sunnis from prison and impose its puritanical version of Islam on every person it controls. Its goal in governing is clear: “Improving their conditions is less important than the condition of their religion.”
The group began military operations in Syria when civil war began in 2011, seizing arms caches, oil wells and supplies while avoiding battles with government forces. It has recently been solidifying control of Fallujah, in western Iraq. Since 2004, when the group staged 51 attacks, its militant actions have grown steadily. It is blamed for 419 attacks across a wider swath of Iraq than ever. Now the group has set its sights on Baghdad and the government based there.
Their long-term strategy (often termed a “metanarrative” by geopolitical scholars) has only begun. Their intention is to create an Islamic religious state that would span Sunni-dominated sections of Syria and Iraq. From this base, they would reestablish the caliphate and dominate the world.
What is the “caliphate”? After the death of the Prophet Muhammed, his successors were known as “caliphs.” Upon a caliph’s death, another was chosen to taken his place. These caliphs led Islam until their office, the “caliphate,” was abolished by Turkey in 1923. This decision is considered heretical by Muslims who are pledged to restore the caliphate and thus bring Islam’s rightful leader back to power.
This is the version of Islamic history embraced by “Sunni” Muslims, constituting 85 percent of the Muslim world. “Shiite” Muslims disagree. They claim that Muhammed’s son-in-law, Ali (known to Sunnis as the fourth caliph), was the proper successor to the Prophet. (“Shiite” means “party of Ali.”) They believe that the caliphs were not the true leaders of Islam, choosing instead to support a different series of leaders after Ali (known to them as “Imams”). Most Shiites believe that the Twelfth Imam disappeared in A.D. 941 but will return at the end of history to dominate the world for Islam.
As a result, Shiite Muslims have no interest in rebuilding the caliphate. Sunni Muslims do. ISIS, the group that threatens to overthrow present-day Iraq and its Shiite leaders, is driven by its metanarrative that the caliphate must be reestablished before Islam can dominate the world.
Imagine militant Christians who were convinced that the Dome of the Rock must be destroyed and the Temple rebuilt before Jesus could return. Now imagine that they were convinced that God had called them to slay non-believers who stood in their way, and that their own death in this cause would guarantee their place in paradise. For the militants of ISIS, this is a modern-day crusade with global implications.
The Kurds: a wild card
“Kurds” are an ethnic group in western Asia, living in parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey as well as a region known as Kurdistan. They number around 30 million, are of Iranian descent, and speak Kurdish languages.
In recent years, Kurdish leaders have formed extensive ties with the Turkish government. Turkey is now the largest foreign direct investor in their region. They are seen by many as the more moderate sect in the region. Since ISIS’s advance caused Iraqi soldiers to abandon the Kurdish city of Kirkuk, they have reclaimed it and are pledged to its defense.
They are opposed to both the Maliki Shiite-dominated government and the Sunni agenda of ISIS. While the two continue their conflict, Kurds are moving to build the foundation for a future independent state with Kirkuk as its capital.
Threat to the West
Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, spent time in an American detention facility in Iraq, and has no love for the West. Like other radical Muslims, he is convinced that the West has been oppressing Islam since the Crusades. Since the Qur’an requires Muslims to defend Islam (2:190-192), he believes that attacking the West is a defense of Islam mandated by Allah.
When Baghdadi was released from detention in 2009, he told his American captors, “I’ll see you guys in New York.” The concern is not that ISIS could mount a 9/11-style attack on America today. The group is so focused on its advance in Iraq and Syria that it seems unlikely to have the motivation or resources for such an attack on the West at present.
However, within a year things could change dramatically. According to Mitchell Morell, former acting CIA director, ISIS could pose such a threat to the West in that time frame. If American engagement in Iraq increases, ISIS could escalate its response as well.
Why would they attack us? As stated above, radical Muslims are convinced that they are defending Islam by attacking Western culture, since they believe that we have been oppressing Muslims since the Crusades. In addition, Sunni radicals want to establish a new caliphate in the region. To do so, they must force the withdrawal of American forces from the Middle East; most also want to destroy Israel.
If attacking American targets would cause our citizens to force a military retreat from the Middle East, their aims would be fulfilled. If we respond by escalating our engagement in the region, they will claim that we are attacking Islam and attempt to use our initiative to unite the larger Muslim world in their cause.
What will happen next?
Here’s what you can look for in coming days.
First, conflict will continue. ISIS and other Sunni militants are now moving on Baghdad, where their bombs killed 48 people on June 7 and 21 people on June 15. If the Shiite government forces of Iraq respond to ISIS by attacking Sunnis, ISIS will use their aggression to stoke an all-out Sunni-Shiite conflict in the region.
Abu Bakr al-Zubaidi, a member of a militant Shiite group, responds to the ISIS advance: “ISIS regards Shia as their eternal enemy, and they will kill whoever falls into their hands who is Shia, whether they are soldiers, grocers or even singers. Our response to that is that there will not be any living ISIS prisoner.” In this scenario, there would be sectarian violence until one side wins and the other is obliterated.
Second, the war could escalate. If ISIS is successful in its advance on Baghdad and other targets in Iraq and Syria, Iran would likely protect its Shiite interests. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries could then respond to defend their agendas. The results for the global economy, oil exports, and military stability could be disastrous.
Third, Christians will face increasing persecution. In 2003, more than a million believers lived in Iraq. Since the U.S.-led invasion that year, at least half have fled the country as Sunni Muslims have attacked them and their churches. Now many believers are fleeing to Kurdistan and other more protected places. The fall of Mosul was especially devastating. It is the most important city in Iraq to Christians, and is said to be the burial site of the prophet Jonah.
Christians are people without a party in Iraq. Sunni and Shiite extremists both view them as infidels. We can expect the civil war to target believers with even greater ferocity.
Fourth, other countries will push for a unity government in Iraq.
The last time Iraq approached civil war, President George W. Bush deployed additional American troops (known as “the surge”) and enlisted Sunni tribal leaders to form militias supporting the Maliki government. In the years since, however, Maliki’s hard line treatment of Sunnis has alienated many of them. Now many Sunni tribes are supporting ISIS and its aims.
In response, President Obama is calling on Maliki to work with Kurds and Sunnis in forming a more inclusive government. Mr. Obama is reportedly considering air strikes to defend Baghdad and to close border crossings with Syria, but believes that progress toward a stable, unified government is essential to America’s involvement. The Shiite government of Iran is likewise calling on Maliki to be more inclusive of Sunnis.
Ryan C. Crocker, a former ambassador to Iraq, has been critical of America’s 2011 withdrawal from the nation. He states: “What this administration has to do is get John Kerry on a plane right now, like we did when I was there, and sit down with Shia, Sunni and Kurdish leaders and help them get to a position of declared national unity. Iraqis have to stand together now.”
Fifth, Christians will unite in praying for war to end and spiritual awakening in the Muslim world to spread. God redeems all he allows. One way he will use the civil war in Iraq will be to call his people to intercession with greater intensity.
As Christians in the West come to understand that militant Islam threatens not just Iraq and the Middle East but the entire world, they will begin praying more fervently for the Holy Spirit to bring more jihadists to Jesus. Muslims already venerate Jesus as one of their six greatest prophets. They believe he was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, ascended to heaven, and will return at the end of history.
Now Jesus is appearing to Muslims around the world in visions and dreams. As a result, more Muslims have come to Christ in the last 15 years than in the previous 15 centuries. For a hardened jihadist, committed to attacking the West and all Muslims who are not part of his or her sect, such a transformation is the only lasting answer. Every militant Muslim who finds Christ as Lord is not only one less enemy to the world—he or she is one more member of our eternal family.
God is calling his people to fight this battle on our knees. Please pray today for a great spiritual awakening in Iraq. Pray for Jesus to reveal himself personally to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and other leaders of ISIS. Pray for him to reveal himself to Prime Minister Malaki and other Iraqi officials as well. Pray for Christians in Iraq to be protected and for their witness to be courageous and effective.
Pray for President Obama and other world leaders as they search for effective options in responding to this threat. Pray for our soldiers in harms’ way, in Iraq and around the world. And pray for your own witness during these days to be strong and joyful.
A pastor in Iraq was asked by an American missionary how he has maintained his joy in the face of mortal danger and national turmoil. His answer: “My Savior Jesus is with us wherever we go and he will never leave us.”
Do you agree?