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Explainer: What is happening with the Islamic State group?

Why has there been a spate of beheadings? What should the group be referred to as? Has the West just gone to war with them?

ON WEDNESDAY, FOOTAGE showing the beheading of French hiker Herve Gourdel was circulated by militants associated with the Islamic State group.

The 55-year-old was abducted while hiking through mountains in Algeria.

In the video, the jihadists say the gruesome act is a message to the French Government to stop air raid action against the group in Iraq.

Their supposed aim is also used in the video’s title: ’A Message with Blood to the French Government’.

The killing comes as part of a recent spate of kidnappings and executions by the Islamic State group and those affiliated with it. In turn, there has been an escalation of air strikes on the group in Iraq and Syria this week by a coalition of forces . 

Why are these videos being released? Is the West back at war in Middle East? And how do things stand with the Islamic State group now? TheJournal.ie answers your questions here.

Who exactly are the Islamic State group? 

Despite its prominence in the news over the summer, it can still be difficult to know exactly who makes up the Islamic State group and what they want.

One of the most confusing aspects of the violence has been what to call the group carrying it out. The Islamic State group has at various times also been called Isil (Islamic State of Iraq and Levant), Isis (Islamic State of al-Sham) and Daesh.

The group launched itself under the moniker ‘Islamic State’ in June in a move aimed at legitimising the ‘caliphate’ it had declared. The term ‘Isil’ has been used by the United States and British Governments as they feel it is most accurate, and makes sure their claim to an Islamic State is not legitimised by the West. 

France has announced the use of the Arabic-derived term Daesh to avoid association with peaceful Islamic groups.

islamic cleric leader Leader of the IS group Abu Bakr ­al-Baghdadi Source: SAM Beirut

The group has existed in various forms since 1999 and was originally an Iraq-based affiliate of al-Qaida. A split occurred earlier this year over an unwillingness by the Islamic State group to obey commands from senior members of al-Qaida.

The main aim of the group is to establish a ‘caliphate’. The idea of a caliphate, which is  roughly speaking the creation of a holy land for Muslims under the leadership of a ‘caliph’, dates back to after the time of prophet Muhammad’s death in the 7th century. The group has resurrected the idea.

The self-declared caliph is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who claims to be a direct descendent of the prophet Muhammad. The US State Department currently has a bounty of $10 million on his head.

When did this all start?

While the Islamic State group has been around in one form or another for just over a decade this latest offensive came into effect at the start of June.

In an overnight offensive the group managed to managed to take control of Iraq’s second largest city Mosul. The advance saw the group take hold of the governor’s office, the TV station and the airport. The speed at which they were able to do so shocked many outside observers.

There was a view at the time that there may have been a conspiracy within the Iraqi army in relation to the advance. In the attack on Mosul reports indicated that 30,000 troops fled in the face of just 800 fighters from the Islamic State group.

How much ground do the Islamic State group control at current? 

The Islamic State group has gained control of large areas of both Iraq and Syria since declaring its caliphate in June. The group’s territory stretches from Aleppo in Syria to Diyala in Iraq.

map of control Source: Institute for the Study of War/BBC

In the past week, the group has continued to advance into northern Syria. One of the major issues with their action has been the huge numbers of displaced refugees. This recent advance has forced 130,000 Kurds out of their homes.

Since the start of the conflict more than 1.8 million Iraqis have been displaced by the Islamic State group’s actions. Over 500,000 of these were living in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region that spreads across Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

Since last Friday the 130,000 refugees that had to flee Syria have been taken in by Turkey. Large numbers of people have gathered at the border in support of the refugees and have faced action by Turkish authorities trying to disperse them. 

Turkey Kurds Kurdish activists at the Turkey/ Iraq border Source: Associated Press/Burhan Ozbilici/AP

So is the West at war with the Islamic State group? 

On Tuesday, a coalition lead by the United States started escalating air attacks against Islamic state group targets in Iraq and Syria.

map of airstrikes Source: Institute for the Study of War/BBC/ US Central Command

So far, there have been attacks on targets by French and American forces. These forces are joined by a number of countries from around the region in taking action. Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have launched strikes against the group.

So does this mean Western powers are back at war in the same way they were during the second Gulf invasion of 2003?

On Wednesday, in an address that came close to being a declaration of war, President Barack Obama was damning in his condemnation of the extremist groups. In his address to the UN Obama said:

The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force.

A key point of Obama’s address was that the role the US will be playing is one of support to the communities in Iraq and Syria who have had to face the Islamic State group.

While the US will continue to carry out a campaign of air strikes, it is not thought at this time that there will be another ground invasion.

map of coalition forces Source: Defence One

To see a bigger version of this map click here. 

Obama’s speech stated that more than 40 countries had offered to join the coalition to take action against the Islamic State group. Nations across Europe who have expressed their willingness for action include Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands.

A main target of this bombing campaign are the oil fields that the Islamic State group draw much of their revenue from. Some experts have speculated that oil revenues for the group could provide funding of over $2 million a day.

While the President has been praised for showing a much stronger stance on the situation and asserting America’s dominance, the move to reenter the region must be difficult for Obama, who withdrew the remaining troops from the second Gulf invasion in 2011.

Closer to home, MPs in the House of Commons voted yesterday to take action in the region. The motion sees the UK throwing its weight behind US-led air strikes.

A bombing campaign by Britain would see them launch attacks in Iraq but not in Syria. UK combat forces are reentering Iraq for the first time since withdrawing in 2009.

What are IS militants trying to achieve with footage of beheadings? 

The beheading of Herve Gourdel this week was the fourth high-profile incident in just over a month. Part of the groups strategy is based around the distributing of these videos broadly across social media.

Last month saw the beheading of American journalist James Foley. This month Steven Sotloff (also an American journalist) and British aid worker David Haines have also been subject to the vicious action by the group.

james foley American journalist James Foley Source: Global Post

These attacks are thought to be part of a broader social media strategy being carried out by the group. The group distributes slickly-produced footage through its ‘Al-Furqan Media’ arm.

Part of the strategy by the group has involved ‘piggy-backing’ on popular internet hashtags on sites such as Twitter and YouTube to spread their propaganda. This saw material from the Islamic State group appearing under hashtags relating to the referendum on Scottish independence.

The impact and effect these videos have has been subject of much debate. Some commentators suggest that the videos act as a powerful recruitment tool. It seems that whatever the outcome of the videos in terms of propaganda, they have been at least partly responsible for the escalated action in the region.

Does Ireland have any involvement in this conflict? 

Some individuals from Ireland have travelled to the Middle East to participate in the conflict as part of radical Islamic groups. Around 25 to 30 individuals are known to have joined the fight. This makes up only a tiny percentage of the total 43,000 Muslims living in Ireland.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan has described the problem of Europeans traveling to take part in the conflict as a “growing and serious problem”. This followed a resolution earlier in the week by the UN Security Council that all member states should act together to prevent the individuals traveling to join jihadist organisations.

Earlier this weekIrish convert to Islam Khalid Kelly defended the action of the Islamic State group in carrying out the beheadings. He claimed the action was the inevitable result of attacks against the Muslim faith. 

Mideast Israel Uncertain Golan Members of the UN Disengagement Observer Force in the Golan Heights Source: AP/Press Association Images

At the beginning of September, UN Peacekeepers were caught in the crossfire between the Al-Qaida linked Al-Nusra Front and Syrian troops. Some of the peacekeepers stationed in the region as part of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force were Irish.

These peacekeepers were in position to maintain a buffer-zone between Israeli and Syrian forces. Last week Defence Minister Simon Coveney informed the Dáil that the Irish troops would be staying in the region as part of their ongoing UN mission.

In the incident, 44 Fijian peacekeepers were taken captive but later released.

Does the Islamic State group have popular support in the areas that it has taken?

Among Syrian and Iraqi Sunni Muslims, there is a degree of popular support for the Islamic State group and the regime they are implementing, although the vast majority of Muslims in the region reject the view that the Islamic State group have of their faith.

The support is attributed to the unfavourable political situation that has existed for Sunni Muslims in both Iraq and Syria.

Shia governments under the leadership of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq and Bashar al-Assad in Syria that have violently oppressed the Sunni populations and this has created a desire for change.

France Syria Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad Source: AP/Press Association Images

The Sunni population in both these countries may not support the ideology or the atrocities carried out by the Islamic State group but may see them as an alternative to previously brutal regime.

The Islamic state group does not have the religious backing of Islam broadly. Last month a top Islamic authority based in Egypt launched a internet campaign against the naming of the group as the “Islamic State”.

The leader of the group Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shawki Allam described the Islamic State group as violating all principles and laws of Islam and posing a danger to the religion as a whole.

What could happen next? 

The big question going forward is whether or not the action being taken with recent air strikes will be enough to stop the Islamic State group. The air strikes will undoubtedly cause an economic impact on the group and the attacks have already have already managed to hit a oil refinery controlled by the Islamic State group. 

It has been thought that the new escalation of air attacks along with supplying locals on the ground with weapons could be enough to stop the group from advancing any further. However some other groups have said that without ground forces the campaign could be doomed to not succeed.

One thing for sure is that the campaign will not be a swift one. Upon recalling parliament, Prime Minister of Britain David Cameron said the campaign would take “not months but years”. 

While an aggressive bombing campaign gives some reassurance that something is being done to prevent the advance of the Islamic State group, a resolution to the conflict still seems a long way off.

Explainer: What’s happening in Iraq?

Explainer: Why thousands of Yazidi people are trapped on an Iraq mountain

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