In June 2014, the Islamic State (IS) declared an Islamic Caliphate spanning the area from Syria’s Aleppo governorate in the west, to Iraq’s province of Diyala in the east. The area under IS control now covers up to one third of Iraq, including the city of Mosul, which previously had a strong Christian community, but who have now mostly been forced to flee.
The IS was formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), and previously operated as a front organisation for Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) until Al-Qaeda broke ties with the group early this year. Although the group has been proscribed by Australia since 2005, it was only listed under the name Islamic State on 12 July 2014.
Iraq’s national army and police force put up little resistance to the insurgents, and are reported to have abandoned their weapons and fled. However, Iraqi-Kurdistan in the far north-east tip of the country remains intact, and its military, the peshmerger, have secured Kirkuk, an oil rich city that the Kurds have previously laid claim to, but which is not recognised as part of Iraqi-Kurdistan.
Considered a terrorist organisation by countries including Australia, the strict Sunni group has committed atrocities including mass executions of its enemies, and targeting minorities such as Shia Muslims in Iraq. A top United Nations official has called on the UN Security Council to ensure that IS members are held to account for their ‘horrific terrorist acts’, and to demand that the IS ceases all violence.
The IS has received at least some support from other extremists—Indonesian militant Islamist group Mujahidin Indonesia Timur and the Algeria-based Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have declared their loyalty—however it appears to lack popular support. The Economist cited a survey carried out in Syria by a British firm earlier this year that ‘found that only 4% of respondents believed that SIC [the State of the Islamic Caliphate] “best represents the interests and aspirations of the Syrian people”. Even in their stronghold of Raqqa, the group’s popularity was an unimpressive 24%’. Analysis by IHS Jane’s pointed to the brutal behaviour of the group as a key reason for its lack of support in Syria and Iraq.
After the Caliphate was declared, US President Barak Obama said that a priority was ‘making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria,’ adding that options including airstrikes could be considered. Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Australia was ready to assist a US response if requested. In the following days, the US also held talks with Iran on the situation, marking the first time the nations have worked together on security issues in over ten years.
So far, the US has authorised 300 military advisors to be deployed to Iraq, as well as deploying a further 275 military personnel to ‘provide support and security for U.S. personnel and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’. Shiite Iran has also provided some direct support to Iraq, including military advisors and military aircraft.
Beyond initial offers of support to a US response, Australia has pledged $5 million in humanitarian assistance for people displaced by violence in Iraq.
But the key concern for Australia is the risk of Australian citizens travelling overseas to fight with groups such as the IS and returning to Australia further radicalised. According to ASIO, around 60 Australians are currently fighting with extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, with a further 90 Australians involved with these groups in other ways. Attorney-General George Brandis said that around 30 Australians fought with the Taliban during the Afghan conflict, and eight of those were later convicted of planning terror attacks back in Australia.
On 29 June it was reported that around ten Australians were thought to have joined the IS already. On 17 July, the first Australian suicide bomber in Iraq, an 18-year-old from Melbourne, was reported to have killed three people. Australian jihadists fighting in the Middle East are also reported to have killed captives. As the number of Australians involved with terrorist groups appears to grow, national security reforms are underway to address the issue of returning jihadists. At a 16 July press conference on national security legislation, ASIO chief David Irvine explained: ‘there is a need to know what Australians are up to [overseas], particularly if they're going to come home and commit terrorist acts here in Australia … what we've sought to do is to increase the ability of ASIS, the foreign intelligence agency, to be able to collect intelligence on Australians’.
Another concern is the ongoing humanitarian impact. This year alone, over 1.2 million people have become internally displaced in Iraq due to rising violence. The UN reports 300,000 newly displaced people have flooded into Iraqi-Kurdistan, adding to the 225,000 Syrian refugees already there. Australia has already contributed $130.8 million in humanitarian assistance to the Syria response, as well as significant military and humanitarian investment in Iraq since 2003, and recent events could reverse gains made as well as meaning further support is needed. Aid agencies have already reported programs are desperately underfunded and warned that vital services are at risk.