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A Year Into The Caliphate, How Has IS Managed To Capture So Much Territory?

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By Simon Mabon:

The self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, also known as IS, ISIS, ISIL and Daesh, took control of Iraq’s second city, Mosul on June 9 2014. It instantly implemented a brutal rule that resulted in hunCdreds of deaths. Ancient relics were destroyed, and an IS stronghold established. Using equipment seized through fighting in Syria, the group was able to defeat an increasingly demoralised Iraqi army, many of whom fled when the group was approaching.

epa04336676 A picture made available on 31 July 2014, shows smoke rising from the Baiji oil refinery during the clashes between the fighters of jihadist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Iraqi forces in Baiji city, northern Iraq, on 30 July 2014. The UN Security Council expressed 'grave concern' over reports that radical militant groups the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra have seized oil fields in Iraq and Syria and called on all states to refrain from engaging in oil trade with them. The council said both the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIL, and Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate also known as al-Nusra Front, are listed as terrorist groups and engaging in oil sales with them would mean providing financial support to them.  EPA/STR
Destruction from an early battle between IS and Iraqi forces in July 2014. EPA/STR

The fall of Mosul marked the beginning of a staggering year in which IS tore across the Middle East. The group had emerged from the desert that straddled the Syrian-Iraqi border just four days before taking the city; it soon made huge gains into Iraqi territory, further decimating a state that had struggled to regain a sense of autonomy since the US-led invasion of 2003.

The capture of Mosul and ensuing IS rampage would ultimately bring down the rule of Nouri al-Maliki, who had been prime minister of Iraq since 2006.

Fertile ground

In the 12 years since the US-led invasion, power in Iraq has become increasingly decentralised, with the governments of first al-Maliki and now Haider al-Abadi struggling to gain control over a state that was becoming increasingly divided along tribal and sectarian lines.

These divisions were deepened by a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with both states offering support for co-religious kin across the Middle East. Along with Syria and Bahrain, Iraq became one of the primary arenas in this conflict, and the ensuing chaos helped facilitate the emergence of IS.

To make things worse, the Arab uprisings in the region had strained relations between states and societies to breaking point. Power seeped away from the core to the periphery, and ultimately made space for groups such as IS to grow.

IS emerged from the embers of al-Qaeda in Iraq, facilitated, in part, by the US prison, Camp Bucca. It was inside Bucca, in southern Iraq, that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now the self-proclaimed Caliph Ibrahim, developed a network of contacts that would some years later become IS.

Exploiting division

Although headed by a group of Salafists and supported by thousands of foreign fighters, the group also draws upon different facets of Syrian and Iraqi society. Across Iraq, IS was able to draw upon ex-members of the Ba’ath party and members of Sunni tribes, who historically had challenged Baghdad’s rule but had also long feared the violence of Shia militias.

epa04307451 Worshipers pray at the Al-Noori Al-Kabeer mosque, next to flag used by the Islamic State (IS), in Mosul city, northern Iraq, 09 July 2014. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Sunni extremist group Islamic State appeared for the first time on 04 July at Al-Noori Al-Kabeer mosque in Mosul city, as he was purportedly delivering the noon prayer's sermon. Fighters of IS, an al-Qaeda splinter group, have in recent weeks seized large parts of northern and western Iraq, including Mosul, and made a swift advance to capture a string of towns stretching south towards Baghdad.  EPA/STR
Worshipers in Mosul attend a mosque shortly after an appearance by IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. EPA/STR

Being able to recruit from these groups, by virtue of offering them protection against Shia militias and indeed, from the perceived discrimination of the Shia led-governments, IS was able to cultivate support from a much larger base.

The road ahead

Yet after seizing land and cultivating support, the group also had to govern, which has proved far more difficult in the long run.

Initially, IS successfully deployed a “velvet glove, iron fist” approach, fusing a soft power governance strategy with draconian punishments for those who opposed it. Fear is a key component of the IS strategy, as evidenced in the increasingly brutal methods it uses to execute opponents. As its rampage went on, mass killings of enemy combatants became a central tactic: after seizing a Syrian military base in 2014, the group posted a video of mass beheadings of the soldiers who fought them.

The point of all this is to strike fear into anyone who stands in the group’s path. The treatment of prisoners, including Shi’a Muslims, non IS-supporting Sunni Muslims, people of other faiths and ethnicities, women, homosexuals and people from “the West” has been well documented, with news of this treatment travelling quicker than the group itself. Perhaps this explains the ease with which IS has been able to seize large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria. Equally, while IS does have a clearly defined power structure, it has proved that it can adapt quickly to changing circumstances.

It used military equipment seized in Syria in Iraq and was then able to seize better weapons and use them in the capture of Mosul.

On May 17 2015, IS captured the city of Ramadi in the Anbar Province of Iraq. Just three days later, it took the 2,000 year-old city of Palmyra in Syria, highlighting its ability to operate on several fronts at once.

While some suggest that the fall of Ramadi shows a lack of will in the Iraqi army to fight off IS, it is perhaps equally a testament to the group’s ability to innovate. To take the town, it used what are known as vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDS) – large and well-armoured vehicles laden with explosives that can withstand small-arms fire, allowing IS to penetrate strong defences.

Ultimately, as the start of Ramadan approaches, IS is likely to use the first anniversary since the declaration of a caliphate and the seizure of Mosul to demonstrate its continued relevance and longevity in defiance of the international coalition against it.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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