Our ignorance about ISISMa’a salama is a farewell greeting in Arabic that means “may peace be upon you.” I murmured the mantra as I left the northern Iraqi city of Mosul following the war. I was dispatched as a rescue team member from World Vision International in June 2003 following the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
We helped restore over 170 elementary schools devastated by the bombings and the water pipes used to supply clean water to the city’s 70,000 residents. We had to wear heavy bullet-proof jackets despite sizzling hot weather and keep our walkie-talkies on even when we went to sleep. Mosul was a particularly dangerous place since, as a home to the sons of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, it was still rife with insurgent forces.
Bombs showered the city every other week and gunshots were heard daily. We had to quickly pull out after the United Nations office in Baghdad was bombarded upon warning that similar actions could be taken against international aid activists. We had to leave without being able to say goodbye to the residents and young children to which we had grown so attached over the past few months. I silently prayed for them.
But my prayers were not enough. In June 2014, about 800 armed militants from the Islamic State (ISIS) made their way into the city and took control of the strategically important area that hosts a dam supplying water and electricity to those all over Iraq.
The Muslims exchange greetings, “Aa Salaam Alaikum (Peace be upon you)” and “Wa Alaikum Assalaam (Upon you be peace)” many times a day and yet peace never seems to arrive. Syria has been tormented by civil war for the past five years, generating more than 5 million refugees fleeing for their life. The Kurds have been waging an armed independent movement across three states, and ISIS terrorized not only this region but nations worldwide.
I did not realize how powerful and expansive its influence had become until I visited a refugee camp in southeastern Turkey last summer. Those who fled Syria and Iraq, and foreign aid workers who escaped ISIS after being imprisoned for months, told terrifying tales.
ISIS is no longer a simple terrorist group. It started off modestly as an Iraqi spin-off to Al Qaeda, loyal to its late leader Osama bin Laden. In just a decade, it dominated Iraq and the northern part of Syria, having turned into the largest Muslim extremist group. In June 2014, the group declared itself a worldwide caliphate under the name of the Islamic State. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, 44-year-old Iraqi with a doctorate in Islamic studies from a university in Baghdad, was proclaimed as caliph, a political and religious successor to the prophet Muhammad, commanding omnipotent power over the entire Muslim community tantamount to the combined capacity of a pope or an emperor in Western society.
The Islamic State’s influence has become much greater than is generally known. It commands a territory equal to a third of South Korea, occupied by more than 8 million people. Its soldiers total at least 300,000, of which about 20,000 are recruited from overseas and the number has been increasing rapidly. According to Forbes, ISIS is the richest terrorist group in history with an annual income amounting to $2 billion. Its earnings mostly come from illicit activities like oil trafficking, hostage ransom and human organ sales.
Like most legitimate governments, ISIS is institutionalized with an administration, a judiciary and a legislature. The hostages and foreigners imprisoned by ISIS on charges of collaborating with foreign nongovernmental organizations go through court trials, even though they are tortured and eventually executed.
Previously, an extreme group could be broken down if its leadership was overturned and removed. But ISIS has become solid and systematized so that it runs undisturbed even after its second-highest ranking official is assassinated. I have a sinking feeling that ISIS could be around for a long time.
Syrian refugees fear they will never get to see their home so long as ISIS occupies it. Yet, not all of them can find new homes in Europe. And the charity workers in Turkey are worried sick.
“The stronger ISIS is, the more hopeless the refugees become,” one said.
ISIS soldiers are destroying not only people’s lives, but also historical heritage. They believed that the Islamic State’s self-declaration of a caliphate state could go down in history as a bigger event than the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. ISIS may go on dominating international news for more than a decade, and what’s even scarier is that we still know so little about the group.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 3, Page 25
*The author is an international relief worker.
by Han Bi-ya