It’s been a year since ISIS declared its caliphate, which is a form of an Islamic government headed by a political and religious successor to the prophet Muhammad (pbuh). While some analysts might argue that it has been a great year for the terrorist group since it was able to hold its ground, others view their current status quo as their peak position which will see a grave downhill ride over the upcoming few months.
To fully comprehend the real power of the Islamic State (known as ISIS) and the breaking point which has in fact begun and will be shrinking it down, one has to start form the very beginning.
Less than a month before declaring their so called “Islamic State”, last year on June 10, 2014, ISIS had surprised the world by capturing Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, from a fleeing Iraqi army. The terror group suddenly dominated headlines for seizing large swaths of land in northern Iraq. After Mosul, they took over Tal Afar, and as the summer of 2014 wore on, they took Zumar, Sinjar, and Wana.
Shortly after that came the executions in the now-iconic propaganda videos of mainly Western journalists and aid workers, which later developed into systematic beheadings of everyone who defies the group’s will. However, long before ISIS became a household name in the West, it was penetrating underground and plotting its resurgence ever since the start of the US invasion of the sovereign Iraqi state back in 2002.
Rise of the Islamic State Timeline
OCT 2002: Abu Musab Al-Zarkawi, a militant extremist from Jordan who ran a paramilitary training camp in Afghanistan, relocates to Iraq amid high tension before the US invasion began.
AUG 2003: Zarkawi orchestrates the Jordanian embassy and UN headquarters in Baghdad. In Najaf also the Imam Ali Shrine is targeted sighting deep sectarian Sunni-Shia tension in the country.
OCT 2004: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, pledges allegiance to Osama bin Laden and renames his group “al Qaeda in the land of the two rivers” (AQ-1).
NOV 2005: AQ-1 bombs hotels in Amman, Jordan.
OCT 2006: AQ-1 announces formation of the the Mujahideen Shoura Council, and umbrella group comprised of six Iraqi-based insurgent groups allegedly to fight US occupation forces in Iraq.
FEB 2006: AQ-1 bombs the Golden Mosque of Samarra, igniting Iraq’s civil war.
JUN 2006: Zarqawi killed in a US airstrike. Abu Ayub Al-Masri assumes leadership and rebrands the group as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).
OCT 2006: Abu Ayoub Al-Masri disbands Mujahideen Shoura Council and names Anou Omar Al-Baghdadi as leader of ISI.
2007-2008: US military signs Awakening agreement and turn against ISI which goes underground.
AUG-DEC 2009: High ISI profile attacks which signals resurgence into the Iraqi scene.
APR 2010: Iraqi army and US military kill Abu Ayub Al-Masri in a raid. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi is named emir of ISI in May 2010.
MAR 2011: Syrian uprisings begin which then shifts into a regional crisis with insurgents from all over the world joining in as Mujahideen.
JAN 2012: Amid Syria’s devastating war, militants launch a new al Qaeda branch in the country called the Nusra Front. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISI back in Iraq, claims he’s behind the birth of the group. The militants go on to capture a swath of Syrian territory, including the province of Raqqa, which will later become ISIS’ de facto capital.
APR 2013: Al-Baghdadi announces the merger of the Nusra Front and ISI into one organization under his leadership. He calls the new group the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). But the Nusra Front rejects the merger and reiterates its allegiance to al Qaeda’s central leadership with Ayman Zawahiri as their leader.
JUN 2013: Top al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri denounces the merger as well and tells ISIS to stay focused on Iraq. Al-Baghdadi rejects the order.
JUL 2013: ISIS attacks prisons in Iraq and frees hundreds of the most dangerous extremists.
JAN-FEB 2014: Clashes erupt between ISIS and other Islamist extremist groups in Syria. ISIS seizes parts of Fallujah and Ramadi in Iraq. Al-Zawahri disavows ISIS, making it the first local branch to be formally kicked out of the al Qaeda network.
JUN 2014: ISIS takes over Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, seizes Iraqi army arsenal and eventually establishes a land base about the size of the U.K. ISIS advances southward as Iraqi forces collapse. ISIS declares establishment of Caliphate, changes name to the Islamic State (IS). Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential Iraqi Shiite cleric, calls on his fighters to defend holy sites in Iraq against ISIS.
AUG 2014: The United States conducts its first airstrike against the Islamic State group in Iraq and forms coalition of several international and regional states to allegedly fight back ISIS via air assaults.
APR 2015: Iraqi military forces and Shiite defense forces drive Islamic State militants out of Tikrit, Iraq.
MAY 2015: Iraqi forces abandon a military base in Ramadi, leaving the city to fall to Islamic State. The Iraqi army and Shiite defense forces launch an offensive to retake the city. Islamic State forces take the historic city of Palmyria in Syria. This gives the militant group control of a strategic highway.
JUN 2015: Battle breaks out between the Islamic State group and the Lebanese Resistance group Hezbollah along Lebanon’s northeast border with Syria. Hezbollah’s leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrullah vows to finish the fight against Islamic State Group. ISIS takes responsibility for several terrorist attacks in France, Tunisia, KSA and Kuwait.
JUL 2015: ISIS-affiliated militants unleash a wave of simultaneous attacks, including suicide car bombings, on Egyptian army checkpoints in the northern Sinai Peninsula.
ISIS Expansion hits a Dead-end
Advertising its violence online, the extremist group has successfully become a brand name for terrorism all over the world, turning into a magnet for regional and foreign radicals willing to join jihad. Last month’s deadly terror attacks in the KSA, Tunisia, France and Kuwait demonstrate how lone-wolf strikes by those sympathetic to the group across the globe pose as much of a risk to human life as trained terrorists operating directly under the ISIS banner on the actual battlefield.
Meanwhile, in ISIS heartlands, the group has profited from a power vacuum as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi struggle to maintain control of their increasingly-lawless countries, however there is one specific area where ISIS has been unable to spread its terror and further expand. That area is Lebanon’s northeast border with Syria. Similarly, the Nusra Front has been also losing grounds near Lebanon’s southeast border with Syria, especially in the Syrian Al-Suwayda province near the Syrian Golan Heights occupied by the Israeli Forces.
ISIS had been training new recruits and defectors from smaller rebel factions for several years now in Qalamoun, a militarily strategically important province in the south-west of Syria that borders Lebanon. The growth of the group in the area meant its fanatic fighters in Syria were now at the edge of the Lebanese heartland of its arch enemy the Lebanese resistance, Hezbollah.
As it was obviously anticipated, Hezbollah was not about to stand still in the face of ISIS expansion while knowing that leaving the responsibility for the Lebanese army to fight back ISIS alone will only leave the already weak military institution in jeopardy.
Starting June 2015, a battle broke out between the Islamic State group ISIS and Hezbollah along Lebanon’s northeast border with Syria. Hezbollah’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrullah, stood firm after several ISIS attempts to infiltrate Lebanese villages were aborted by Hezbollah fighters, declaring that the resistance would “finish” the fight.
As such, Hezbollah fighters have been holding off several attacks from ISIS in the mountainous region near the Syria-Lebanon border bearing a number of their own fighter as martyrs while killing Abu Balqis al-Baghdadi, ISIS’s “emir” for Qalamoun, in a shelling that targeted the area of Wadi Hmayed, on the outskirts of Lebanon’s Arsal.
For the past month, the Qalamoun battles have focused on Arsal’s eastern and southern outskirts, and on the western outskirts of the Syrian town of Flita, which lies roughly 23 kilometers southeast of Arsal.
ISIS had controlled Arsal’s northern outskirts since last year, while the Nusra Front had deployed in its eastern and southern outskirts but now they have lost these positions. ISIS seemingly still has its own plans for the Lebanese town of Ras Baalbek. And as the group has a vision to expand their so-called Caliphate over much of the Middle East, and as a fragmented state plagued by old sectarian hatreds, Lebanon is a natural place for them to attack. However, fortunately so far, their efforts have hit a dead-end.
The Lebanese army and Hezbollah have found themselves battling ISIS alongside each other, if not necessarily together. Apart from Lebanon’s radical ISIS-backed population, which is largely concentrated in the northern town of Tripoli, all four of the country’s major sects (Sunni, Shia, Druze, and Christian) are having the unusual experience of standing united in at least the desire to prevent ISIS from gaining a foothold in Lebanon.
The joint forces of the Lebanese army and Hezbollah, as well as ISIS’s preoccupation with its efforts in Syria and Iraq to maintain its fragile position, make it unlikely the group will be able to easily take much more territory on the Syrian-Lebanese border.
Still, there have been worried murmurs about ISIS terrorist dormant cells planning to commit acts of terrorism within Lebanon but further military expansion within the Lebanese borderline has proved to be up to this moment a hurdle for the terrorist group known as ISIS.