Backgrounder: ISIS and LGBT Iraqis

June 16, 2014 in General

What is ISIS?

It is a Sunni Muslim militant group operating in Western Iraq and Syria. Founded in 2006 from a consortium of other Sunni Islamist militia in Iraq and Syria, the name is an acronym, standing for “the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (the Levant).” The group has dominated headlines this week after launching an assault on the northern part of Iraq, conquering the cities of Mosul (population 1.8m) and Tikrit and advancing on Baghdad, although they are also active in northern Syria, exploiting the chaos of that nation’s civil war. With a reputation as ferocious fighters, they reportedly met with little resistance as professional security forces fled the city in the face of their advance: “The city fell apart like a plane without an engine” a local businessman told The Guardian. “[ISIS militants] were firing their weapons into the air, but no one was shooting at them.”

What does it want?

International recognition as an independent Sunni Islamist  state (“caliphate”)  for the Middle Eastern  territory it controls, which spans parts of eastern Syria and western Iraq, although some ISIS spokespeople indicate that they are also interested in Lebanon as part of their projected state. In these areas, it functions as a de facto government, operating shariah law schools and courts. It also wants to control more territory. If it can sustain and consolidate its new gains in Iraq, it will control much of the northern part of the country, and it is currently mounting  an assault on the capital, Baghdad (although reportedly, its advance has been halted just short of the city). It also wants to seize control of rebel-held anti-Assad regime areas in central Syria and potentially expand into the Lebanon to the West. In both Iraq and Syria, ISIS’s enemies are Shia Muslims. ISIS has been accused of engaging in sectarian violence from Iran and other Middle Eastern Shia states or representative groups. Indeed, Iran may mount military intervention against ISIS in defence of its embattled coreligionists.

Insofar as its caliphate claims are concerned, they date from its  aggressive territorial expansion in western and northern Iraq this year. This led ISIS to  announce the establishment of a “caliphate,” or a unified global Islamic community that follows Sharia law and is ruled by Islamic courts. This is the first time since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 that a caliphate has been declared. The caliphate is led by a “Caliph,” meaning “successor” to Mohammed. Selected by his followers to be the new Caliph, al-Baghdadi has gained a new title, Caliph Ibrahim (Ibrahim is his birth name). By declaring a caliphate, Alavi argues that al-Baghdadi is effectively creating a division between those jihadists that are ready to follow him and those (like al Nusra) that stand against him.

Who are its members?

Reports vary, putting the total number of recruits at anything from 3,000-10,000. According to Gareth Stansfield, Professor of Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, the group particularly recruits its militia among Syrian and Iraqi locals, but it does have some foreign assistance , mostly from  Chechens, Afghans, and Pakistanis, as well as some Europeans. Michael Stephens, Deputy Director, Qatar for the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), says there could be as many as 300 Britons fighting for ISIS, and an additional 300 other Europeans. The faction began as an al Qaeda group in Iraq, called the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2004, but in February 2014,  al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri publicly disavowed the group. Zawahiri reportedly considered the group too brutal even to be affiliated with his network.  The IS leader’s refusal to listen to demands from al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri that his group stay out of Syria has led to a schism between IS and its former parent network. Al-Zawahiri denounced al-Baghdadi’s 2013 takeover of al Nusra (al Qaeda’s Syrian branch) as invalid and has formally disowned IS. He has also reprimanded IS for its extreme brutality, including the killing of Sunni muslims regarded as traitors of Islam. IS violence has intensified since its split with al Qaeda: it has been blamed for atrocities including the crucifixion of eight Syrian rebels in Aleppo and the tweeting of an image of a beheaded Iraqi police officer during the football World Cup with the caption “This is our ball. It is made of skin.” The split has positioned IS as a the main rival to al Qaeda’s control over the militant Islamist narrative, who unlike IS have never controlled territory. Al Qaeda’s funds are also dwarfed by the approximately £250m that IS may have looted from Mosul’s central bank following its takeover of the Iraqi city, and its lucrative oil and gas fields in Syria.

Thus far, ISIS has attacked the Shia Imam Ali mosque (2003), carried out anti-Shia Asura holy day massacres at Karbala and Najaf (2004), launched two assaults against the Shia al-Askari mosque (2006,2008) and bombed Baghdad’s heavily Shia Sadr City neighbourhood (2007). It has also attacked Baghdad several times (October 2009: January, April and August 2010: July 2012).

Who is its leader?

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, also known as Abu Dua, is an Iraqi-born jihadist. With only two authenticated photos of him and no known video-taped pronouncements, he has earned the nickname “the Invisible Sheikh.” Al-Baghdadi is credited with transforming a few Iraqi terror cells into the Islamic State (IS), a militant jihadist group which aims to establish an Islamic state, or a unified global community following Sharia law. Formerly known as ISIS, IS’s name change reflects a widening of their ambition to create an Islamic State across not only Syria and the Levant, but the vast region between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. In October 2011, the US State Department officially designated al-Baghdadi as a “terrorist,” offering a $10m reward for information leading to his capture or death.

Al-Baghdadi is a “mysterious figure” says Seyed Ali Alavi, a Middle East expert at SOAS. We know little about Baghdadi’s past. Born to a religious family in the largely Sunni city of Samarra in Iraq in the early 1970s, al-Baghdadi is said by his followers to have gained a PhD in Islamic Studies in Baghdad before becoming a cleric. Enraged by the US invasion in 2003, he created an armed group, but was subsequently arrested by US forces and held in the military prison of Camp Bucca from 2005 to 2009. During this time he became increasingly radicalised, deepening his links with al Qaeda fighters held at the same camp. Following his release and the death of Iraqi al Qaeda leader Abu Omar al-Qurashi al-Baghdadi in 2010, Bakr al-Baghdadi emerged as the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

How dangerous is it?

The group is well-resourced, financed reportedly by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait  and Qatar. Its new adventurism within Iraq has seen it seize military bases in Mosul, as well as Fallujah. In Syria, it controls oil fields, and it may yet gain control of Iraq’s largest oil refinery in Baiji. Stephens says that individual Saudi and Kuwaiti donors are giving money to ISIS, either through European financial institutions or, in some cases, by smuggling suitcases of bills across the border. It is also ruthless: the group has been blamed for a string of assassinations in Syria against rival anti-Assad regime militia, including two alleged crucifixions. Most importantly, this particular militant operation is very good at recruiting people to its cause. “This idea of fighting Shia seems to be really mobilising young [Sunni Muslim] men to fight in a way that fighting Westerners didn’t,” says Stephens. “They [say] they’re saving Islam from itself. There’s something more nefarious about people from your own side turning against you.”

How did the situation get this bad?

How did the Iraqi crisis get this bad? Nouri al-Maliki, current Iraqi Prime Minister (2007- Present) is widely blamed for inciting these developments. One particular area of concern is the alleged Shia domination of his administration, Iraq’s civil service and the armed forces, which is said to have alienated Sunni Iraqis and hampered the effectiveness of the Iraqi military and command structure. Maliki’s foreign affairs relationships have shown partiality toward neighbouring Shia Iran but coolness toward Saudi Arabia, which is reciprocated in both cases. The Maliki regime is hardly a paragon of democratic stability and human rights. Under his tenure, educational attainment, government corruption, womens rights, capital punishment, arbitrary detention, torture and repression  against nonviolent anti-regime dissidents have all worsened. The government seems powerless to prevent ISIS depredations against Shia civilians as well.  At the moment, the Obama administration is trying to pressure al-Maliki to step down in favour of a “national salvation” unity government, but US Secretary of State John Kerry has been unsuccessful thus far.
What obstacles does ISIS face? 
Although ISIS has been successful in capturing parts of Iraq, it faces opposition on three levels. First, there are  Sunni factions that are divided in their support. Second, ISIS will face domestic resistance from Northern Kurds, the Iraqi government, and Iraq’s Shia majority. Third, it faces external opposition from al Nusra in Syria, from increasingly unsettled adjacent governments in neighbouring Turkey and Iran, and from the United States. The Obama administration has aircraft carries out in the Persian Gulf and is likely to conduct airstrikes if Baghdad is threatened with siege and occupation. It is possible that if ISIS  does come unstuck as a result of the above obstacles, al-Baghdadi will be forced underground, like  Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leaders in the early Noughties in Afghanistan, conducting small-scale terrorist activities but falling short of their dreams of presiding over a unified Islamic state.
How much danger are LGBT Iraqis in?
What about LGBT Iraqis? Although the Iraqi Criminal Code 1969 is silent about same-sex relationships and therefore has been tacitly seen to have ‘decriminalised’ gay sex in Iraq, multiple Iraqi Criminal Code provisions may be abused against lesbian and gay Iraqis. Gay erotic media (Paragraph 215), same-sex marriage certificates (Paragraph 375), ‘immodest acts’ (Paragraph 401), “indecent advances” toward someone of the same sex (Paragraph 402(b) ), are all stated as grounds for imprisonment. In addition, it has been noted that antigay “honour killings” of lesbian and gay offspring occur in this context.  Shia organisations such as the Mahdi Army, the League of the Righteous (Asiab ahl  al-Haq) and Supreme Council, for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Badr Organisation) are said to have prompted disppearances, torture, mutilations and killings of at least ninety lesbian and gay Iraqis in Shia areas during 2012. The US State Department has also noted such Shia militia activities.  It is unknown whether Iranian liberalism and inclusiveness toward its transgender inhabitants extends across the border to kindred Shia organisations in neighbouring Iraq.
What abour ISIS from this perspective? Obviously, there are the precedents of existing Sunni regimes and the Afghani Taliban to consider. However, the Taliban never controlled the whole of Afghanistan, which has been a fragmented and dysfunctional state with multiple religious and ethnic factions for most of its history, so the Taliban could never have launched an active antigay persecution campaign against its inhabitants. However, it should be noted that homosexuality (lavat) is a capital offence in Saudi Arabia, and carries penalties of imprisonment in Qatar and Kuwait.
The Mahdi Army Shia militia already routinely engage in mutilation, abduction and homicide against lesbians and gay men still resident in Iraq. However, given that under strict Wahhabi Sunni Islamic shariah law, gay men can be and are executed in Saudi Arabia, ISIS’ treatment of any LGBT Iraqis unfortunate enough to be caught in its territory will probably not be significantly better. Western LGBT organisations should now start planning to advocate for an increased LGBT Iraqi refugee and asylum seeker intake, given the grim overall situation that prevails on both sides of the Iraqi internal conflict.
The plight of LGBT Iraqis may not improve, then, no matter which side of the Iraqi civil war is ultimately victorious. For that reason, the burden is on western LGBT organisations to arrange for refugee and asylum access for embattled LGBT Iraqis and Syrians out of their nightmare countries of origin and into western safety and sanctuary.
Postscript: On September 19, the Advocate noted that ISIS was actively antigay as well. It also believes gay people are a danger to the public, the “worst of all creatures,” and on par with “pedophiles.”  In a recruitment video first posted online in late March, a masked ISIS fighter tells Muslims that they should emigrate to ISIS-controlled regions in the Middle East to lend their various skills to the  ISIS cause, lest their children attend school with gay teachers.  The propaganda video belies a strong antigay sentiment. The Blade also notes that ISIS has implemented Sharia law in regions it controls — which includes death by stoning as punishment for homosexuality.  Claiming that Muslims sending their children to school in “infidel [kafir] countries” will have no control over those children, the end of the eight-minute propaganda video warns about the dangers of gay teachers.”Who is gonna teach your children?” asks the fighter. “It’s gonna be maybe a gay, maybe a drug dealer, maybe a pedophile. You know? So it’s very important for you to protect your children from these animals, from these dirty people. … Allah says that they are the worst of creatures. You prefer to live among the worst of creatures than live among the mujaheddin … make your decision.” The video identifies the speaker as former British soccer player Abu Isa Andaluzi, but the Bladenotes that British intelligence has since learned that the fighter in the video is a Portuguese citizen, 29-year-old Celso Rodrigues de Costa.



Josh Lowe: “Iraq Crisis: What and Who is Isis” Prospect: 12.06.2014:

Iravati Guha: “Who is IS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?” Prospect: 02.07.2014:

Suunivie Brydum: “ISIS propaganda claims gays are pedophiles, animals” Advocate: 19.09.2014:

Wikipedia/LGBT rights in Iraq:

 Wikipedia/Nouri al-Maliki:
“Iraq: Will the jihadist tide be stemmed?” Economist 26.06.2014.

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