‘Caliphate’ loses its place on the map

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Cover Story - BY ZEINA KARAM

The an­nounce­ment of vic­tory over the Is­lamic State group in Syria marks the end of the ex­trem­ists’ self-styled caliphate, a proto-state in which they held mil­lions hostage to their dark and bru­tal vi­sion.

But Is­lamic State, which traces its roots back to the bloody emer­gence of al-Qaida in Iraq af­ter the 2003 U.S.-led in­va­sion, has sur­vived past de­feats and is al­ready wag­ing a low-level in­sur­gency in ar­eas it was driven from months or even years ago.

The gru­el­ing 4 1⁄2-year cam­paign to drive IS from the ter­ri­to­ries it once held has left en­tire towns in ru­ins, in both war-torn Syria and Iraq.

Q: What’s ended ex­actly?

A: What is over is the Is­lamic State group’s phys­i­cal “caliphate,” af­ter the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, a Kur­dish-led group sup­ported by the United States, de­clared on Saturday the cap­ture of the last tiny patch of ter­ri­tory con­trolled by the mil­i­tants, in the east­ern Syr­ian vil­lage of Baghouz.

That do­main once stretched over large parts of Syria and Iraq, which the group con­quered in a blitz in the sum­mer of 2014, cap­tur­ing towns and cities, in­clud­ing Mo­sul, Iraq’s sec­ond-largest.

The ex­trem­ists gov­erned un­der a harsh and vi­o­lent in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Is­lam. They mas­sa­cred those who re­sisted their rule and be­headed hostages, in­clud­ing Western jour­nal­ists and for­eign aid work­ers, in grue­some videos cir­cu­lated on­line. Al­leged adul­ter­ers were stoned to death, those be­lieved to be gay were thrown from the tops of build­ings, and chil­dren were made to watch the atroc­i­ties as part of their brain­wash­ing. The group cap­tured thou­sands of women from Iraq’s Yazidi mi­nor­ity, forc­ing them into sex­ual slav­ery.

IS also car­ried out the more mun­dane ac­tions of a state – col­lect­ing taxes, print­ing school text­books, mint­ing its own cur­rency and restor­ing pub­lic in­fra­struc­ture. It was an ex­per­i­ment in state­hood that not even al-Qaida ever tried on a sig­nif­i­cant scale.

From its de facto cap­i­tal of Raqqa, in north­ern Syria, its lead­ers plot­ted spec­tac­u­lar at­tacks abroad, in­clud­ing the 2015 Paris at­tacks that killed 130 peo­ple. As IS be­gan to hem­or­rhage ter­ri­tory, it be­gan op­por­tunis­ti­cally claim­ing at­tacks with­out any ev­i­dence of its in­volve­ment.

The self-pro­claimed caliphate at­tracted tens of thou­sands of peo­ple from around the world, lured by the group’s on­line ac­tivism and slickly pro­duced pro­pa­ganda videos.

Q: Where is al-Bagh­dadi?

A: The Is­lamic State’s leader and self-pro­claimed “caliph” is at large.

With a $25 mil­lion U.S. bounty on his head, Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi is the world’s most wanted man, re­spon­si­ble for steer­ing his chill­ingly vi­o­lent or­ga­ni­za­tion into mass slaugh­ter of op­po­nents and di­rect­ing ter­ror across con­ti­nents and in the heart of Europe.

De­spite nu­mer­ous claims about his death in the past few years, al-Bagh­dadi’s where­abouts re­main a mys­tery. He ap­peared in pub­lic only once, in 2014. Since then, many of his top aides have been killed, mostly in U.S.-led coali­tion airstrikes. So far, he has eluded the Amer­i­cans, Rus­sians, Syr­i­ans, Iraqis and Kurds.

Q: What is the cost of lib­er­a­tion?

A: The gru­el­ing fouryear air and ground cam­paign against IS has killed or wounded tens of thou­sands of peo­ple, driven hun­dreds of thou­sands from their homes and left a swath of de­struc­tion stretch­ing from the sub­urbs of Damascus to Iraq.

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