One of the most shocking developments in the Middle East has been the rapid rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria as a major international terrorist threat. A slew of reports surfacing from Iraq, Syria and bordering countries detail the grisly wake of ISIS forces, suggesting that mass executions, torture and other atrocities have been a common occurrence within the borders of the Islamic State.
While the growth of ISIS may appear sudden, the coming together of the group can be traced to the Iraqi invasion of 2003, which triggered a wave of anti-American sentiment that resulted in the birth of insurgency groups targeting Western forces and Iraqi ethnic groups. From these roots, ISIS has grown into a powerful, multinational terrorist organization with sophisticated operations capable of capturing and administrating large swaths of territory.
Despite the ubiquitous presence of ISIS in the news, relatively little information has been revealed, partially because of the secretive nature of ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, who is rarely photographed in public. What is known about ISIS, however, paints a disturbing picture of violent extremism.
10 ISIS Recruits Worldwide
As ISIS inflated their profile through the mainstream media over the past few years, the success of their recruiting efforts have also increased. In 2015, ISIS includes over 20,000 converts from around the world, including men and women from North America and Europe.
ISIS has managed to draw recruits from 90 different countries, with 3,400 people travelling from Western countries to fight in the Middle East. France and Russia count more than 1,200 recruits from within their borders, Germany and the United Kingdom have more than 600 each while at least 180 Americans and 130 Canadians have traveled overseas to join ISIS.
One of the most famous cases is Jihadi John from the United Kingdom, who has carried out several beheadings that have been recorded on video.
9 ISIS Destroys Human History
Dozens of priceless historical sites have been captured and destroyed by ISIS forces due to the fact that the worship of idols is considered a serious religious sin. These ancient locations are designated as monuments to idols by ISIS leaders, who order the desecration of these historical treasures as a religious duty.
Museums and archaeological sites, some of which date as far back as 3,000 BC, have been looted, bulldozed, drilled and sledgehammered. The destruction includes Hatra, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and Ninevah Museum in Mosul, the second-biggest museum in Iraq.
ISIS has no problems selling sinful idols looted from historical sites to fund their war effort, earning millions through black market antiquity sales in the process.
8 They're Too Extreme for Al-Qaeda
Just over a year ago, U.S. President Barack Obama considered ISIS to be of little concern compared to Al-Qaeda, stating, "if a jayvee (junior varsity) team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn't make them Kobe Bryant". The analogy was strange but clear: the U.S. didn't consider ISIS nearly as dangerous as Al-Qaeda.
However, at the same time the President made that statement, Al-Qaeda and ISIS were actually at odds with each other, because ISIS is considered too extreme for Al-Qaeda. In other words, the violence perpetrated by ISIS is bloody enough to disturb a terrorist organization responsible for 9/11 and other violent attacks around the world.
7 Beheading as a Branding Tool
One of the most influential and successful recruiting tools for ISIS have been the series of videos they're released of different prisoners they've executed through beheading, including the first broadcast from Libyan soil, which features the execution of over a dozen Christians from Egypt.
These propaganda videos, which feature well-known figures such as "Jihadi John", a recruit from London, separate ISIS from other Islamist organizations. Potential recruits see these videos as evidence of ISIS power and control, along with the organization's willingness to be completely ruthless in fulfilling their duties as Muslims. At the same time, these videos spread fear among non-fundamentalists, killing two birds with one stone.
6 Media Savvy Terrorists
ISIS conducts their propaganda campaign using all of the latest social media and production techniques, maximizing their ability to reach out to a wide group of potential recruits.
Part of ISIS efforts to win the ideological wars involve the Al Hayat Media Center, a professional media company that polishes recruitment videos and other marketing communication. Unlike Al-Qaeda, whose videos resemble a sermon recited into a camcorder, ISIS productions include music, action shots and a story that makes potential recruits feel as if they're part of a larger struggle.
ISIS also deploys social media experts experienced in using Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to connect with like-minded Islamists who consume online media.
5 ISIS Controls More Land than Many Nations
As the Syrian civil war raged, ISIS used the struggle to distract the world from their large gains in territory around Northern Iraq and Syria. They managed to capture enough land that they now control territory larger than many legitimate countries.
Despite being pushed out of Tikrit by a recent slew of airstrikes and ground attacks by Iraq army forces, ISIS still maintains a tight grip on Mosul, a city of millions, as well as large areas around Fallujah and Ramadi, stretching all the way across Syria right up to the border of Turkey.
In contrast, Al Qaeda is a decentralized group of terror cells, capable of striking almost anywhere on Earth but incapable of mounting sophisticated military campaigns that conquer entire lands.
4 ISIS Makes Millions Daily
The sophisticated media and military campaigns of ISIS require a great deal of money to maintain. Soldiers need to be fed, equipment needs replacement and media companies charge an arm and a leg for professional video production.
In order to take care of its budgetary concerns, ISIS has developed a variety of revenue streams to fill their war chest. Large windfalls include a $425 million injection of funds stolen from a Mosul bank while regular economic gains consist of criminal activity such as extortion, theft of historical artefacts and donations from wealthy patrons.
When ISIS took over large portions of Syria and Iraq, the organization captured valuable energy resources that keep their war engine running. Currently, ISIS is the richest terrorist organization in the world.
3 Western Allies Funded ISIS
Before ISIS captured large areas of land and derived wealth from oil, artefacts and criminal endeavors, the organization had to turn to donations from wealthy benefactors for the majority of their funding.
During this time, nations friendly to the United States were funding Syrian rebels fighting against Bashar Al-Assad's dictatorship, which was despised by the ruling class of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar.
At the beginning of the rebellion against Syria's dictator, Syrian rebel groups were interested in deposing Al-Assad from power. However, as more ISIS fighters joined the rebels, the group shifted towards fundamentalism with much of the money donated by American allies falling into ISIS accounts.
2 A Caliphate that Controls the World
The ideological inspiration behind ISIS revolves around a strict, Sunni translation of the Koran. This interpretation states that all Muslims should live within a caliphate, which is an Islamic Nation-State that enforces the harshest aspects of Islamic law, including stonings and amputations as punishments and slaves as rewards to ISIS soldiers.
While Al-Qaeda worked towards the eventual establishment of a caliphate, they never controlled the large amount of territory needed to establish an Islamic State, preferring small operations instead. In order to meet its religious obligations, ISIS requires control of territory to make their caliphate a legitimate organization for Sunni extremists.
According to the takfiri doctrine, part of the process of creating a worldwide Islamic state involves the purification of the planet through mass murder of apostate Muslims and anyone who resists ISIS.
1 Agents of the Apocalypse
One of the most closely held beliefs of ISIS fighters is that they're agents of an upcoming apocalypse. All of their current activities focus on bringing about the end of the world, from the establishment of a caliphate to the enforcement of Islamic law derived from the middle ages.
ISIS believes in a prophecy that states only 12 legitimate caliphs will walk the earth with current leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi acting as their eighth incarnation. The armies of Rome and Islam will gather after the Islamic State invades Istanbul, leading to a final confrontation in Jerusalem where Jesus will lead Islamic armies to victory over Dajjal, Islam's anti-Messiah.