Local professor sheds light on ISIS

Published 3:00 am Saturday, September 20, 2014

As Americans try to come to grips with the threat posed by ISIS, a local professor says understanding the evolution of the group is important to determining the next course of action.

“These are very powerful people,” said Dr. Aaron Hagler, an assistant professor of history at Troy University. Hagler holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilization from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

He has studied the group known as ISIS – Islamic State of the Iraq and Syria (formerly know as the Islamic State of the Iraq and the Levant) – and he recently spoke about what sets this group apart from others.

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“In the Middle East, for a long time … the big debate has been ‘where should government be?’ and the debate has been between secularists and Islamists,” Hagler said. “People like Saddam Hussein are secularists.”

ISIS is a caliphate, declaring religious authority over all Muslims and controlling both the religious and governmental aspects of the region. It was born from what has been described the extremely brutal al Qaeda in Iraq faction of the terrorist group and has control large swaths of Syria and Iraq. Western officials have estimated its fighting force at anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 members.

And it is vastly different than the enemies America faced in the region prior to 9/11. “Before 9/11 we were dealing with groups that didn’t really have any territorial control,” Hagler said. “They were relying on backers.”

ISIS is different. “I would say there is a difference in their strategies, their tactics. I think that the drive to control territory and establish its own states rather than rely on the patronage of others would be the largest difference,” Hagler said. “No one was ever concerned that (Osama) Bin Laden would take control of the oil market. “

A significant supply of oil stands in the balance. “There is a threat to the global oil market, and that is going to be a major issue as we go forward.”

While ISIS leaders have publicly stated their intention to attack Western targets whenever possible, their primary focus has been regional, including ruthless targeting of minorities in the countries under its control, among those Christians, Yazidis and Muslims who do not adhere to the caliphate’s strict beliefs.

“They are much more focused on their local issues than America,” Hagler said. “America is a symbol for them. By attacking America they can gain some notoriety, but currently, they have more local problems than America.”

In past weeks, representatives of the group have brutally murdered two American journalists and a British journalist, claiming the acts of terror will continue until America relents in its efforts to interfere with ISIS and the Mideast.

In response, President Barak Obama on Sept. 10 vowed to eradicate ISIS, saying the United States and allies would respond with air strikes as a response to the “cowardly acts of violence.”

Critics, however, have questioned if airstrikes will be effective.

“With air attacks, you might be able to kill most of ISIS, but you’re going to be destroying, destroying, destroying,” Hagler said. “If you don’t have boots on the ground fighting your same fight, you’re not going to get anywhere. Destruction (in the region) was what allowed these groups to arise in the first place.

“However, one thing we can take comfort in is that the army is undisciplined. These are very violent people, with no regards of norms of this sort of behavior, but they are more than likely not going to stay as cohesive as other armies that are more cohesive would.”