Isis militants capitalise on shock and awe

Martin Chulov

There appears to be no stopping what is now the world's best-armed and fastest-growing terror group as it imposes its rule.

Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters fire at Islamic State (IS) militant positions. US military advisors in Iraq were headed for Mount Sinjar to study means of evacuating civilians who have been trapped there by jihadists. (AFP)

Flush with looted weapons, buoyed by sweeping gains in Syria and eager to shock, Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (Isis) militants have seized four more foreign hostages near Aleppo in recent days, taking to more than 20 the number of foreigners they now hold.

The latest captives, two Italian women, a Dane and a Japanese national, were seized in or near Syria’s largest city. All held are either reporters, photographers or aid workers taken near Aleppo or Idlib. They have subsequently been moved to Raqqa, the Isis stronghold in north Syria.

Good business
The abductions have proved good business for Islamic radicals. In the past six months at least 10 hostages, including a Dane, three French nationals and two Spaniards, were freed after lengthy negotiations with captors, who demanded ransoms.

One former hostage said the suspected killer who appeared in the recent video, apparently murdering the United States journalist James Foley, was one of three Britons who had guarded him in Raqqa. He said the man had been responsible for negotiating hostage releases.

Attention will now turn to the captives still in Isis hands. Sotloff, a freelancer who had contributed to Time magazine, was kidnapped a year ago near the Syrian-Turkish border. According to the video of Foley’s death, Sotloff’s fate depends on whether the US continues its aerial campaign in north Iraq, which has driven Isis fighters back from the Mosul dam.

Though the Islamic State has been pummelled in Iraq in recent days, in Syria the group is not on the back foot. Using weapons seized from the fleeing Iraqi army, the extremists are back with a vengeance, seizing 12 villages to the north of Aleppo in the past week alone.

Its fate will largely determine who prevails in Syria’s devastating civil war and what remains of the country.

US-supplied weapons
Masrour Barzani, the chancellor of the Kurdish region security council, said: “They have five divisions’ worth of Iraqi military weapons, all of them US-supplied, that they are using to turn on communities that are outgunned, and increasingly outmanned.”

Hisham al-Hashimi, an expert on the group, who is based in Baghdad, said: “They are around 50 000 strong on both sides of the border.”

US air strikes over the past fortnight have halted Isis’s push north to the Kurds, but only after minority communities once protected by the Iraqi state had been “cleansed” along the way. West towards Aleppo and east towards Baghdad, there appears to be no stopping what is now the world’s best-armed and fastest-growing terror group as it imposes its rule across an increasingly irrelevant border.

Nor do there appear to be limits to what Isis will do to terrorise. The apparent beheading of Foley has sparked a wave of global fear and revulsion like that generated by al-Qaeda in Iraq nearly 10 years ago.

Now, the grainy images of condemned men in dark rooms have been replaced by slick productions, which vividly showcase every horrific detail. “The shock value is essential to what they do,” said a Western diplomat. “And it’s working for them.” – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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