IRAQI CIVILIANS GATHER in the predominantly Shia city of Basra in southern Iraq on 15 June to volunteer to fight against militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. ISIS—also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham—is an umbrella organisation of insurgent groups that aim to establish a Sunni Caliphate in the northern regions of Iraq and Syria. The group captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city after Baghdad, on 9 June, before sweeping the Iraqi Army out of much of the country’s north and threatening the capital.
Under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has been variously termed “the world’s most influential militant” and “the heir to Osama bin Laden’s legacy,” ISIS has grown in size and strength since 2010. The group was affiliated with al-Qaeda until this February, when the organisation’s chief Ayman al-Zawahiri publicly disavowed all connections. Some Western media outlets have speculated that al-Zawahiri did so because ISIS’s brutality reflected badly on al-Qaeda’s image. Following urgent calls to action by leading Shia politicians and clerics, thousands of armed Shia volunteers have made their way north to counter ISIS’s progress, sparking fears of escalating sectarian conflict.