The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) burst onto the international scene in 2014 when they seized large swathes of land in Iraq and Syria. In June 2014, the group formally declared the establishment of a ‘caliphate’ (a state governed in accordance with Islamic law) over the territory it held. It also demanded that Muslims across the world swear allegiance to its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and migrate to territory under its control. At the beginning of March 2017, the Iraqi military began an offensive to take back control of the West Bank of Mosul, a city which was once an ISIL stronghold. As you can imagine, this rampaging across territory and the violence that has accompanied it has affected history to a very great degree. History has been particularly affected in two ways by ISIL. Firstly, the violent impact which the group has had on the people of Iraq and Syria, as well as terror attacks in Western Europe can never been forgotten. Secondly, whilst ISIL marched across Iraq and Syria, they captured towns and cities which have incredible historical importance and in many cases looted museums and libraries and destroyed what was left of ancient ruins across the two countries. This has caused irreparable historical and cultural damage to the area.
The roots of ISIL in its current form can be traced back to 2010 when Abu Bakr al Baghdadi became leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. He began rebuilding the group’s capabilities in Iraq and in 2013 he announced the merger of his forces in Iraq and Syria and the creation of ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ (ISIL). Baghdadi and his forces exploited a political stand-off between the Shia-led government of Iraq and the minority Sunni Arab community in December 2013 to take control of the central city of Fallujah. In June 2014, the group also overran Mosul and began advancing southwards towards Baghdad. At the end of June 2014, after consolidating its fold over dozens of cities and towns, ISIL declared the creation of a ‘caliphate’ and changed its name to Islamic State.
In 2015, they began attacking Western Europe in order to solidify their hold and support among radical jihadists. This began with the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015 where 12 people were killed in a lunchtime massacre at the satirical newspaper’s offices in Paris. Later that year, in November, a series of coordinated attacks happened in Paris where 130 victims were killed and hundreds more injured. This was the deadliest assault on French soil since the Second World War.
In March 2016, two suicide bombings at Brussels airport and another at a metro station in the city centre killed 32 people and wounded more than 300 victims. On the 14 July 2016, revellers at a Bastille Day celebration were attacked with a lorry in Nice, where 84 people were killed. A series of small attacks occurred in July 2016 throughout Germany which were also attributed to ISIL. There can be no doubt that these attacks have left black marks on the history of Western Europe and have left many people of the opinion that ISIL poses the greatest terror threat in the world today.
As part of their rampage across Iraq and Syria, ISIL have caused irreparable damage to sites of historical and archaeological significance, many of which will never be restored or recovered. In August 2015, the group released a video which showed the fiery destruction of the Temple of Baalshamin, one of the best-preserved ruins at the Syrian site of Palmyra. United Nations satellite images also show that a large temple dedicated to the ancient god Baal has largely been destroyed. Palmyra was formerly one of Syria’s largest tourist destinations before the area was captured by ISIL in May 2015. In Iraq, reports of looting at Mosul’s libraries and universities began to surface almost as soon as their forces entered the city. The Mosul University library was burned to the ground in December 2014 and in late February 2015, Mosul’s central public library, a landmark built in 1922, was rigged with explosives and turned to rubble.
Along with the destruction of these ancient and cultural sites goes the disappearance of centuries-old manuscripts, archaeological sites and thousands of books. When the war in Iraq and Syria ends, historians and archaeologists will be set back decades by the destruction wrought by ISIL, and this is one of the greatest tragedies of the conflict.