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By Peter Smith, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH — The insurgent group Islamic State has exploded into headlines in recent months, sweeping through much of Northern Iraq, capturing the ancient strategic hub of Mosul, terrorizing religious minorities, crucifying opponents, and posting online videos of the beheading of captive American journalists.

The attacks, evolved over years of shifting militant alliances in the region and are rooted in a severe interpretation of Islam that views the world in stark terms of good and evil, experts say.

While the United States considers how to respond to the group strategically, American Muslim leaders are taking pains to denounce the group and its actions as beyond the pale of not just mainstream Islam but Islam itself.

“These are absolutely terrible things, unspeakable,” said Safdar Khwaja, president of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Pittsburgh chapter.

He said Islamic law forbids attacking civilians, executing unarmed captives, and other acts. “They are using the name of the faith in vain. It’s a desecration.”

He called the group’s proclamation of a caliphate spanning its holdings in Iraq and Syria — an ancient Islamic concept of a state ruled by a caliph, seen as God’s representative on earth — “a marketing ploy trying to capture the imagination of some impressionable people.”

National Islamic organizations have repeatedly denounced the terrorist tactics of the group, and local Muslims are working to warn their young people against the appeals of groups such as Islamic State to come fight alongside them.

About 3,000 Westerners are among more than 12,000 foreign fighters who have gone to Syria, many ending up in extremist groups such as Islamic State, according to a report by the Soufan Group, a security intelligence consulting group based in New York. That has led to fears of radicalized fighters returning home with terrorist ambitions.

“So we have to be on the watch,” Khwaja said. The local Muslim community is keeping tabs on its young people’s travels and would cooperate if an investigation is warranted, he said.

According to researchers, Islamic State traces its spiritual roots to a severe form of Islam that emerged in modern Arabia and that views itself as going back to the roots of the faith, discarding centuries of tradition, flexible legal precedents, and devotion to saints and mystical prayer, said Islamic scholar Hasan Azad, who has a master’s degree in Islamic Societies and Cultures from the University of London.

This movement, Wahhabism, isn’t inherently violent, but its mindset, of sharply dividing like-minded Muslims from all others, is “very much how (Islamic State) is viewing the world,” said Azad, a doctoral candidate in religion at Columbia University, with a focus on Islamic studies.

The end result, “justifying bloodthirsty actions by religion,” represents a “fallen Islam,” he said. “It’s packaged as Islam, but it’s not.”

Islamic State’s ideology was compatible with that of al-Qaida.

The two had an uneasy, on-and-off alliance due to regional and tactical differences before al-Qaida finally broke ties with Islamic State this year, said Barak Mendelsohn, a researcher into terrorist movements and an associate professor of political science at Haverford College near Philadelphia.

The Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi founded Al-Qaida in Iraq, a predecessor organization to Islamic State that fought the U.S. occupation as well as Iraqi opponents with deadly attacks on civilians and religious shrines. Many Sunni Iraqi allies ultimately turned against the group and its brutal tactics, and Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. attack in 2006.

The group lost clout for several years, but the Iraqi-born Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, its current leader, drew it into Syria’s civil war.

It soon emerged as a rival with other Sunni militants for troops and support there, and earlier this year, al-Qaida renounced any ties with it.

By June, Islamic State was sweeping through northern Iraq, augmenting its forces with the support of more secular Sunnis alienated by Iraq’s Shiite leaders, giving it radical zeal and the tactical know-how of a regular army and civilian government. Bank robberies and kidnappings have funded it, according to researchers.

It began systematically routing populations of Christians, Yazidis and other ancient religious groups and destroying shrines such as the Mosul grave of the biblical prophet Jonah, which Christians and Muslims equally revered.

Islamic State declared Baghdadi to be its new caliph.

AFP Photo

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