Heritage Foundation Middle East expert James Phillips sat down with Kelsey Harkness of Heritage’s Daily Signal to give some background on ISIS and the crisis in Iraq:

Daily Signal: First off, who and what is ISIS?

Phillips: The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is an al-Qaeda offshoot that seeks to overthrow the governments of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, and establish an Islamic state governed by a harsh and brutal interpretation of Islamic law. Its long-term goals are to launch a jihad (holy war) to drive Western influence out of the Middle East, destroy Israel and become the nucleus of a global Islamic empire.

It is composed of Sunni Muslims drawn to radical Islamist ideology. Most of its members are Iraqi and Syrian Arabs, although it has attracted a wide range of foreign militants, especially Arabs from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Libya, Yemen, and Egypt.

D.S.: How long has ISIS been around and why are they just now on the move?

Phillips: The group initially was established in Iraq in 2004 by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Palestinian Islamist extremist born in Jordan, who formerly was one of the estimated 25,000 foreign Muslims who flocked to Afghanistan after 1979 to fight the Soviets. He was a close associate of Osama bin Laden, although he did not formally join al-Qaeda until 2004 when he was recognized as the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006 and his organization was decimated by a U.S.-led counterterrorism campaign. But the group made a comeback in Iraq after the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011, which took the pressure off it. Also, Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s Shia-dominated government alienated Sunni Iraqis, driving many of them to see ISIS as the lesser evil.

D.S.: So what exactly is ISIS trying to accomplish?

Phillips: ISIS is a violent Islamist extremist group that is determined to impose its harsh totalitarian Islamist ideology on all Muslims, kill off apostates (defined as all Muslims that do not accept its brand of Islam), subjugate all non-Muslims and build a radical Islamic state that will launch an unending jihad until it has created a global Islamic empire. It is a revolutionary movement that uses terrorism to impose its will.

D.S.: What about these reports of ISIS beheading and crucifying their fellow Muslims?

Phillips: ISIS proudly videotapes and broadcasts its brutal treatment of its enemies and those who violate its radical interpretation of Islamic law. It has cited the Koran to justify beheading and crucifixion. Its victims reportedly are usually killed first before being strung up for display on a cross.

Want to know more? Read the rest of the questions and answers on the Daily Signal.

How do you think the Obama administration should respond to the situation in Iraq? Tell us in the comments.

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