The rapid advance in June of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shām (ISIS) across northern Iraq, capturing its second largest city, Mosul and threatening to advance on Baghdad, stunned global security experts and policy makers alike. The collapse and retreat of the Iraqi army demonstrates, more than anything, the abject failure of American policy in the country. After eight years of occupation and over 100 billion USD invested in Iraq’s security infrastructure, the United States has precious little to show for its commitment – other than effectively outfitting the Islamic State (IS), as the group soon began to call itself, with the latest military hardware.
In addition to American military equipment captured from fleeing Iraqi forces, IS is widely considered the wealthiest terrorist group in the world, with estimates that it seized over 400 million USD from the central bank in Mosul and is generating 3 million USD per day from the black market sale of oil from Syrian and Iraqi refineries under its control. The Islamic State has clearly surpassed al-Qaeda at the apex of global terrorist organizations and poses a major threat to the regional stability of the Middle East.
A follower of al-Qaeda’s hard-line ideology and adherent to global jihadist principles, IS is guided by an extreme anti-Western interpretation of Islam that promotes religious violence and regards those who do not agree with its interpretations as infidels and apostates. Indeed, owing to the group’s savagery and draconian interpretations of Islamic law, ISIS was ultimately disowned by al-Qaeda in early 2014. Currently, IS aims to establish a Salafist-orientated Islamist state in Iraq, Syria, and across the wider Middle East. While first originating as a reaction to the American occupation of Iraq, it was in the turmoil of the grinding civil war in Syria that ISIS (now IS) found its footing and developed the strategic orientation and tactics that were used to great effect during its summer 2014 campaign in Iraq.
The organizational history of IS is a complex one, involving an array of different organizations, umbrella groups, and a revolving leadership, many of whom were killed by American forces. The origins of the group can be traced back to the formation of al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2004. Under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi from 2004 until his death in 2006, al-Qaeda in Iraq regularly attacked American forces, in hopes of forcing their withdrawal and toppling the Iraqi government. Its largest operation, however, occurred in Jordan where it bombed three hotels in Amman in 2005.
Following al-Zarqawi’s death, Abdullah al-Rashid al-Baghdadi assumed control and al-Qaeda in Iraq morphed into the Islamic State of Iraq. Throughout 2006 and 2007, it conducted a high-profile series of attacks, including multiple suicide bombings that targeted both American forces and the Shia population, as well as the kidnapping and execution of four Russian embassy officials. Yet by 2008, the group was in a terminal period of crisis and had been pushed underground due to a coordinated campaign by American and Iraqi forces alongside the newly formed Sunni Awakening Councils in Anbar province.
Although the Islamic State of Iraq engaged in sporadic suicide bombings following the withdrawal of American combat troops in 2009, the scale and regularity of the attacks were sharply reduced compared to their height in 2006-2007. The violent response of the Syrian regime to protests in the country and the rapid escalation of the conflict would breathe new life to what was soon called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shām, as it moved its primary base of operations into Syria in 2012.
Fighting against Syrian government forces, the secular opposition, and the officially sanctioned al-Qaeda group, the al-Nusra Front, ISIS would nonetheless experience a large measure of success in Syria as it carved out a base of operations in the country’s north. Declaring Raqqa as its de facto capital, ISIS succeeded in gaining control of parts of Aleppo and Idilb, key cities in the region. With 2,500 active fighters at the time, ISIS was notable for its high level of organizational sophistication that set it apart from other groups in the conflict. ISIS released detailed annual reports and even developed an effective propaganda arm, which three different media foundations producing CDs, DVDs, posters, pamphlets, and web-related propaganda products. ISIS also possesses a large and active social media presence, with highly coordinated publicity campaigns on Tumblr and Twitter. Under the rigors of the Syrian conflict, ISIS transformed into a modern and effective fighting force, establishing a base of operations there and acquiring crucial combat experience.
In early 2014, however, the survival of ISIS again came into question as it was attacked, often in a coordinated fashion, by every opposition group in the country from the Free Syrian Army to the al-Nusra Front, and lost control over large sections of Aleppo. Mirroring its strategy 2012, ISIS followed the path of least resistance and shifted its focus to northern Iraq, with a series of stunning successes in June that made headlines around the world. Earlier reports indicate that IS to be a 15,000-strong force, though it now claims to have 30,000 fighters in Iraq alone, even if that cannot be independently verified. Whatever its actual size, the group’s ranks have clearly swelled in recent months. It announced the formation of a new Caliphate under al-Baghdadi on June 29, formerly changed its name to the Islamic State, and sought to solidify its hold over a swath of territory that spanned Iraq and Syria.
Although in many ways IS is simply extending and intensifying the ideology of other jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda, it differs markedly in terms of its desire and ability to govern the territory its controls. Whereas other jihadist groups are concerned almost solely with staging disruptive attacks, IS combines these tactics with an effort to provide social services, including religious lectures, road repair, and maintaining the electricity supply. Despite its brutal violence IS has gained a measure of support in northern Iraq due to the alienation of Sunni population from the Shia dominated government in Baghdad and its failure to provide security and basic social services.
Even if IS collapses under the pressure of the current American air campaign and Kurdish counter offensive, the fact that it was able to gain control of country’s north and rout an Iraqi force ten times its size armed with superior equipment is a stinging indictment of American efforts to forge a new Iraqi state after deposing Saddam Hussein in 2003. The success of IS should force a reexamination of the principles and practices that the United States applied to rebuild and reform Iraq’s security sector. Clearly, in this instance, the Iraqi army proved to be of little use once directly challenged – a fact that does not make one sanguine on Afghanistan’s future after the American withdrawal. The United States has now been drawn back into the quagmire of Iraq while the viability of any future Iraqi government, without direct American military backing, appears doubtful.
Matthew Morgan is a Research and Communications Intern at the Centre for Security Governance.