When Islamic militants rampaged through Mosul last week, robbing banks of hundreds of millions of dollars, opening the gates of prisons and burning army vehicles, some residents greeted them as if they were liberators and threw rocks at retreating Iraqi soldiers.
It took only two days, though, for the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to issue edicts laying out the harsh terms of Islamic law under which they would govern, and singling out some police officers and government workers for summary execution.
With just a few thousand fighters, the group’s lightning sweep into Mosul and farther south appeared to catch many Iraqi and U.S. officials by surprise. But the gains were actually the realization of a yearslong strategy of state-building that the group itself promoted publicly.
“What we see in Iraq today is in many ways a culmination of what the ISI has been trying to accomplish since its founding in 2006,” said Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism researcher at the New America Foundation, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq, the predecessor of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Now that President Barack Obama is weighing airstrikes and other military aid to block the militants’ advance in Iraq, an examination of its history through its own documents indicates that the group has been far more ambitious and effective than U.S. officials judged as they were winding down the U.S. involvement in the war.
The Sunni extremist group has set clear goals for carving out and governing a caliphate, an Islamic religious state, that spans Sunni-dominated sections of Iraq and Syria. It has voluminously documented its progress in achieving its goals.
Under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who once spent time in a U.S. detention facility, the group has shown itself to be unrelentingly violent in pursuing its religious objectives, but coldly pragmatic in forming alliances and gaining and ceding territory.
In 2007 the group published a pamphlet laying out its vision for Iraq. It cited trends in globalization as well as the Qu’ran in challenging modern notions of statehood as having absolute control over territory.
Under this vision, religion is paramount over administering services. Referring to citizens under its control, the pamphlet states, “improving their conditions is less important than the condition of their religion.” And one of the most important duties of the group, according to the pamphlet, is something that it has done consistently: free Sunnis from prison.
“When you go back and read it, it’s all there,” Fishman said. “They are finally getting their act together.”
A recent annual report lists in granular detail the group’s successes, through suicide attacks, car bombs and assassinations, on the battlefield.
The group’s recent report, wrote Alex Bilger, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, makes clear that the Islamic State’s “military command in Iraq has exercised command and control over a national theater since at least early 2012,” and that the group is “functioning as a military rather than as a terrorist network.”
Although the group got its start battling Americans in Iraq, its success after the occupation ended was largely missed — or played down — by U.S. officials. In 2012, as the group strengthened and U.N. data showed civilian casualties in Iraq on the rise, Antony Blinken, the national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, wrote that violence in Iraq was “at historic lows.”
That is partly because its prospects initially appeared limited at the end of the U.S. occupation. During the sectarian war that began in 2006, Sunni jihadists antagonized the public with their brutality and attempts to impose Islamic law, and suffered defeats at the hands of tribal fighters who joined the U.S. counterinsurgency campaign, forcing them to retreat from western Iraq to areas around Mosul.
But with the outbreak of civil war across the border in Syria three years ago, the group saw new opportunities for growth. The Islamic State “invaded Syria from Mosul long before it invaded Mosul from Syria,” Fishman said.
The group gained strength in Syria through a two-pronged approach of launching strategic attacks to seize resources like arms caches, oil wells and granaries, while avoiding protracted battles with government forces that have ground down Syria’s other rebels.
Now that the spotlight has shifted to Iraq, the decision by the Obama administration not to arm moderate Syrian rebels at the outset is coming under scrutiny by critics who say the hands-off policy allowed the extremists to flourish.
The group’s rise is directly connected to the U.S. legacy in Iraq. The U.S. prisons were fertile recruiting grounds for jihadist leaders, and virtual universities, where leaders would indoctrinate their recruits with hard-line ideologies. Al-Baghdadi, who is thought to have earned a doctorate in Islamic studies from a university in Baghdad, relocated to Syria, according to the U.S. government, which has offered a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture.
The group was formally rejected from al-Qaida this year after that organization’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, ordered it to withdraw to Iraq and leave operations in Syria to the local al-Qaida affiliate, the Nusra Front. The split led to a bitter rivalry between the two groups, with the Islamic State competing with al-Qaida for resources and standing in the wider international jihadist community.
The group has calibrated different strategies for Syria and Iraq. In Syria, it has mainly focused on seizing territory that has already fallen out of government hands but had been poorly controlled by other rebel groups. In Iraq, though, it has exploited widespread disenchantment among the country’s Sunnis with the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to align with other Sunni militant groups, such as one organization that is led by former officers of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.
While many of these groups, including the Baathists and other tribal militias, seemed to have joined with the Islamic State because of a common enemy, its organization and resources could lure them to a more durable alliance that could make it even more difficult for Maliki’s government to reassert control.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s march to Baghdad stalled for a second day Saturday. | A7