Beaten back by the U.S. troop surge and Sunni tribal fighters, it was considered such a diminished threat that the bounty the United States put on one of its leaders had dropped from $5 million to $100,000. The group’s new chief was just 38 years old, a nearsighted cleric, not even a fighter, with little of the muscle of his predecessor — Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the godfather of Iraq’s insurgency, killed by the U.S. military four years earlier after a relentless hunt.
“Where is the Islamic State of Iraq you are talking about?” the Yemeni wife of one leader demanded, according to Iraqi police testimony. “We’re living in the desert!”
Yet now, five years later, the Islamic State is on a very different trajectory. It has wiped clean a 100-year-old colonial border in the Middle East, controlling millions of people in Iraq and Syria. It has overcome its former partner and eventual rival, al-Qaida, first in battle, then as the world’s pre-eminent jihadi group in reach and recruitment.
It traces its origins both to the terrorist training grounds of Osama bin Laden’s Afghanistan and to America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, and it achieved its resurgence through two single-minded means: control of territory and, by design, unspeakable cruelty.
Its emblems are the black flag and the severed head.
Since last spring, the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has been expanding beyond its local struggle to international terrorism. In the last two weeks, it did that in a spectacular way, first claiming responsibility for downing a Russian planeload of 224 passengers, then sending squads of killers who ended the lives of 43 people in Beirut and 129 in Paris.
As the world scrambles to respond, the questions pile up like the dead: Who are they? What do they want? Were signals missed that could have stopped the Islamic State before it became so deadly ?
And there were, in fact, more than hints of the group’s plans and potential. A 2012 report by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency was direct: The growing chaos in Syria’s civil war was giving Islamic militants there and in Iraq the space to spread and flourish.
No report or event can stand in hindsight as the single missed key to the now terrifyingly complex puzzle of the Islamic State. And assigning blame has been part of the political discourse in the United States and beyond. The decision by President George W. Bush and allies to marginalize Iraq’s political and military elite angered and disenfranchised some who formed the heart of the Islamic State. More recently, President Barack Obama and his allies have been criticized as not taking seriously enough the Islamic State’s rise.
“There was a strong belief that brutal insurgencies fail,” said William McCants of the Brookings Institution and a leading expert on the Islamic State, explaining the seeming indifference of U.S. officials to the group’s rise. “The concept was that if you just leave the Islamic State alone, it would destroy itself, and so you didn’t need to do much.”
There is no evidence that the two central figures in the Islamic State’s ascendance ever met, but a faith in brutality — as a strategy unto itself — was a shared belief. Both came from Iraq, seemingly a key to top leadership in the Islamic State. Otherwise, they could not be more different.
The first, al-Zarqawi, a onetime thief, was a tattooed Jordanian and a reformed drinker of extreme personal violence whose own mother had proclaimed him not very smart. The full details of the second, an Iraqi now known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s current and reclusive leader, are incomplete, but he is known more as a quiet Sunni cleric, likely with an advanced degree in Islamic studies, whose tribe traces its lineage to the Prophet Muhammad himself.
Stoking both attacks against U.S. soldiers and tensions with Shiites, al-Zarqawi built an insurgency responsible for keystone moments of the early war: assaults on the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, the Shiite Imam Ali Mosque and others large and small.
The United States raised the bounty on him to $25 million, equal to that of bin Laden. But the videoed decapitations and wanton sectarian killings of Muslim civilians — along with his desire to proclaim an Islamic state —also provoked an unusual rebuke in 2005 from bin Laden’s No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri (now the top leader of al-Qaida).
A U.S. airstrike killed al-Zarqawi in June 2006. Four months later, his successors declared the founding of the Islamic State of Iraq. Accounts differ about how effective or distinct it was. Still, Rod Coffey, in March 2008 a U.S. lieutenant colonel, recalls finding the Islamic State’s black banner some 50 miles north of Baghdad.
“These were people who, unlike bin Laden, said, ‘We are going to control ground now, create a government, create a society, run this place on a steppingstone to creating a caliphate,’ ” Coffey, now 54 and retired, recalled.
Near the flag, he found a mass grave of 30 bodies, executed.
The U.S. military and Sunni tribesmen, banded together in what became known as the Awakening, left al-Qaida, the Islamic State and other Sunni jihadis in disarray by 2010. In June of that year, Gen. Ray Odierno, leader of the U.S. troops in Iraq, said that “over the last 90 days or so we’ve either picked up or killed 34 of the top 42 al-Qaida in Iraq leaders,” using one early name for the Islamic State.
Americans wanted to believe that the Iraq war had ended in triumph, and the troops were soon withdrawn. But almost immediately tensions began rising between the Sunnis and the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — supported by the United States and Iran, the Shiite giant to the east. Salaries and jobs promised to cooperating tribes were not paid. There seemed little room for Sunnis in the new Iraq. The old Sunni insurgents began to look appealing again.
“The Sunnis were just trying to survive,” recalled Col. Kurt Pinkerton, who was a U.S. battalion commander in Iraq at the time. “It was more about survival and assimilation.”
Al-Baghdadi was named head of the Islamic State in 2010, and his group seemed particularly adept at exploiting these fears. McCants recounts how they entered a period of concentrated “reflection,” developing a detailed, militarily precise plan for resurrection in 2009.
The document, parts of which are translated in McCants’ book, is strikingly self-critical, acknowledging that the Islamic State had lost some of its aggressiveness and did not control territory. It advised adopting the U.S. tactic of co-opting the Sunni tribes, conceding that recruiting “the tribes to eliminate the mujahidis was a clever, bold idea.”
The document also makes clear the need for a media strategy — a recommendation the group went on to follow with great success, exploiting social media to spread its message and to attract recruits, many in the more technologically savvy West.
Then a civil war broke out in Syria — a new and promising front for the Islamic State’s ambitions.
Protests erupted against the government of Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, in 2011 amid the wider Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere. The world struggled with how to help, and after a brutal crackdown by government forces, Syrian protest groups morphed into fighters.
At first many were army defectors and locals, focused on defending their communities and overthrowing Assad. But because foreign fighters, some steeped in extremist ideologies, often proved to be the best organized and funded, they gained momentum on the battlefield.
As the Islamic State established itself — at first not just in Raqqa and eastern Aleppo province and much of Deir al-Zour, but also in villages and outposts scattered in Idlib and western Aleppo — its fighters drew curiosity, attention and sometimes ridicule for their presumption. They put up road signs at the beginnings of territory they held saying, “Welcome to the Islamic State.”
The Islamic State did, in fact, succeed in building the semblance of a state, providing services as well as imposing the harshest of rules. It worked to self-finance, through oil, trade in priceless antiquities and, many say, simple criminal enterprises like kidnapping and extortion.
And, as it always promised, the Islamic State was brutal, frightening fellow groups and the wider world with practices like sexual slavery, immolations, crucifixions and beheadings. Those included well-produced killings on video, and spread through social media.
The climax of the Islamic State’s rise came in June 2014, when it routed Iraqi military police and captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, erasing the century-old border between Iraq and Syria established after World War I. The caliphate had been declared the month before, but soon after Mosul’s capture, al-Bagdhadi arrived at the Nuri Mosque in Mosul to make that state formal.
Wearing a black turban signifying his descent from Muhammad, he said: “God, blessed and exalted, has bestowed victory and conquest upon your mujahid brothers.”
There was another victory, which had played out behind the scenes in bitter missives between al-Qaida central, the Islamic State and its al-Qaida-sponsored affiliate, the Nusra Front. Al-Baghdadi rejected demands from al-Zawahri, leader of al-Qaida after bin Laden’s death, that he step in line under his rule.
No, al-Baghdadi said: The Islamic State was supreme and separate. Al-Qaida central had become, in some sense, the cautious, increasingly irrelevant uncle. Paris was the proof of that.