The takeover of about one-third of Iraq by the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) terrorist group is about more than establishing a miniature caliphate and base for jihad. It is a challenge to the prestige of Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri by ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who claims to be a descendant of Islam’s holy prophet and ridicules Al-Qaeda for not enforcing sharia (Islamic) law strictly enough.
ISIS (also known as ISIL, the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”) controls significant parts of northern and eastern Syria and northern and western Iraq, having taken Mosul and Tikrit. (It is now threatening Baghdad and Samarra.) This means that ISIS directly controls about one-third of Iraq, a proportion that increases substantially if you include Sunni areas of western Iraq that ISIS has bypassed on its dash towards the capital.
This is arguably the biggest victory for an Al-Qaeda-type group since the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the overall Islamist cause since the Muslim Brotherhood’s takeover of Egypt in 2012.
Over 500,000 Iraqis—Sunnis aware of ISIS’s brutality—fled the Mosul area as the security forces melted away. Another half-million civilians were displaced earlier due to fighting in the Anbar Province. Over 150,000 Iraqi security personnel abandoned their positions as the offensive began, leaving behind uniforms and weapons. This number includes about 30,000 that fled when challenged by only 800 ISIS terrorists.
The question lingers of why U.S.-trained and equipped Iraqi forces capitulated so quickly. Iraqi forces previously battled Al-Qaeda and even Iranian-backed militias successfully and U.S.-trained Afghan forces have also shown to be durable.
First, ISIS was able to creation of a safe haven for themselves in Syria from which they were able to build a formidable, organized base.
Next, ISIS allied themselves with terrorists that it would typically brand as “apostates.” This includes a network of fighters loyal to Iraq’s Baath Party, the political party of Saddam Hussein’s regime. One pivotal ally is Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a Vice President under Saddam. His son was reportedly just killed in an Iraqi airstrike. In Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown, posters of Al-Douri and Saddam were hoisted.
ISIS has announced that the territory it controls belongs to an Islamic state, even setting up banners to that effect. The group declared the beginning of the “era of the Islamic state” in which Muslims would reject secular governance.
ISIS has offered to spare the lives of soldiers and police who end their “apostasy,” meaning their service to the government. This does not apply to Shiites, whose very faith makes them an “apostate” deserving of death in the eyes of ISIS. The group says it has executed 1,700 Shiite soldiers already.
In addition to the weapons taken from deserted cops and soldiers, ISIS captured over 400,000 weapons from two stockpiles including artillery shells, mortars, RPGs and AK-47s. About one-fourth of the armory was sent to Syria. It also raided the Central Bank of Mosul, taking about $430 million in cash, making it the world's richest terrorist group. That single bank heist gave ISIS revenue that is over a dozen times the $30 million annual budget of Al-Qaeda in 2001.
The group also released about 1,400 inmates—certainly including a large number of Islamist terrorists—from one prison in Mosul. ISIS says it has freed a total of 3,000 prisoners from three sites. It also controls a number of important facilities, including banks, police stations, military bases and two airports. Earlier reports that ISIS had taken Baiji, home to a critical oil refinery, were denied by the U.S. and Iraqi governments.
ISIS has also pledged to storm the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. The Shiite populations there, as well as in Baghdad and Samarra, are well-aware of the doom they face if ISIS is able to seize these cities. The Iraqi security forces successfully repelled the ISIS assault on Samarra. The highest Shiite authority, Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani, issued a fatwa mandating that Shiites take up arms. Thousands have complied.
President Obama did not acknowledge the Islamist ideology of ISIS in his June 13 speech, instead attributing the violence to political malfeasance on the part of the Iraqi government and sectarian differences. He said:
“This is not solely, or even primarily, a military challenge. Over the past decade, American troops have made extraordinary sacrifices to give Iraqis an opportunity to claim their own future. Unfortunately, Iraqi leaders have been unable to overcome, too often, the mistrust and sectarian differences that have long been simmering there. And that's created vulnerabilities within the Iraqi government, as well as their security forces.”
President Obama is correct in one way. The breakdown in the relationship between the Sunnis and the Shiite-led government did create an opening for ISIS to exploit. The Sunni tribes in the Anbar Province and elsewhere were pivotal in ousting Al-Qaeda from Iraq and their collaboration with the Shiite-led central government was equally important in preventing its return.
However, ISIS is not motivated by frustration with Sunni grievances with the Iraqi political process. Its motivation is explicitly ideological, Islamist and anti-democratic.
Both Al-Qaeda and ISIS fight for the re-establishment of the caliphate, but ISIS states this objective as its primary goal. The ISIS spokesman, in his declaration that the group will conquer the capital of Iraq, said, “Go to Caliphate Baghdad, we have to settle the score.” This is a reference to the Abbasid Caliphate that existed from the years 750 to 1258, which had Baghdad as its capital.
ISIS vs. Al-Qaeda
The ISIS offensive in Iraq is also about challenging the prestige of Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been at odds with Zawahiri for about a year, and ISIS was officially excommunicated from Al-Qaeda in February.
The rivalry began in the summer of 2013 when two Al-Qaeda affiliates, ISIS (formerly Al-Qaeda in Iraq) and Jabhat al-Nusra, began operating in Syria and ISIS unilaterally announced that it had absorbed Jabhat al-Nusra. Zawahiri intervened on the side of Jabhat al-Nusra.
Eventually, the two groups in Syria began killing each other, and Zawahiri declared that ISIS is not part of his organization and condemned the group in February. Al-Qaeda spoke out against the “sedition” of ISIS and “the shedding of protected blood.”
On April 9, nine terrorist leaders in Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Iran endorsed the “Khorasan Pledge” announcing their defection from Al-Qaeda to ISIS. The statement basically accused Al-Qaeda of being too moderate:
“[Al-Qaeda] did not have any courage to enforce judgments over those who disobey sharia, under the pretext of avoiding a clash with people due to their inability and incapacity, although they enforced in secret more than they did out in the open,” it said.
The State Department confirms that Zawahiri’s influence has fallen, with Al-Qaeda affiliates having “routinely disobeyed” his orders to avoid killing other Muslims over the past year. In terms of tactics, most of Al-Qaeda is more in line with al-Baghdadi than the group’s official leader.
Unlike Zawahiri, al-Baghdadi claims he is a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, qualifying him as a possible caliph. ISIS’s latest successes are an embarrassing contrast for Zawahiri, who does not control territory; cannot claim to have created an Islamic state and cannot make a bid for the title of caliph. ISIS can argue that Zawahiri has become ineffective and Allah is blessing al-Baghdadi.
This may lead to a situation where we see jihadists—including Al-Qaeda loyalists—flocking to al-Baghdadi in light of his success in Iraq.
There are two scenarios for Iraq’s future.
The first is that Iraq becomes like Syria. The Sunni areas become captive to ISIS and are embroiled in Sunni-on-Sunni violence for the foreseeable future. The Kurds keep to themselves, deflecting any ISIS advance into Iraqi Kurdistan. The Shiite areas of Iraq are dominated by Iranian-backed militias like those of Moqtada al-Sadr and Iraqi Hezbollah. The Iranian regime has already dispatched two Revolutionary Guards battalions to Iraq.
The second is that the Iraqi government, with U.S. aerial support, stops ISIS’s advance and slowly begins forcing it into retreat. The speed and overall success of the effort to win back territory from ISIS is dependent upon local Sunni participation.
Both sides seem to acknowledge that a tight relationship between Sunni tribes and the central government is critical to stopping Al-Qaeda-type terrorists. In February, the Iraqi government announced it would integrate the Sunni tribes in Anbar into the military and police and “respects the plans and initiatives which the Al-Anbar leadership and tribes have proposed.”
Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, a major tribal leader that has led Sunnis into battling Al-Qaeda, declared that he would collaborate with the Iraqi government in battling ISIS and requested U.S. air strikes. He attributed ISIS’s rise to the U.S. failure to develop the Iraqi air force and inadequate training.
“The main reason for the catastrophic situation in Iraq right now is the withdrawal of the U.S. forces from Iraq without setting an obvious plan to protect the country,” Abu Risha said.
Iraq is now at a fork in the road. It may descend into a permanent state of bloody chaos, trapping millions of innocents in a war between an Al-Qaeda-like caliphate and Iranian-backed militias, a scenario where terrorists inevitably use their bases to target the West.
Alternatively, Iraq could once again defy the odds by forming a U.S.-backed cross-sectarian alliance.
There is no way to separate the Iraq conflict from the security of the West. A base for Islamist terrorists anywhere is a threat to Western interests everywhere.
Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.