Keating pens a thorough explainer on ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, tracking his rise from low-level militant to head of his own rogue proto-state:
Baghdadi fought in some capacity with Sunni militant groups after the U.S. invasion of Iraq but was arrested in 2005 and interred by U.S. forces at Camp Bucca, the main U.S. detention facility after the closing of Abu Ghraib. He wasn’t considered much of a threat and was released in 2009. The former commanding officer of Camp Bucca recently told the Daily Beast that when Baghdadi was released, he told his captors, “I’ll see you guys in New York.” (The guards at the prison were from a Long Island-based military police unit.) The commander, Col. Kenneth King, says Baghdadi “was a bad dude, but he wasn’t the worst of the worst” and is surprised he rose to such prominence.
It seems as if Baghdadi became far more involved with al-Qaida in Iraq while imprisoned than he had been before, to the point that he took over the group after the deaths of [Abu Ayyub] Masri and the other [Abu Omar] Baghdadi a year later. In 2011 he was designated as a global terrorist by the U.S. State Department with a $10 million bounty. Things really picked up in 2012, when, sensing an opportunity, Baghdadi dispatched some foot soldiers to join the fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria. In 2013 he announced that the group was merging with Jabhat al-Nusra, the other al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, to form a new group called the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham.
That new group has turned out to be more formidable than anyone expected, in no small part due to its impeccable organization. Martin Chulov passes along what CIA and Iraqi analysts have learned from a massive trove of ISIS intelligence acquired on the eve of the group’s blitzkrieg on Mosul:
Laid bare were a series of staggering numbers that would be the pride of any major enterprise, let alone an organisation that was a startup three years ago.
The group’s leaders had been meticulously chosen. Many of those who reported to the top tier – all battle-hardened veterans of the insurgency against US forces nearly a decade ago – did not know the names of their colleagues. The strategic acumen of ISIS was impressive – so too its attention to detail. “They had itemised everything,” the source said. “Down to the smallest detail.”
Over the past year, foreign intelligence officials had learned that ISIS secured massive cashflows from the oilfields of eastern Syria, which it had commandeered in late 2012, and some of which it had sold back to the Syrian regime. It was also known to have reaped windfalls from smuggling all manner of raw materials pillaged from the crumbling state, as well as priceless antiquities from archaeological digs. But here before them in extraordinary detail were accounts that would have breezed past forensic accountants, giving a full reckoning of a war effort. It soon became clear that in less than three years, Isis had grown from a ragtag band of extremists to perhaps the most cash-rich and capable terror group in the world.
Yochi Dreazen outlines the “mafia tactics” ISIS is using to become financially independent of its benefactors in the Gulf:
The exact amount of money in ISIS’s possession is the subject of intense debate among Western intelligence officials. At the high end, some analysts estimate that the group may have access to at least $500 million in cash drawn from bank robberies, oil smuggling, and old-fashioned extortion and protection rackets. Other analysts believe the number is far lower, with one official putting it at between $100 million and $200 million. Those numbers are moving higher as the group conquers more cities on its seemingly inexorable drive toward Baghdad and is able to loot the local private and government banks. On Monday, ISIS fighters took the strategically important town of Tal Afar, adding to the territory under its direct control. …
ISIS’s success at funding its own operations is indicative of a broader trend. Extremist groups throughout much of the world, particularly Africa, are beginning to reduce their dependence on outside donors.