ISIS’s Endgame Is In Its Name

Eli Lake and Jamie Dettmer sound the alarm that, with the heavy weapons it captured in Mosul, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is starting to resemble a real army. Even more unsettling, with the territory it has captured, the group is also starting to resemble the “state” it claims to be:

Success breeds success, say analysts. The dramatic seizing of Mosul will only add to ISIS’s luster, helping it to recruit more fighters as it seeks to carve out a “caliphate” across western Iraq and eastern Syria—much as 9/11 was a recruitment driver for al-Qaeda. Jihadist social media sites were jubilant today (June 10). “Jihadis are ecstatic with ISIS’s achievement,’ say researchers at the Middle East Media Research Institute, a Washington-DC-based non-profit.

Mosul’s capture is being presented by ISIS as a validation of [founder Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi’s jihad strategy, one that focuses on controlling territory and proto-state building. Al-Qaeda in its videos and web sites focus on global jihad; ISIS in its propaganda celebrates towns captured, land controlled, notes Pieter Nanninga, a Mideast scholar at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands.

Liz Sly sizes up ISIS:

The group’s exact strength is not known, but Aymenn al-Tamimi, who monitors jihadist activity for the Middle East Forum, said its swift takeover of Mosul at a time when it is also fighting on other fronts suggests that it has a larger force than the 10,000 or so men it is widely reported to control. …

The group also appears to command significant resources. In the eastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zour, it has seized control of oil fields, expanding its sources of financing —  largely extortion networks in Mosul that predate the U.S. withdrawal. It is also thought to have received funding from wealthy, private donors in the Sunni countries of the Persian Gulf that, at least until now, has eclipsed the meager aid dispatched by the more-moderate rebels’ Western allies.

Paul Mutter observes what the group has already done to establish itself in Nineveh province:

Its other effort – “Breaking the Walls,” so termed because it involved freeing captured Sunni militants from Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki’s jails – is also doing well in Mosul, with over 1,000 detainees freed this week after their guards fled. With Mosul mostly secured – its banks and military depots have been emptied by the jihadists for redistribution to its forces in Iraq and Syria – and tens of thousands now jamming the roads out of the region, ISIS is simultaneously staging offensives into the nearby Saladin Governorate and points further south, heading towards the capital. There has as yet been no significant armed government response to the crisis in Nineveh, a province that is also home to many of Iraq’s remaining Assyrians and other Christian minorities. In Syria, ISIS has closed down churches to set up indoctrination centers (Da’wah) for youth: darker charges of kidnapping and execution have followed.

But Keating is cautiously pessimistic about the viability of the “caliphate”:

From all reports, it certainly appears to be a more dominant political force in the areas under its control than either the Syrian or Iraqi governments. So should we start thinking of ISIS as a proto-state, an unrecognized but de facto sovereign entity? Or will it meet a similar fate to that of Azawad, the rebel state in Northern Mali that declared independence after chasing out the Malian military, only to be routed by a French-led international force the following year.

I’d tentatively lean toward the latter. For one thing, the brutal brand of Shariah law ISIS enforces in the areas of Syria it controls—including beheadings and amputations—seems to be provoking enormous resentment among the people who live under its black flag. The Malian Islamists had a similar problem. It seems one difficulty of establishing an “Islamic State,” as extremist groups narrowly define it, is that they aren’t really places anyone wants to live.

And Jacob Siegel expects ISIS to incur severe retribution from regional powers:

Moderates only by profane contrast, Al Qaeda takes the position that winning popular support is a necessary precursor to declaring the establishment of the Caliphate. ISIS, which considers itself the embodiment of the Islamic Caliphate, declares the kingdom of God wherever the group flies its black flag. But as ISIS’s power grows its schism with other Islamist groups like al Qaeda may pale compared to the reprisals it will face from government powers. Mosul is ISIS’ signature victory so far, its biggest achievement. But the price of victory could be a giant target on their backs. This could be the moment when regional and international powers like the United States decide to intervene against ISIS. The takeover of Mosul could even trigger a response from Iran, the powerful Shia state that borders Iraq.