Who Are These ISIS Chappies, Anyway?

In a useful explainer, Margaret Hartmann provides some background on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the jihadist militant group currently overrunning Iraq:

ISIS grew out of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2004 and became one of the most powerful Islamic extremist groups involved in the Iraq War. Shortly after al-Zarqawi was killed by U.S. forces in 2006, Al Qaeda in Iraq merged with several other insurgent groups and became known as the Islamic State of Iraq.

The group was decimated by U.S. forces, but as the last U.S. troops left in 2011, it staged a comeback. Michael Knights, the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, tells Vox that the group changed its message to focus on Sunni sectarianism, challenging the Shiite majority in Iraq. In an attempt to consolidate power, the Iraqi government persecuted Sunnis and tried to shut down Sunni militias, which “played right into their hands,” according to Knights. He says Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki “made all the ISIS propaganda real, accurate.”

Terrence McCoy profiles the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi:

Born a Sunni in 1971 in Samarra with the name Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai, he claims to be a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad. According to a widely cited biography released by jihadists, “he is a man from a religious family. His brothers and uncles include preachers and professors of Arabic language, rhetoric and logic.” The biography and Arabic-language accounts claim he obtained a doctorate at Islamic University in Baghdad — which is presumably why several of his many aliases include the title “Dr.” Holding degrees in Islamic studies and history, he is believed to have been an Islamic preacher around the time of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The chaos of those months drove the 30-something into militancy, and he formed an armed group in eastern Iraq, one that reportedly never rose out of obscurity.

The opacity of his background, analysts say, suggests a broader truth of rising militant Islamists. “The mystery surrounding Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — at the level of his personality, his movements, or even his relatives, his family, and those close to him — came as a result of what happened to previous leaders, who were killed after their movements were detected,” wrote Mushreq Abbas in al-Monitor. He is the “invisible jihadist,” according to Le Monde.

The CFR follows the money:

Supporters in the region, including those based in Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, are believed to have provided the bulk of past funding. Iran has also financed AQI, crossing sectarian lines, as Tehran saw an opportunity to challenge the U.S. military presence in the region, according to the U.S. Treasury and documents confiscated in 2006 from Iranian Revolutionary Guards operatives in northern Iraq. In early 2014, Iran offered to join the United States in offering aid to the Iraqi government to counter al-Qaida gains in Anbar province.

The bulk of AQI’s financing, experts say, comes from sources such as smuggling, extortion, and other crime. AQI has relied in recent years on funding and manpower from internal recruits [PDF]. In Mosul, an important AQI stronghold, the group extorts taxes from businesses small and large, netting upwards of $8 million a month, according to some estimates.

Jacob Siegel emphasizes how ISIS relies on allies of convenience in Iraq:

The standoff in Iraq isn’t between a single militant group and the government. There is a broad coalition of Sunni groups—both nationalist and Islamist—who had been plotting against Iraq’s Shia government for years before ISIS’s rise provided the chance to strike. ISIS and its partners are unnatural allies. Maintaining their unity was the key to their early success, and is the only way they can hold the ground they have taken, but that incentive may prove to be weaker than the force of their natural hostilities.

“ISIS control in Mosul is contingent on political alliances they have made with the Baathists and the tribal groups,” said Brian Fishman, a fellow at the New America Foundation, who has been following ISIS since the group’s early days during the Iraq war. “This alliance marching on Baghdad is not a natural one,” Fishman added. “We can understand how it was put together in opposition to the government but what exactly is holding it together, and how sturdy it is, is an open question,” he said.

Michael Weiss also plays up these alliances in a detailed analysis of the group’s strategy:

How did ISIS manage to accomplish so much in a year? Contrary to some media representations, it has had some help in the form of other tenuous Sunni allies, including Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqah al-Naqshabandia, a Ba’ath insurgency that couches its war against Maliki in tribal terms; and Ansar al-Islam, another Sunni Islamist group. The true nature and extent of other actors’ involvement in this conflict has yet to be fully uncovered, but already it seems clear that ISIS is drawing on local support bases. A kind of shadow Awakening is now in evidence, with Sunni tribes, Islamists, and dead-enders of the ancien regime all in league against Iraq’s new Shiite strongman. But what is also clear is that in Syria ISIS has managed to do what other rebel groups have not: effectively if harshly administer municipal facilities, says Pieter Van Ostaeyen, a Belgian analyst of Syrian jihadis. …

ISIS also appears to be drawing on classical “Desert Power” Arab military doctrine that dates back to the 7th century. “The Bedouin army could go out into the Syrian desert and they could strike either the Mediterranean region or the Euphrates valley or what is now Israel-Palestine,” says Col. Joel Rayburn, who served as a strategic analyst for the US military in Iraq. “They could strike at any of the areas on the edge of that desert, as though the desert were an inland sea that they could cross at will. Think of the Jazira [the territory encompassing eastern Syria and western/central Iraq] as the new desert. ISIS can go out there and project Desert Power into the river valleys and settled areas.”

Previous Dish on at ISIS’s strategy and objectives here.