In a lengthy but essential overview of the dynamics at play in Iraq, Kenneth Pollack cuts through some of the rhetorical bullshit, noting, for instance, that ISIS isn’t just made up of foreign fighters:
This is important because Prime Minister Maliki and his apologists have tried to paint ISIS as a group of foreigners who were waging the Syrian civil war and suddenly decided to launch an invasion of neighboring Iraq. If that narrative were true, it would suggest that a pure (and immediate) military response were warranted since such a group would have a great deal of difficulty holding territory conquered in Iraq. It would obviate the need for far-reaching political changes, which Maliki seeks to avoid.
He also explains how the “terrorist” label obscures the group’s true purpose:
[T]his is a traditional ethno-sectarian militia waging an intercommunal civil war. (They are also not an insurgency.) They are looking to conquer territory. They will do so using guerrilla tactics or conventional tactics—and they have been principally using conventional tactics since the seizure of Fallujah over six months ago. Their entire advance south over the past week has been a conventional, motorized light-infantry offensive; not a terrorist campaign, not a guerrilla warfare campaign. … That is important because defining the Sunni militants as terrorists implies that they need to be attacked immediately and directly by the United States.
Seeing them for what they are, first and foremost a sectarian militia waging a civil war, puts the emphasis on where it needs to be: finding an integrated political-military solution to the internal Iraqi problems that sparked the civil war. And that is a set of problems that is unlikely to be solved by immediate, direct American attacks on the Sunni militants. Indeed, such attacks could easily make the situation worse.
Juan Cole agrees about the terrorist misnomer, at least for now, and he rejects some other popular assertions as well, including that ISIS is somehow popular:
They are not. Opinion polling shows that most Iraqi Sunnis are secular-minded. The ISIS is brutal and fundamentalist. Where the Sunnis have rallied to it, it is because of severe discontents with their situation after the fall of the Baath Party in 2003 with the American invasion. The appearance of video showing ISIS massacring police (most of them Sunnis) in Tikrit will severely detract from such popularity as they enjoyed.
He also contextualizes the idea that “ISIS fighters achieved victory after victory in the Sunni north”:
While this assertion is true, and towns continue to fall to it, it is simplistic. The central government troops, many of them Shiite, in Mosul and in towns of the north, were unpopular because representatives of a sectarian Shiite regime. The populace of Mosul, including town quarters and clan groups (‘tribes’) on the city’s outskirts, appear to have risen up in conjunction with the ISIS advance, as Patrick Cockburn argues. It was a pluralist urban rebellion, with nationalists of a socialist bent (former Baathists) joining in. In some instances locals were suppressed by the fundamentalist guerrillas and there already have been instances of local Sunnis helping the Iraqi army reassert itself in Salahuddin Province and then celebrating the departure of ISIS.
Aaron Zelin tries to figure out how many of the militants came from abroad:
Similar to [al-Qaeda in Iraq’s] original practice of posting official martyrdom notices, ISIS began doing so itself earlier this year, highlighting its comfort in sharing such information. Since early March, the group has released 201 martyrdom notices on its official province-level Twitter accounts for foreign fighters killed in Iraq (most of the notices were also posted on online jihadist forums). Although some of these notices were for individuals who died as far back as September 2012, the vast majority were for deaths that occurred after April 2013.
Since this information is self-reported by ISIS, and because the group continues to release older notices, the actual number of foreigners who have died in Iraq is likely higher. Further, some notices do not name a specific country of origin, instead using phrases such as “al-Shami” (which could denote anyone in the Levant) and “al-Muhajir” (meaning simply “emigrant”). In any case, this year’s jihadist death toll is set to exceed last year’s — if the current pace continues, some 233 foreign fighters will have been killed in Iraq by the end of 2014, or two-and-a-half times more than 2013. And the pace will likely accelerate given the increased fighting.
Josh Rogin traces most of the group’s funding back to wealthy donors in Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia:
Gulf donors support ISIS, the Syrian branch of al Qaeda called the al Nusrah Front, and other Islamic groups fighting on the ground in Syria because they feel an obligation to protect Sunnis suffering under the atrocities of the Assad regime. Many of these backers don’t trust or like the American backed moderate opposition, which the West has refused to provide significant arms to. Under significant U.S. pressure, the Arab Gulf governments have belatedly been cracking down on funding to Sunni extremist groups, but Gulf regimes are also under domestic pressure to fight in what many Sunnis see as an unavoidable Shiite-Sunni regional war that is only getting worse by the day.