Inside the Rise of ISIS

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The Obama administration indicated on Thursday that it would consider airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the vicinity of Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, where some 40,000 members of a minority religious group are stranded without food and water after fleeing from ISIS militants who have threatened to kill them.

It’s the first hint of an escalated American presence in Iraq since President Obama dispatched 300 U.S. military advisers there in June, after ISIS, (also known as the Islamic State), captured large portions of northern Iraq in a shock offensive coordinated with other Sunni militant groups.

The Islamic State’s rise may have seemed sudden, but the group – which grew out of Al Qaeda in Iraq – has been rebuilding for years. Even before U.S. forces left Iraq in 2011, ISIS was forging a professional military force, stirring up Sunni unrest, mounting nationwide bombing campaigns, and killing Iraqi officials.

To find out more about the rise of the Islamic State and what it means, FRONTLINE spoke to Charles Lister, an analyst at the Brookings Doha Center.

The prevailing narrative seems to be that the Islamic State used the Syrian civil war to rebuild its power in Iraq. Is that true?

I think in some ways that narrative has been a little confused. The conflict in Syria, and the widespread perception that it is fundamentally sectarian, has undoubtedly accelerated the recovery and expansion of the Islamic State. But it definitely wasn’t the spark, the initial facilitating factor, that allowed the the Islamic State to begin recovering.

That process, as far as I’m concerned, actually began as early as mid-to-late 2009. It was at that point that the Islamic State was in some ways forced to devolve into a typical terrorist organization. At that point it relocated much of its central leadership to Mosul [Iraq], which was a relative safe zone, and it was at that point that it essentially began its period of recovery.

Within 12 months, it had very dramatically increased the frequency of its bombings across the country, particularly in urban areas. It had begun to recover the professionalism, or the professional level of its senior military leadership, and it was regaining sources of intelligence on local security forces, local government officials – most of which it has since used extraordinarily well and to its benefit in the last year or so, and which were almost certainly fundamentally important to facilitating the group’s capture of Mosul, for example, in June.

You’re referring to the “Soldier’s Harvest” campaign. Can you walk me through that operation?

The “Soldier’s Harvest” campaign has been the second of two 12-month campaigns. The first one was the campaign known as “Breaking the Walls.”

One of the primary objectives of that operation was to re-establish sources of leverage against security forces. A lot of that was done through a very significant campaign of intimidation — including collecting local intelligence on the addresses and family details of local security forces across the country.

A secondary objective of that initial campaign was the breaking out of prison of not only ordinary Islamic State foot soldiers, but most importantly, senior leading commanders, who’d been in prison for the final year or so of the U.S.-led surge in Iraq.

That campaign was absolutely crucial in allowing the Islamic State to start its second 12-month campaign, which was “Soldier’s Harvest.” That has essentially seen the Islamic State launch a really concerted, high-level and brutal campaign of multiple bombings, large and small, and a concerted campaign of assassinations. Essentially, it sought to spark the perceptions of sectarian conflict within Iraqi dynamics and to transfer what were existing sectarian tensions within the political system, for example, back into the tribal thinking, back into societal thinking. That, in effect, created a vacuum which the Islamic State felt it would be able to step into, and in many respects that is what it has managed to do just in the last couple of months.

The bombings not only influenced that element of sectarian conflict in Iraq, but additionally, it also enforced a serious level of intimidation on the security forces – to the extent to which it was possible on a very local level for Islamic State commanders to essentially force the local army commanders to surrender without a fight. And certainly from what it’s been possible to see from Mosul in early June, that seems to have been what happened when the city fell. A lot of that was the result of this expansive intelligence and intimidation campaign, in addition to military attacks which had been taking place across Sunni areas of Iraq for at least the last two or three years.

“The Islamic State relies on a Baathist sense of social legitimacy in the Sunni areas of the country, and the Baathists rely on the Islamic State being able to spearhead offensive operations.”

Did the Islamic State then rebuild relationships with the Sunni groups that had turned against it in the “Awakening” – and if so, how did they do it?

This is an area that’s only just becoming a little bit more clear, and still up to this point relatively unverified. Certainly the suggestion seems to be that there has been a strategy undertaken by [Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-] Baghdadi’s leadership since 2010, to establish relationships with other Sunni armed groups, and with tribes – crucially with tribes – so as to acquire a wider Sunni standing within society, and also, by extension, to be able to present some element of legitimacy.

Most of these relationships are clearly pragmatic, in that many of these groups – the most particularly well known of which is the Baathist JRTN [Jaish Rijal at-Tariqa an-Naqshabandia, the “Army of the Men of the Naqshabandi Order"], which has been very active in Mosul, for example. A relationship between a JRTN and the Islamic State is far from natural — and they definitely don’t particularly agree on anything ideologically — but it’s in both of their interests … to remain pragmatic partners. They are essentially both managing to feed off of each others’ momentum. The Islamic State relies on a Baathist sense of social legitimacy in the Sunni areas of the country, and the Baathists rely on the Islamic State being able to spearhead offensive operations.

So while there have been fairly frequent reports of small-scale clashes between the Islamic State and smaller Sunni armed groups across Iraq, I would remain skeptical at this point that that will escalate any further than those small-scale, localized clashes.

But there will come a point in time, eventually, where these tacit relationships will begin to erode.

What would happen then?

That’s the big question. If indeed these relationships erode, then there would conceivably either be an opportunity for the Iraqi government or, for example, for the United States, to begin leveraging old relationships with some of these tribal groups, many of which retain relationships within, for example, the Ba’athists and other Sunni armed groups, so as to almost create a second “Awakening” against the Islamic State. …

There will come a point at which the Islamic State will feel that if it continues the kind of gains that it’s making at the moment, it will reach a point at which it feels like it doesn’t anymore need these relationships with some of these groups. It will be at that point – where [the Islamic State] begins to assert itself more unilaterally – that you could start to see these relationships crumble.

At this point, I would say that if that took place in the short term, it could be quite possible that the Islamic State would be pushed back, or forced out, of a relatively considerable amount of territory. We’ve seen a kind of similar situation take place in neighboring Syria in late 2013 and early 2014.

Having said that, the Islamic State has proven its ability to pragmatically withdraw from territory where it feels like it can’t win – and then to later go back and recapture it. That’s what it’s doing in Syria at the moment. Maybe 12 months down the line, we might be saying exactly the same thing about Iraq. But these situations are extremely difficult to predict, so I’d be wary of saying anything with anything near 100 percent certainty.

How centralized is the Islamic State’s command and control? How much authority does Baghdadi have?

That’s an impossible question to answer with certainty. I’m not convinced necessarily that Baghdadi is making decisions on a military level. Certainly one of the things he did when he first succeeded to power as the leader of the Islamic State in 2010, was to appoint a small number of men with relatively extensive military experience within the Iraqi military and intelligence service. It has been these individuals, I think, who have actually led the military campaign of the Islamic State over the last three to four years, and allowed it to become a much more professional military force.

So if we’re looking at the command-and-control structure of the Islamic State, I would say there is Baghdadi at the top, who brings with him the perception, or the image, of religious legitimacy. He certainly has, on paper, more religious legitimacy than, for example, Osama bin Laden or [current Al Qaeda leader] Ayman al-Zawahiri ever had.

But then immediately below him is the small core of militarily experienced commanders, who are most likely the individuals who are actually driving the real military advances that we’re seeing at the moment.

Intriguingly, those military individuals have been mostly Iraqi for the last three or four years, with perhaps one notable exception in the last 12 months or so, and that’s been the fairly dramatic rise in influence of the Russian-speaking, ethnic Chechen Georgian national, Abu Omar al-Shishani. The fact that he is the exception should also be qualified by the fact that he has presumably risen up the ranks as quickly as he has because he was a ranking officer within the Georgian military, and also in military intelligence for a while.

So clearly there’s been a focus on militarily experienced individuals within a tight, central, top-level core of the command-and-control structure, which has allowed the Islamic State to succeed as it has.

There have been reports that the Islamic State has been providing social services in some areas under its control. Is that significant?

It’s definitely significant. It has established a fairly broad-based structure for providing social services – many of the same services that an ordinary government in Iraq and Syria would try to do. I think the ability for it to do so successfully is absolutely crucial in determining how successful, and how sustainable, the Islamic State’s control of territory will be, looking ahead.

It is noticeable, for example, that in Raqqa in Syria, the Islamic State’s control of the city, and its ability to provide fairly extensive services to the civilian population, has resulted in at least a tacit acceptance of the group’s control of the city by the civilian population. That is a successful example of exactly what the Islamic State is trying to replicate across other areas of Syria and now also in Iraq, and in Mosul, for example.

At the moment, it is only able to provide these social services because it has extensive financial assets under its control and its ability to earn money through the sale of natural resources and through various other illicit means. For example, it has been able to fund the subsidizing of staple food costs in most of the big towns and cities under its control. It caps the price of rent, and pays for various services for the poor and for the elderly, and all of this is facilitated by the fact that the Islamic State has money spare to be able to spend on this kind of thing.

So at the moment, that is both a strength and also a very serious potential weakness. If it runs out of money, those services would stop fairly quickly, and then I think we would start to see a fairly dramatic reversal in terms of the level of acceptance or support for its presence.

How much of what the Islamic State is doing – its strategy, tactics, goals – is a direct line from [Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi? What’s different this time?

I think in terms of the overall religio-political-military strategy that the Islamic State is implementing at the moment – a lot of that does hark back to Zarqawi’s era, of sparking mass sectarian violence and chaotic localized dynamics, which the Islamic State can step into, acquire control over territory, and provide a political alternative to the local Sunni community. That is very much an idea that Zarqawi introduced, and brought into the original Islamic State in Iraq, and that really does form the core of what the organization represents today.

I would say that what Baghdadi has introduced that is new is this far more military, professional posture. The professionalism within its senior military command is far superior to what was under Zarqawi’s command in the mid-2000s. That emphasis in favor of Iraqis predominately taking senior leadership roles, but also on Iraqis who have military and intelligence experience – that’s been relatively new.

If anything, I think the way I would term it is that Baghdadi has qualitatively evolved the Zarqawi strategy. He has essentially taken Zarqawi’s strategy and made it doubly more effective.

“The Islamic State has so far succeeded in doing essentially everything that Al Qaeda had previously done, and done it better, except for carrying out a foreign attack.”

And equally, he has overseen a marginal moderation in terms of how the Islamic State governs territory and governs populations. For example, there were reports in the mid-2000s, when the Islamic State began to govern territory, that it banned ice cream because it didn’t exist during the prophet’s time, or it forbade women from buying cucumbers in the market because they were sexually provocative. That kind of stuff I don’t imagine you would ever see in today’s Islamic State. I would be very surprised.

So there’s been a slight moderation in terms of the extremity of legal norms that are introduced in terms of governance, and a professionalization of the military.

Does the Islamic State plan to attack the west?

I think in the immediate future, the only thing the Islamic State will be focused on is maintaining its military momentum, acquiring control of more territory, and most importantly of all, consolidating control and introducing Sharia governance in those areas.

I would expect that in its perspective, targeting the west would certainly be a future option. That would be fairly high on the list of objectives for the Islamic State. I would say that largely for one reason: the Islamic State, certainly since Baghdadi took control, has presented itself as a superior model, and a superior organization, to Al Qaeda.

That’s almost reached hostility in terms of the rhetoric coming out from both sides over the last 12 months, and an awful lot of that is because Baghdadi and his senior commanders see what the Islamic State stands for as being superior. The Islamic State has so far succeeded in doing essentially everything that Al Qaeda had previously done, and done it better, except for carrying out a foreign attack. And it’s really for that reason that I expect it is an inevitability that one day it will try to do this. Exactly when that takes place, it’s fairly difficult to say, but I would imagine that the Islamic State’s senior leadership would make the decision only once they feel comfortable and consolidated enough across Syria and Iraq to be able to risk the wrath of retaliation that would inevitably come if they did carry out a foreign attack.

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