Analysis by Alex IRELAND
The spectacular advance across Syria and Iraq of the group named Islamic State (IS) took many Western observers by surprise. From being just one of a collection of rebel militias battling Assad’s forces in the Syrian civil war, and before that the almost wiped-out Islamic State of Iraq group, IS now controls territory inhabited by millions of people. However, the popular understanding of how IS has been able to achieve this is hampered by the myriad polemics designed more to attack Western foreign policy than to inform. In two parts, this article will first overview IS’s history up to this date in order to aid analysis. In the second part it will assess the immediate origins, and root causes, of IS’s success.
In 1999, the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi set up a Sunni Islamic militant training camp in Afghanistan on the back of funding from Osama Bin Laden, naming his group Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, or Organisation of Monotheism and Jihad. In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, al-Zarqawi moved his fighters into the country, and they soon became known as one of the most violent groups of the insurgency. Al-Zarqawi pioneered the brutal executions and indiscriminate suicide attacks on civilians that the Iraq war became known for.
In late 2004 the group pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and renamed itself al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). It established itself as the leading driver of the Iraqi insurgency, and built up a large network of militants loyal to, and dependent upon, its contacts and support. The group aimed to expel the US-led coalition and set up an Islamic state in Sunni areas of Iraq, and to this end managed to successfully take and control territory in the Sunni Anbar province. By 2007, however, the Sunni tribes that had previously supported AQI (now renamed Islamic State of Iraq following two mergers with other smaller militant groups) were increasingly alienated by its violent tactics and narrow interpretation of shari’a law. Supplied with weaponry by the US, these tribes allied against it. At the end of 2008, the group found itself mortally weakened by a combination of US-armed Sunni tribes and the United States’ 2007 ‘surge’ of troops, with most of its leadership killed or captured. A period of low activity followed.
In 2010 the new head of Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (later to be self-proclaimed ‘caliph’), replenished the group’s leadership with former military officers of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime. This gave the group a combination of terrorist and conventional military skill that they were able to deploy to great effect in the Syrian civil war, sending guerrilla fighters under the guise of the militia al-Nusra Front. Having tried to formally merge al-Nusra Front with Islamic State of Iraq, and renaming the organisation Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the process, al-Baghdadi instead caused a split between ISIL on one side and al-Qaeda and al-Nusra Front on the other. Despite this, militants loyal to ISIL continued to make territorial gains in Syria, and then across much of Iraq. In June 2014, following its capture of Mosul, ISIL renamed itself simply Islamic State (IS) and declared itself to be a worldwide caliphate.
At this date, IS controls vast swathes of Iraq and Syria in its self-declared caliphate, and inspires militant and terrorist groups abroad in the Middle East and farther afield. IS administers its captured territory very much as a state, running schools, distributing food and aid, and even controlling prices of goods, and it relies upon alliances with local tribes to maintain control. In part II of this article, to be published next week, the immediate causes of IS’s success, as well as the reasons for its wider political resonance in Iraq and Syria, will be analysed.