Ana Maria Luca

The rise of ISIS

How a rogue Al-Qaeda group managed to gain control of half of Iraq and Syria

Militants of the jihadist group ISIS cut a new road through the Syrian-Iraqi border between the Iraqi Nineveh province and the Syrian town of Al-Hasakah

On June 7, 2006, American troops dropped a 230-kg bomb on a house located approximately five miles north of Baqubah. The strike killed Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, then leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). AQI fighters subsequently withdrew towards the north of Anbar province and were ultimately defeated by the American forces. At the time, the world thought that this was the end of AQI.


On June 10, 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) – AQI’s offspring – took over Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, after Iraqi troops had fled their military bases, leaving their uniforms and weapons behind. On June 11 ISIS overcame Tikrit, birthplace of Saddam Hussein, and the next day, armed with the weapons abandoned by the Iraqi army, ISIS’s fighters were marching towards Baghdad.


In little over a year, ISIS had also managed to become the strongest faction fighting in Syria’s civil war and to seize parts of the governorates of RaqqaIdlib, and Aleppo, battling the Syrian army, secular opposition forces, Kurdish militias, and Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s official franchise in Syria. In total, it now controls a vast territory with a population of approximately seven million people. In this short period, ISIS was able to do what Al-Qaeda itself never could: it has come very close to establishing a caliphate, destroying part of the border separating Iraq and Syria.


In 2013, ISIS was formally expelled from Al-Qaeda after ISIS’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, refused to obey Al-Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri’s order to withdraw from Syria, instead launching a campaign against ISIS’ rival, Jabhat al-Nusra. As soon as ISIS and Baghdadi were on their own, they became virtually unstoppable. The group quickly recruited thousands of fighters from all over the world to fight in Syria and Iraq, receiving more money than its former Al-Qaeda counterparts and gaining regional and international popularity.


“Nobody saw how quickly this could happen, really,” Henry Jackson Society research fellow Robin Simcox told NOW. “But let’s not kid ourselves. ISIS has been getting stronger and stronger for years. This is something that some [scholars] have been warning against for years: that this is a group with the man power to carry out terrorist operations that was gaining in strength. Any international effort to mitigate that in Iraq was obviously inadequate,” he added.


Moreover, according to Al Hayat analyst Hussam Itani, ISIS capitalized on Iraq’s internal sectarian conflicts and failure to form a legitimate government. The real problem, in his opinion, was Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s inability to engage in dialogue with Sunni tribes. A misunderstanding with the tribes, he said, was what led to the fall of Fallujah into ISIS hands this January.


Baghdadi’s rise as “the new Bin Laden” was also facilitated by the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011. “Once the US troops were gone, Maliki had a free hand to repress the Sunnis. The awakening groups that could help bring AQI under control were disbanded. As the Sunnis were more marginalized, Al-Qaeda gained more room to operate,” Simcox explained. Moreover, he said, the events in Syria, Mali, and Somalia and the rise of different Al-Qaeda-linked jihadist groups overshadowed the situation in Iraq. At the same time, there was a certain “Iraq fatigue” in Washington and London after the Iraq war, and as a result, politicians turned a blind eye to developments there. “We can see the results of it now,” Simcox stressed.


But he also noted that there are variables that might turn the tables against ISIS: Al-Qaeda’s offspring have never been good at securing popular support, and moreover were never capable of holding their ground against government offensives.


Indeed, ISIS itself has problems in ruling its Syrian territories. According to a secular activist in Raqqa, one of the cities controlled by ISIS, “people are now more scared of [ISIS] than the Assad regime bombardments.” “Women are afraid to go out of the house for fear that they might be whipped in public squares for not wearing the right clothes,” he told NOW. “Men’s hands are cut off. Every day we wake up to the news that someone has been slaughtered by ISIS,” he said, insisting that “ISIS works for the regime.”


“The majority of civilians can’t take any more of the ISIS practices,” Syrian journalist Manhal Bahrish told NOW. “They abandoned important objectives, like Tabaka airport and Command 17, and got busy with death penalty campaigns against activists and journalists, accusing them of blasphemy and of being secularists. In regions like Raqqa, it is impossible for them to get any compassion from the people,” he said.


However, Itani pointed out that even with their harsh methods of ruling, some Syrian tribal groups supported Baghdadi and his fighters. “So far, we don’t know if this will happen in Iraq as well. Not all clans would support ISIS. Regions in Salaheddine and Nineveh might support them, but there are also clans who might not do it,” he said.


Simcox added that Baghdadi is not expected to stop here. His popularity is constantly growing among jihadists in the region and the world, sometimes overshadowing Al-Qaeda and Zawahiri. “ISIS is a competitive group and it’s challenging Al-Qaeda,” Simcox told NOW.


For now, it’s difficult to say who is willing and able to stop ISIS from expanding further. Both Bahrish and Itani asserted that ISIS’s rise is a plot managed by Damascus and Tehran, in cooperation with the Iranian-sponsored government in Baghdad. “Maliki’s regime will work with Assad’s regime in order to promote the idea of fighting terrorism for the benefit of the region,” Bahrish said.


Meanwhile, according to Iraqi and American official sources, Maliki secretly asked the White House to consider airstrikes against ISIS-controlled areas, but was reportedly met with refusal.


“If there is going to be any international intervention to push back ISIS, I think it’s going to be more likely Iranian than Western,” Simcox concluded.


Myra Abdallah contributed with translation.

Cutting a new border? (AFP Photo/Handout/Al Baraka News)

“Maliki’s regime will work with Assad’s regime in order to promote the idea of fighting terrorism for the benefit of the region."