Roughly a year ago, I read a report by Aymen Jawad al-Tamimi, an expert on Iraqi jihadist groups and specifically the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Published on Joshua Landis’ Syria Comment website, the report analyzed then recent advances made by ISIS. The conclusion of Tamimi’s report wasn’t necessarily a warning; perhaps an illumination is more appropriate.
“ISIS is clearly not a force to be dismissed as marginal without any real support on the ground, even as its presence is undoubtedly sparking backlash in many areas. Above all, these recent developments as regards ISIS’ expansion vindicate to an extent my prediction in March in a guest post for Syria Comment about the emergence and establishment of jihadist strongholds in the north and east of Syria.”
This report came out on July 18th, 2013. Not very many people knew about ISIS at that time. The group was confined to Aleppo and Idlib governorates. The main storylines coming out of Syria relating to rebel groups mainly dealt with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN). People who followed the Syrian conflict knew about ISIS, but the group was just a piece of a muddled picture where geographical location often meant more than group affiliation.
Four months later, Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, claimed ISIS was a major player in northern Syria because of its “capability to exploit superior levels of financing and resources — essentially, to spread itself thinly enough to exert influence and/or control, but not too thin as to be overpowered by rivals.”
Reports of the group’s brutal tactics in Raqqa overshadowed a more disturbing fact – ISIS was creating a fully functional bureaucracy. In November 2013, images from social media showed ISIS-run schools in Jarablus, Raqqa , Hasakah , and Aleppo. Images from social media showed ISIS headquarters in Raqqa and Azaz. Images of ISIS-controlled police stations, courts, and public transportation were also posted to social media sites in November 2013.
What had happened in the four-month period since Tamimi’s report? How had ISIS gone from an overlooked group to a power player? It began in April, when ISIS Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the group had merged with JN. Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, the leader of JN, followed up this announcement by publicly pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda central’s Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The back and forth arguments continued until early June, when Zawahiri ruled that JN was the sole al-Qaeda branch in Syria, and that the two groups should operate independently. Baghdadi replied on June 15th, with an audio message that dismissed Zawahiri’s orders. One JN soldier said at the time, “Defying the orders of Zawahiri is a black dot on Baghdadi’s career,” a prediction most agreed with. And why not? Al-Qaeda had been the most influential terrorist organization for over a decade.
In his June 15th message, Baghdadi said, “It remains, and we will not compromise; we will not give up […] until we die”. I bring this up because what happened the following month. On July 22nd, 2013, ISIS carried out raids on the Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons on the outskirts of Baghdad. They failed at Taji, but succeeded at Abu Ghraib, where somewhere between 500 and 1,000 inmates, including some senior al-Qaeda members, were able to escape.
The attack made headlines around the globe. It was sophisticated. It required precise coordination, expert strategic planning, and several willing suicide bombers. Al-Monitor, a prominent Middle East news outlet, claimed the attacks required “recalculations…to evaluate al-Qaeda’s capabilities.”
Up until that point, ISIS was just a group that the media often confused with Jabhat al-Nusra. Reports invariably followed ISIS with “al-Qaeda affiliate”. Baghdadi’s June 15th message didn’t make it enemies with al-Qaeda or JN, but it was evidence of autonomy.
Since then, forces in Syria joined efforts to remove ISIS from Syria. For a few days its seemed this coalition was succeeding, forcing ISIS to retreat. Yet, from its stronghold in Raqqa, the group eventually began to expand again. In February 2014, al-Qaeda completely disavowed ISIS, though it didn’t seem to affect Baghdadi’s vision.
All of this brings me to June 29th, 2014. A year and two weeks after rebuking Zawahiri’s ruling, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami, the spokesperson for ISIS, announced the group had removed “of Iraq and Syria” from its name, and in doing so declared its occupied territory a new caliphate, wherein Baghdadi was named the Caliph.
This occurred after the group displayed its power by capturing the city of Mosul in Iraq. But even so, many analysts thought the announcement unwise and predicted an imminent collapse.
Critics asserted that the global Muslim community would reject the Islamic State and unify against it. And there were many who rejected the new caliphate. But there were also a surprising number of groups who pledged allegiance to Baghdadi. There were even members of al-Qaeda branches who gave their support, including a few of the leading members of JN.
Critics claimed that because the group now controlled large areas of Iraq and northern Syria, they had bitten off more than it could chew. Yet, these critics forgot two very important characteristics of ISIS strategy. The first, as Lister stated, is their ability to find a balance when spreading themselves thin. The second, which was alluded to in a recent New York Times article, is that the Islamic State has a concrete vision of creating an actual state.
The evidence has been available on social media for the past year. Media scoffed at the group’s public relations events. There were laughs when ISIS ice cream parties hit the newsstands. I’m not criticizing those who found it ridiculous; it’s a stark contrast to the barbaric executions the group also commits.
Yet, the group also constantly releases videos and photos of public service events- fixing roads, delivering food, and distributing Zakat- that are rarely mentioned. The Islamic State is providing rigid and efficient bureaucracy that has long been absent in the areas it now rules over.
When Baghdadi and ISIS were criticized back in June 2013 for the way they handled arbitrations with Zawahiri, the group didn’t respond by apologizing and making amends. They followed with audacious attacks on two of the most secure prisons in Iraq.
Criticism following the June 29th announcement of the caliphate is proving to affect the Islamic State in the same way it did a year earlier: it’s not. Instead, the group pulled off operations on July 23rd, 2014, that, in light of their scope, may be even more ridiculous than the raids that took place almost exactly a year before.
The major operation occurred in Raqqa, the capital of the new caliphate and the group’s guinea pig of governance. Several hundred Islamic State fighters attacked the Division 17 base just north of the city. The base is nearly a third the size of the city itself and is strategically vital to the Syrian regime because it provides Syrian forces with the ability to bomb Raqqa from the ground.
The group announced today that they had succeeded in capturing the base, though so far photos only indicate the southeast section of the base is under their control. However, what is more significant is the operations simultaneously taking place elsewhere.
In the Salahhudin province of Iraq, the Islamic State carried out several operations in Dhuluiya, Samarra, and Tikrit. In Anbar there were further operations in Hit, al-Karma and Ramadi. In Diyala there were multiple operations in Jalawla. In Mosul the group captured the State Company for Drug Industries and Medical Appliances.
Operations also took place just outside of Baghdad, the capital of Iraq. Once again, the group attempted to raid the Taji prison, and once again they were denied. However, explosions were heard throughout the city overnight, and the group carried out two car bombings the following morning.
Other than the operations at Division 17, this isn’t a unique day for the Islamic State. On any given day the group claims responsibility for between 20 and 40 attacks throughout Syria and Iraq.
Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran at the U.S. Department of State, recently testified at a House Foreign Affairs Committee, claiming that the Islamic State can no longer be considered a terrorist group in the traditional sense, but instead is a full fledged army. This, taken with the New York Times’ article on the group’s legitimate state operations, are eerily similar recalculations of the reality and potential of the Islamic State that emerged following their attack on Abu Ghraib prison a year ago.
A year ago, Tamimi was stating that ISIS should not be dismissed as marginal. No one would dismiss the group as marginal now, but too many continue to underestimate the group’s capabilities. Too many continue to describe the group’s “sudden” rise as if the group had just been formed. If people want to stop being surprised by the Islamic State, they need to change their perceptions of what a terrorist group is capable of achieving.