ISIS: A Backgrounder

If, like most, you wonder how the Islamic State of al-Sham (ISIS) came to prominence in the Middle East, seemingly overnight, terrorism analysts Ilana Freedman and Jerry Gordon offer a valuable primer. The rise of ISIS is rooted in the “Arab Spring”:

The confrontations developing in the Middle East are the predictable outcome of the so-called “Arab Spring,” coupled with weak American leadership which has empowered Islamists throughout the world to challenge the West at every opportunity. They know that the West will not respond.

The “Arab Spring” began in Tunisia in 2010, and raced through Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria, and other countries with large or predominantly Muslim populations whether Arab or not. …

ISIS evolved from a group founded by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2004. … In 2006, the name was changed to the simpler “Islamic State of Iraq” (ISI). Then, in 2012, after entering the conflict in Syria to challenge both the forces of the ruling Assad and the various opposition groups, secular and Islamist, ISI was changed to ISIS. Thus including Syria and reflecting its expanded goals, ISIS moved further away from the core al Qaeda agenda that did not embrace the Caliphate as a primary goal.

While the group’s original aim was to establish an Islamic caliphate in the regions of Iraq where there is a Sunni-majority, once the group became involved in the Syrian war, this mission was expanded to include controlling the Sunni-majority areas in northern Syria. In the course of ISIS’ expansion and successes in Syria, they opened a second front in Iraq. ISIS smashed through city after city and took a huge swath of the country from the north to central Iraq in the largely Sunni areas. The goal was expanded to attacks on the Syrian border to blur the boundaries between Iraq and Syria that could facilitate a merger into a single Islamist state.

On June 29, 2014, ISIS took a major step to achieve its goals. It formally announced the establishment of the Caliphate, naming Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the “Caliph for all Muslims.”

ISIS is distinguished not only by its brutality, but by its immense financial resources, which appear to dwarf any ever previously commanded by a terrorist organization:

One of the most stunning changes for ISIS over the last year has been its rapid accumulation of wealth. Just as the group has surged in strength and prominence in Iraq and Syria in recent months, it has unquestionably become the wealthiest terrorist organization in the world, with an estimated worth of $5-7 billion. This wealth was acquired in several ways.

Among the most notable and colorful was the sacking of the Central Bank in Mosul in early June 2014. When Iraqi soldiers fled the bank they were supposed to protect, they left it wide open for ISIS. The terrorists seized $429 million, much of it in gold bullion. According to a CFR report, it is believed that supporters in Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia have provided “the bulk of past funding.”

Another key source of ongoing revenues for ISIS, however, has been extortion from the populations wherever it takes control.

ISIS is already well armed:

Prior to 2014, ISIS suffered from a severe shortage of weapons as they faced the US-equipped Iraqi military forces. Once they launched their assault on Fallujah in January, however, the situation changed dramatically. Iraqi soldiers fled before them, leaving their weapons behind and their armories unsecured. As ISIS overran police stations and security posts, they helped themselves to stores of US weaponry and vehicles, including Humvees, which had been left behind by departing US troops. The Humvees have been seen driving around in places as far away as Aleppo, Syria, 250 miles away, filled with well-armed ISIS fighters. …

In an alarming turn of events, it was reported on June 19 that ISIS had overrun the Saddam Hussein-era al-Muthanna chemical weapons complex 60 miles north of Baghdad. This coup gave them access to hundreds of tons of potentially deadly poisons, including mustard and sarin gas.

What can the U.S. do to oppose ISIS more effectively? Under the current administration, probably not much:

The Administration for its part looks like the proverbial deer frozen in the headlights of ISIS. Last week, it floated the belated idea of funding $500 million to train “moderate” Sunni rebel fighters in the Syrian civil war. This is a civil war that looks increasingly like a stalemate between ISIS and the Assad forces, backed by Hezbollah and Iran’s Quds Force with support from Putin’s Russia.

That Administration proposal may be more than a day late and a dollar short. Given that such aid would not even begin until 2015, should Congress approve it, it may be totally beside the point. We had reports in mid-June from Der Spiegel and other sources that the some CIA-trained rebel fighters in Jordan opted to join ISIS, given its stunning successes. We are likely to find that this is more the rule than the exception, as those we have trained opt for the success of ISIS’ terrorist activity.

As they say: read it all.

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