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Four reasons for ISIS’s success

The editors of Oxford Islamic Studies Online asked several experts the following question:

The world has watched as ISIS (ISIL, the “Islamic State”) has moved from being a small but extreme section of the Syrian opposition to a powerful organization in control of a large swath of Iraq and Syria. Even President Obama recently admitted that the US was surprised by the success of ISIS in that region. Why have they been so successful, and why now?

Political Scientist Robert A. Pape and undergraduate research associate Sarah Morell, both from the University of Chicago, share their thoughts.

ISIS has been successful for four primary reasons. First, the group has tapped into the marginalization of the Sunni population in Iraq to gain territory and local support. Second, ISIS fighters are battle-hardened strategists fighting against an unmotivated Iraqi army. Third, the group exploits natural resources to fund their operations. And fourth, ISIS has utilized a brilliant social media strategy to recruit fighters and increase their international recognition. One of the important aspects cutting across these four elements is the unification of anti-American populations across Iraq and Syria — remnants of the Saddam regime, Iraqi civilians driven to militant behavior during the US occupation, transnational jihadists, and the tribes who were hung out to dry following the withdrawal of US forces in 2011.

The Sunni population’s hatred of the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad has allowed ISIS to quickly overtake huge swaths of Iraqi Sunni territory. The Iraq parliamentary elections in 2010 were a critical moment in this story. The Iraqiyya coalition, led by Ayad Allawi, won support of the Sunni population to win the plurality of seats in Iraq’s parliament. Maliki’s party came second by a slim two-seat margin. Despite Allawi’s electoral victory, Maliki and his Shia coalition — backed by the United States — succeeded in forming a government with Maliki as Prime Minister.

Inside of the Baghdad Convention Center, where the Council of Representatives of Iraq meets. By James (Jim) Gordon. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Inside of the Baghdad Convention Center, where the Council of Representatives of Iraq meets. By James (Jim) Gordon. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In the months following the election, Maliki targeted Sunni leaders in an effort to consolidate Shia domination of Baghdad. Many of these were the same Sunni leaders successfully mobilized by US forces during the occupation — in an operation that became known as the Anbar Awakening — to cripple al-Qa’ida in Iraq strongholds within the Sunni population. When the US withdrew, they directed the aid to the Maliki government with the expectation that Maliki would distribute it fairly. Instead, the day after the US forces withdrew in December 2011, Iraq’s Judicial Council issued an arrest warrant for Iraqi Vice President Hashimi, a key Sunni leader. Arrests of Sunni leaders and their staffs continued, sparking widespread Sunni protests in Anbar province. When ISIS — a Sunni extremist group — rolled into Iraq, many in the Sunni population cooperated, viewing the group as the lesser of two evils.

The second element in the ISIS success story is their military strategy. Their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, spent four years as a prisoner in the Bucca Camp before assuming control of AQI (ISIS’s predecessor) in 2010. He seized upon the opportunity of the Syrian civil war to fuel a resurgence of the group. As a result, today’s ISIS militants are battle-hardened through their Syrian experience fighting moderate rebels. The Washington Post has described Baghdadi as “a shrewd strategist, a prolific fundraiser, and a ruthless killer.”

In Iraq, ISIS has adopted “an operational form that allows decentralized commanders to use their experienced fighters against the weakest points of its foes,” writes Robert Farley in The National Interest. “At the same time, the center retains enough operational control to conduct medium-to-long term planning on how to allocate forces, logistics, and reinforcements.” Their strategy — hitting their adversaries at their weakest points while avoiding fights they cannot win — has created a narrative of momentum that increases the group’s morale and prestige.

ISIS has also carved out a territory in Iraq that Shia and Kurdish forces will not fight and die to retake, an argument articulated by Kenneth Pollack at Brookings. ISIS has not tried to take Baghdad because they know they would lose; Shia forces would be motivated to expend blood and treasure to defeat ISIS on their home turf. Some experts believe the Kurds, likewise, are unlikely to commit forces to retake Sunni territory. This mentality also plays into the catastrophic performance of the Iraqi Security Forces at Mosul, forces composed disproportionately of Kurds and Sunni Arabs; when confronted with Sunni militants, these soldiers “were never going to fight to the death for Maliki and against Sunni militants looking to stop him,” writes Pollack.

Third, ISIS has also been able to seize key natural resources in Syria to fund their operations, probably making them one of the wealthiest terror groups in history. ISIS is in control of 60% of Syria’s oil assets, including the Al Omar, Tanak, and Shadadi oil fields. According to the US Treasury, the group’s oil sales are pulling in about $1 million a day. This enables ISIS to increasingly become “a hybrid organization, on the model of Hezbollah,” writes Steve Coll in The New Yorker — “part terrorist network, part guerrilla army, part proto-state.”

Finally, ISIS has developed a sophisticated social media campaign to “recruit, radicalize, and raise funds,” according to J. M. Berger in The Atlantic. The piece details ISIS’s Arabic-language Twitter app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, advertised as a way to keep up on the latest news about the group. On the day ISIS marched into Mosul, the app sent almost 40,000 tweets. The group has displayed a lighter side to the militants, such as videos showing young children breaking their Ramadan fast with ISIS fighters. These strategies “project strength and promote engagement online” while also romanticizing their fight, attracting new recruits from around the world and inspiring lone wolf attacks.

Since June 2014, the United Sates has pursued a policy of offshore balancing — over-the-horizon air and naval power, Special Forces, and empowerment of local allies — to contain and undermine ISIS. The crucial local groups are the Sunni tribes. These leaders were responsible for the near-collapse of AQI during the Anbar Awakening, and could well be able to defeat ISIS in the future.

This is part two of a series of articles discussing ISIS. Part one is by Hanin Ghaddar, Lebanese journalist and editor. Part two is by Shadi Hamid, fellow at the Brookings Institution. Part three is by Charles Kurzman, Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Headline image credit: Coalition airstrike on ISIL position in Kobane on 22 October 2014. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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