What Is ISIS: How the Islamic State Took Power in Iraq and Syria

Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the local Al-Qaida branch gradually morphed into a group that sought to control territory and build an Islamically pure world.

Daniella Peled
Daniella Peled
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ISIS mass execution in Iraq.
Undated file photo of ISIS mass execution in Iraq. Credit: Reuters/Haaretz
Daniella Peled
Daniella Peled

The roots of the Islamic State can be traced back to the turmoil that followed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Dozens of Sunni militias sprang up after the invasion and within a year the focus had shifted from fighting Western invaders to managing sectarian rivalries.

Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, already active in northern Iraq before the invasion, helped pull a swath of these militant groups together to become Al-Qaida in Iraq. They became a major factor in the country’s destabilization and descent into out-and-out chaos. As the Islamic State would do in due course, Al-Qaida in Iraq focused on inciting sectarian hatred and recruiting disenfranchised Sunnis.

Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006 and later that year Al-Qaida in Iraq morphed with a number of other groups into the Islamic State in Iraq. The grandiose title reflected growing ambitions and a separate trajectory from Al-Qaida, though the group's chances of actually forming a state seemed slim. This was the time of the so-called Anbar Awakening in which Sunni tribes were recruited to fight the insurgency.

Islamic State in Iraq's fortunes continued to dwindle in the face of the "surge" in which the United States sent more than 20,000 fresh troops to Iraq. Most of these forces helped secure Baghdad, with 4,000 dispatched to Anbar Province. By the end of 2007, violence had dropped amid the insurgents' heavy casualties. The U.S. military gradually reduced its numbers and in October 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama announced their full withdrawal.

But violence mounted again. The Iraqi army lacked the capacity to ensure security and the power vacuum gave the Islamic State in Iraq the chance to feed off Sunni resentment of Shi'ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s discriminatory policies.

Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki casts his ballot during parliamentary election in Baghdad in this April 30, 2014 file photo.Credit: Reuters

Blame game

Some commentators charge that Obama’s eagerness to leave Iraq and failure to leave a residual U.S. force to support the army abetted the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq. Obama already made clear during his first election campaign that he was determined to take the United States out of Iraq.

In a December 2011 speech at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he told the gathered soldiers, “Everything that American troops have done in Iraq, all the fighting and dying, bleeding and building, training and partnering, has led us to this moment of success."

As Obama put it, "The war in Iraq will soon belong to history, and your service belongs to the ages.”

The military strongly advised that at least 10,000 U.S. soldiers remain to help maintain stability, but neither Obama nor Maliki had the enthusiasm to convince their constituencies.

Of course, there would have been no need for an exit if the United States under George W. Bush had not invaded Iraq in 2003. The iron fist of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein prevented the emergence of a serious armed opposition. Some blame the U.S.-led coalition’s military adventure for the huge instability and resentment among Sunni Iraqis and say a long insurgency was inevitable.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair issued what was interpreted as a partial admission of responsibility in an October 2015 interview when he said, “Of course you can’t say those of us who removed Saddam in 2003 bear no responsibility for the situation in 2015.”

Iranian involvement in Iraq further fueled Sunni resentment. Intent on keeping the Shi'ite-dominated government in power – particularly after the 2011 U.S. withdrawal – Tehran has funded vast numbers of Shi'ite militias that in some areas operate with more authority than state forces.

Split from Al-Qaida

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became leader of the Islamic State in Iraq in 2010. He built up the group's fighting forces in Iraq and exploited the growing chaos of the Syrian conflict.

Still from a video purporting to show ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq, July 2014.Credit: Reuters

He created the Nusra Front to fight Bashar Assad’s forces in Syria, a move that led to a definitive split from Al-Qaida in 2013 when al-Baghdadi consolidated his forces into the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (or Syria) – the current Islamic State. Al-Qaida and the Nusra Front both objected to no avail.

The ISIS policy of exploiting tensions between the Shi'ite-dominated government and the Sunni minority paid off. Recruiting tribal leaders and former Baathists – and taking advantage of Iraqi army incompetence – the Islamic State took Fallujah in January 2014.

ISIS shocked the world by overrunning the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014. The Islamic State seemed unstoppable. The Iraqi army fled and the militant forces continued toward Baghdad, taking numerous cities and towns and brutally wiping out any armed resistance among opponents and alleged apostates.

The caliphate

In June 2014, al-Baghdadi declared the creation of the Islamic State caliphate governed strictly in accordance with sharia law and appointed himself caliph, God's deputy on Earth.

ISIS’ demands are more than grandiose – all Muslims must swear allegiance and fulfill their duty to build an Islamically pure world. According to maps shared by supporters on social media, the envisaged caliphate stretches across the Middle East and North Africa into parts of Europe and Asia.

Its fighters are truly international, representing a broad range of cultures. The Western recruits are particularly useful for demonstrating the ideology's reach and power. The fact that people from the West are willing to forgo a more comfortable life advertises the supposed benefits of life in the caliphate (though there are also significant contingents from less-rich Central Asia and Russia).

Led by an advisory council made up of up to 10 members, the Islamic State is also distinguished by its decentralized hierarchy, with local commanders enjoying broad autonomy. And ISIS provides services of a sort – an indication of how it prioritizes resources given its fight on a number of fronts involving complex logistics and vast funding.

It has opened its own schools, albeit with a brutally literal Islamic curriculum. It provides medical services, though these are patchy at best. It collects taxes and regulates traffic, and the caliphate has enforced its own – incredibly harsh – justice system.

Iraqi security forces standing guard in front of the Islamic court run by the Islamic State in Sadiyah, north of Baghdad, Nov. 24, 2014.Credit: AP

Meanwhile, disparate jihadi groups have aligned with the Islamic State including branches of Al-Qaida, now its rival. But beyond swearing allegiance and basking in the glow of the ISIS brand, there is little evidence that these groups share the Islamic State's command and control structure or financial resources.

ISIS territory now spans part of Iraq and Syria, with its de facto capital in Raqqa in northern Syria. It has been called the richest terror group ever.

The Islamic State draws huge revenues from the oil fields it controls in the east of Syria, with other funding coming from the banks it looted in cities such as Mosul and the ransoms it draws from hostage-taking.

A screenshot of the purported ISIS video demanding a $200-million ransom for two Japanese hostages, January 20, 2014.

Recruits and refugees

Its numbers seem to be growing, with recruits attracted from abroad or other parts of Iraq and Syria at 1,000 a month according to some estimates. They are lured by slick propaganda and a chance to exert power.

The narrative of an apocalyptic war between Islam and nonbelievers has also proved attractive to disaffected young men from around the world. Fighters can expect benefits such as pay, housing, marriage and the sanction to take “slaves” from non-Muslim minority groups. The Islamic State has also recruited by force in areas such as the north of Raqqa Province and in Mosul, while its videos have celebrated its child soldiers, which it calls “cubs.”

Some estimates put its total number of fighters at around 50,000, but ISIS has managed stunning military successes with modest forces. The conquest of Mosul, for instance, is believed to have involved around 800 fighters.

It is impossible to state the number of people who have died as a consequence of the Islamic State's rise. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory said the group had executed more than 3,000 people in the first year of its self-declared caliphate. According to Iraq Body Count, ISIS killed 4,325 civilians in Iraq in 2014.

The Islamic State has undoubtedly added to the refugee crisis that has seen around 9 million Syrians fleeing their homes since the start of the civil war. The rise of ISIS has also displaced more than 3 million people in Iraq.

Map of territory in the Middle East where ISIS operates and has full control. Credit: Haaretz



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