Tuesday, June 16, 2015


By Ronald T. Fox

ISIS Fighters in Tank
ISIS Fighters Celebrating

While a number of blame-games have fingered wealthy Sunni patrons in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and the Persian Gulf monarchies for providing the financial and military wherewithal that enabled ISIS to flourish, most do not give enough credit to Islamic State leaders and fighters themselves for the organization's rise and the striking success of their political maneuvering and military operations. To be sure, they exploited a window of opportunity opened by Bush and Obama blunders, as well as opportunities which arose in Syria, but their persuasion skills, strategic savvy, fighting ability, and resilience have been extraordinary and must be seen as an essential factor in understanding how well they were able to exploit their opportunities.

ISIS brings to battle skilled, battle-hardened, officers and soldiers, many trained by Saddam Hussein, who have been fighting both American and Iraqi Shiite-led forces for over a decade. It employs a decentralized command structure with field commanders having battle responsibility. Having grown up in the Sunni areas, these leaders understand the terrain and the provincial tribes and social structures well. They know which residents can be co-opted and which must be eliminated. This knowledge provides them an enormous political and military advantage. In contrast, the Iraqi Army often fights in locations about which they have little knowledge and little local support. Ahmed Ali, a senior fellow at the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, said about ISIS field commanders: “their level of intelligence collection is straight out of the Ba’ath Party playbook . . . Very precise, very personal.”

In contrast to the hit-and-run tactics of previous Islamist groups like al Qaeda, whose philosophy has been to focus on the "far enemy" (though this may be changing as new leaders assume power within the organization), ISIS has been able to integrate with local insurgencies with the aim of taking and holding territory, which it declares a caliphate.  This has been accomplished by building administrative structures and eliminating, often brutally, any potential challengers to its supremacy. It has learned how to live off the land. It finances campaigns through bank robberies, extortion of local populations, kidnapping for ransom, and the sale of oil and other commodities from occupied territories.  The Islamic State has become virtually self-sustaining in areas it occupies.

Its ability to quickly overrun Iraqi forces has provided ISIS caches of abandoned, mostly American, weapons. When it overran Mosul, it reportedly captured several M113 armored personal carriers, an armored bulldozer, and, according to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, over 2300 armored Humvees, many of which it converted into mobile suicide bombs.  It even turned construction vehicles into weapons.  These captured weapons were decisive in the Islamic State’s recent conquest of Ramadi, a city where American troops and Sunni tribes had once united to drive al Qaeda in Iraq out of the Anbar Province. The Humvees enabled ISIS to breach security force perimeters and uproot Iraqi troops from their defensive positions (the Humvee’s payload can support as much as a ton of explosives). Such weapons have also helped them beat back Iraqi attempts to regain lost territory. They also provided flashy videos for worldwide dissemination.

ISIS Using US Weapons
ISIS Fighters With U.S. Weapons
The use of violence is not the only reason ISIS had been able to advance in the face of now nearly a year of withering American airstrikes. It mixes in an acute ability to persuade primarily Sunnis to believe it is the best guardian of their security and political interests. ISIS has become a social and political movement in many Sunni areas. It provides certain social services and has been adept at winning favor by playing to Sunni resentments,  such as when it blew up the notorious Tadmur Prison, which had been used by the Maliki regime to detain and torture political prisoners.

Perhaps more importantly, the Islamic State provides Sunnis a sense of national identity many lost when the Shiite-led government consolidated its hold on power. Most Sunnis do not support the Islamic State’s interpretation of Islam or its extreme use of violence, but are attracted to its political talk about protecting them and redressing the injustices they’ve been dealt. For many Sunnis, ISIS has become their champion.

James Foley
The ability of ISIS to recruit fighters from among discontented Sunnis (and some non-Sunnis) is well-documented. The visuals it disseminates of atrocities it commits, like mass executions and beheadings, understandably horrifies observers in the West, as well as in much of the wider Muslim community, but there is a method to their madness.  The atrocities appeal to discontented Muslims who have grown to hate Western culture and especially the U.S. While playing to growing enmity, the visuals are also intended to instigate anti-Islamic over-reaction from the West, and the U.S. in particular. American retaliatory air strikes and drone attacks have killed thousands of Islamic State militants, but also a number of their Islamist enemies.  The strikes have also killed scores of civilians as well, which in reaction has expanded the pool of potential jihadist recruits. Recruitment is further enabled when outraged Christians denigrate the Muslim faith.

The Islamic State’s has demonstrated a level of sophistication in using social media.  Its been able to highlight its victories and disseminate its jihadist message to millions-- friend and foe alike.  Social media has proven a valuable tool for ISIS to tap into Muslim resentment.  It has helped them recruit fighters not only from Iraq and Syria, but from across the wider Middle East and beyond.  The West has been generally unsuccessful in countering Islamic State messaging on social media.

Combining extreme brutality against any other Sunni groups that challenge its domination, with efforts to persuade local Sunnis that only it can best represent their interests, has enabled ISIS to grow despite a constant barrage of airstrikes.  This dual strategy has proven a successful formula for the advances of the Islamic State.

The next post looks at President Obama's alleged responsibility for the emergence of ISIS.

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