Brutal Efficiency: The Secret to Islamic State’s Success
Brutal Efficiency: The Secret to Islamic State's Success
Islamic State's stunning success this summer as it swept across northern Iraq and Syria flows from a highly organized structure controlled by a tightknit cadre led by an Islamist zealot who learned from the mistakes of his al Qaeda predecessors.
Blending familiar terrorist acts such as car bombings with conventional military tactics, the group bolsters its strength with local tribal connections and the skills of former generals in Saddam Hussein's army, said Western and Middle Eastern officials tracking the extremist movement.
Thrown into the mix is an effective recruitment strategy – join us or die, some young men in captured areas are told – along with wealth from the extortion of local businessmen and the appeal to religious fundamentalists of having a new Islamic "caliphate" on occupied land. To its supporters, Islamic State has effectively portrayed the quest for territory as an existential fight for Sunni Muslims world-wide.
The result is a new breed of terror organization. "They have just improved on what al Qaeda has done, and they have done it on a much larger scale," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism specialist at Georgetown University.
The organization is led by a core group of leaders who have known each other for years, with anyone of dubious loyalty long since eliminated.
Like top Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, many of those in the inner circle spent time in American custody at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq. From detention, "they emerged even more radical," said Hasan Abu Hanieh, a Jordanian expert on al Qaeda.
Islamic State has a tight command and control structure with about a dozen leaders at the top, said Western and Arab officials and Syrian rebels who have watched the group evolve. Emulating an army operation, the group sometimes pauses its military operations to consolidate gains and shore up logistical infrastructure.
"They adopted a structure of governance that the others did not," said Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Mich.), chairman of the House intelligence committee. He noted that Islamic State recently appointed an oil minister to coordinate the captured energy facilities.
By contrast, al Qaeda – of which Islamic State once was a part but no longer is – generally doesn't occupy territory. In a video in July, a man jihadist watchers said was Mr. Baghdadi demanded that Muslims swear allegiance to his caliphate.
Mr. Baghdadi in 2010 took over a group once known as al Qaeda in Iraq, which had been founded after the U.S. Iraq invasion and led by the militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. AQI grew to as many as 10,000 guerrillas in 2006-07, by which time a U.S. airstrike had killed Mr. Zarqawi.
During part of that time, in 2004, Mr. Baghdadi was confined in Camp Bucca, a facility that held more than 20,000 detainees at times.
In 2007, Mr. Baghdadi joined al Qaeda's Iraq branch, at the time known to its members as the Islamic State in Iraq, which was the seed for today's organization. That year, the branch began shrinking, and it was only 5% or 10% of its peak size by the time American forces left Iraq, U.S. intelligence officials said.
In taking over al Qaeda in Iraq, Mr. Baghdadi inherited an organization with a pyramidlike structure, according to Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. While analysts are still trying to clarify chains of command and operational details of the group – in flux as it both grows and develops – some details are emerging.
Now playing a role approximating that of a second-in-command is a former Iraqi Army officer with the nom de guerre Abu Ali al-Anbari. He largely manages the group's Syria operations, some analysts said. That includes directing battle against other Syrian rebels who oppose both President Bashar al-Assad's regime and Islamic State.
Mr. Anbari rose through al Qaeda in Iraq after being ejected from another Iraqi radical Sunni group, Ansar al-Islam, amid financial corruption allegations, according to Syrian and Iraqi militants. His knowledge of Shariah Islamic rules isn't considered as extensive as that of other senior leaders, according to these militants, who said he now acts as a kind of political envoy.
Another important Baghdadi lieutenant is Fadel Ahmed Abdullah al-Hiyali, according to Hisham al-Hashimi, a Baghdad-based expert on militants.
Mr. Hiyali – nom de guerre Abu Muslim Al Turkmani – is, like Mr. Anbari, a former general under Saddam Hussein. He once practiced a moderate form of Islam. Decommissioned from the Iraqi army after U.S. forces arrived, he joined Sunni Muslim insurgents to fight the Americans, Mr. Hashimi said. Some analysts describe Mr. Hiyali as equal in stature to Mr. Anbari.
Mr. Baghdadi has a war cabinet and a Shura council, or collection of religious scholars to legislate, said Mr. Lister of Brookings.
In addition, the Islamic State leader has a cabinet of ministers and a council of provincial governors.
Mr. Baghdadi acts as a commanding general and doesn't micromanage, U.S. officials said. He has a courier service to deliver messages such as religious decrees and military commands.
His leadership is infused with "a real sense of paranoia and a focus on outright loyalty," according to Mr. Lister. He said that when Mr. Baghdadi took the reins four years ago, he presided over an assassination campaign against any of his commanders suspected of potential disloyalty. The military command now is in the hands of men Mr. Baghdadi knows and trusts intimately.
Among foreign fighters, only the best are permitted to take on a high public profile. These include the red-bearded Abu Omar al Shishani, an ethnic Chechen who once served in an intelligence unit of the Georgian army and now is based in Syria. That strategy, experts say, is finely curated to sustain the group's global jihad appeal.
As it takes territory, Islamic State has left much of the work of governing to local officials, helping it avoid unduly alienating the population. Its capture of territory, including oil fields and bank branches, also has left it financially flush.
In taking land, said Mr. Hashimi, the strategy is to exploit alliances with local tribal leaders – who either are like-minded allies or have been intimidated, bribed or coerced to provide sanctuary and support.
The group capitalized on Sunni groups' disaffection with now-departing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose approach favoring Shiite Muslims drove sectarian divisions.
Islamic State also has developed a pattern of operating within striking distance of those it regards as its enemies, particularly Shiites, to provide fighters with an ideological animus.
"Their strategy is always that they will fight within a Sunni environment near a Shiite enemy that gives them motivation," Mr. Hashimi said.
Islamic State's ability to hold territory has furthered the perception it has momentum and is winning, U.S. intelligence officials say. Among other effects, that fuels recruitment.
The group's comeback, after its decline, began around 2012. By June of this year, before Islamic State blazed across Iraq and took control of Mosul and Tikrit, its numbers were again up to 10,000 fighters, U.S. intelligence officials said,
It employs a range of recruitment tactics, often coercing new recruits. Just since July, more than 6,000 fighters have joined Islamic State, nearly 5,000 of them Syrians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Syrian opposition watchdog.
Islamic State trains recruits in two camps, in Aleppo and Raqqa, said the Observatory. It called this summer's recruitment the heaviest since April 2013, when the group once called al Qaeda in Iraq adopted the names Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In late June 2014, it shortened its name to simply Islamic State, though it is sometimes still referred to as ISIS or ISIL.
Of this summer's recruits, the Observatory estimated 1,300 were from outside Syria and Iraq.
U.S. officials say roughly a dozen Americans have gone to fight with Islamic State militants, with at least two killed recently while fighting with the group. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is tracking more than 100 Americans who have gone to Syria to fight with different jihadist militant groups, though the FBI has said it doesn't know how many Americans it has missed.
Many more fighters have come from other Western countries. British security officials estimate 500 Britons have joined militant groups in Syria, and officials believe the more recent recruits have largely been drawn to Islamic State.