1. This study examines the nature of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), an Islamic Salafist-jihadi terrorist organization founded a decade ago as a branch of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. It established itself during the fighting against the United States in the Sunni regions of western Iraq and spread to eastern and northern Syria during the Syrian civil war. In the summer of 2014 ISIS scored dramatic achievements, among them the occupation of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and the declaration of the “Islamic Caliphate,” headed by a charismatic Iraqi terrorist operative nicknamed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
2. This study is an overall analysis of ISIS. It examines the historical background and reasons for its founding and increase in strength, its ideological attraction, its tactical and strategic objectives and its military, governance and financial capabilities. The main objective of this study is to understand what lies behind its successes and how it became a threat not only to Syria and Iraq but to the Middle East and the international community as well. The study also deals with the campaign the United States declared against ISIS, examines the results so far and weighs the chances of its success in the future.
The Roots of ISIS
3. ISIS began as a branch of Al-Qaeda, founded in Iraq in 2004 after the American invasion and headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri. It filled the security and governmental void created by the disintegration of the Iraqi army and Saddam Hussein’s regime, accompanied by the increasing alienation of the Sunni Muslims from the central, Shi’ite-affiliated governmentin Baghdad sponsored by the United States. The branch of Al-Qaeda gradually established itself in Iraq during the fighting against the United States and its allies, adopted the name the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), and became a central force among the anti-American insurgents.
4. Towards the end of the American presence in Iraq the ISI was weakened (as were other insurgents), the result of America’s military successes combined with its wise policy of fostering the Sunni tribes in western Iraq (ISIS’s principal domain). However, the Americans did not continue the policy, and later policies carried out by Shi’ite Adnan al-Maliki and the American withdrawal from Iraq all contributed to strengthening the ISI. That gave it a convenient starting point for its operations when the Americans eventually withdrew from Iraq.
5. The civil war that broke out in March 2011 made Syria fertile ground for the spread of the ISI to Syria. In January 2012 the Al-Nusra Front (“support front”) was founded as the Syrian branch of the ISI. However, the two disagreed early on and the Al-Nusra Front split off from the Islamic State in Iraq, which then changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). Al-Qaeda, under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri, announced its support for the Al-Nusra Front and its dissociation from the ISI. After the split ISIS gained military successes, leading it to declare the Islamic State (or the “Caliphate State”), while the rival Al-Nusra Front has weakened.
6. ISIS is an Islamic Salafist-jihadi organization. Salafism is an extremist Sunni political-religious movement within Islam that seeks to restore the golden era of the dawn of Islam(the time of the prophet Muhammad and the early Caliphs who followed him). That is to be done, according to Salafist jihadist ideology, by jihad (a holy war) against both internal and external enemies. Jihad, according to Salafist jihadism, is the personal duty of every Muslim. Al-Qaeda and the global jihad organizations (of which ISIS is one) sprang from Salafist jihadism.
7. According to the ISIS concept, Islam’s golden era will be restored through the establishment of a supranational Islamic Caliphate modeled after the regimes of the first Caliphs after the death of Muhammad. It will be ruled by Islamic religious law (the sharia), according to its most extreme interpretation. The Caliphate will arise on the ruins of the nation states established in the Middle East after the First World War. Some of them, including Syria and Iraq, where ISIS operates, are in the process of disintegrating in the wake of the upheaval in the Middle East, creating favorable conditions for the vision of an Islamic Caliphate.
8. The territory of the Caliphate State, whose establishment was declared by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, lies in eastern Syria and western Iraq. ISIS seeks to expand the Caliphate throughout Syria and Iraq and finally take control of them. After that, the states belonging to “greater Syria” will be annexed, that is, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and after them other countries in the Middle East and beyond. According to the ISIS vision as it appears on its maps, the future Islamic Caliphate will include vast stretches of North Africa, Asia and the Caucasus, and parts of Europe that were once under Muslim rule, such as Spain and the Balkans.
The Main Characteristics of ISIS
9. The main characteristics of ISIS are the following:
1) Military capabilities: ISIS has an estimated 25,000 operatives in Syria and Iraq, and their number is growing. In ITIC assessment, as many as 12,000 are operatives from Syria and Iraq, and more than 13,000 are foreign fighters. Most of the foreign fighters come from the Arab-Muslim world. An estimated 3,000 come from Western countries (about half from France and Britain). They usually arrive in Syria via Turkey, are given short military training by ISIS and engage in fighting. For the most part they return to their countries of origin. During their stay in Syria they gain military capabilities and receive Salafist-jihadi indoctrination, and pose a security threat to their countries of origin and to a certain extent to Israel (as illustrated by the attack on the Jewish museum in Brussels, which was carried out by a French national who fought in the ranks of ISIS).
2) Possession of weapons: ISIS has a large arsenal of weapons, most of them plundered from the Syrian and Iraqi armies. They include light arms, various types of rockets and mortars, and anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. In addition ISIS possesses heavy arms and the advanced technologies usually found only in regular national armies: artillery, tanks and armored vehicles, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles and drones. It has used mustard gas a number of times in Syria and Iraq and may have other types of chemical weapons, such as chlorine gas. Chemical weapons were used to attack the Kurdish militias in Ayn al-Arab (Qobanê) in northern Syria and against the Iraqi security forces. ISIS also has at least one Scud missile (technically flawed, in ITIC assessment) and a number of planes (operating from an ISIS-controlled airport).
3) Areas of control: Today ISIS controls an estimated third of the territory of Iraq and between a quarter and a third of Syria, from the outskirts of Baghdad to the outskirts of Aleppo. The vast area, according to various estimates, is home to between five and six million people. Several important cities are in the ISIS-controlled region, among them Mosul (the second largest city in Iraq), Fallujah (symbol of the struggle against the United States) and Al-Raqqah (the ISIS “capital city” in northern Syria). It is noteworthy that a relatively small number of ISIS operatives control a broad swath of territory, which is one of ISIS’s weak points. To overcome it, ISIS relies on local supporters and allies, and is making an effort to enlist operatives from Syria, Iraq and abroad.
4) Establishment of alternative administration networks: In the areas under its control ISIS instituted alternative administrations to replace those of Syria and Iraq which collapsed. They include educational, judicial, policing and law enforcement networks. ISIS uses them to provide vital services and at the same time to enforce its Salafist-jihadi ideology on the local population. To that end it uses brutal measures against its opponents and the minorities living under its control (including mass executions). Nevertheless, so far the local populations seem to have come to terms with ISIS control and sometimes even support it. They do so especially in view of its ability to provide basic services, restore daily life to the status quo ante, and fill the administrative void that was created.
5) High financial capabilities: In Syria and Iraq ISIS took control of the state infrastructure, including most of the oil fields in eastern Syria and several oil fields in Iraq. The export of petroleum products is the main source of ISIS’s income and its profits are estimated at several million dollars a day. However, profits fell in the wake of the aerial attacks carried out by the United States and its allies on its oil infrastructure. Other sources of ISIS income are various types of criminal activity (extortion, collecting ransom for abductees, trading in antiquities), collectingdonations and imposing local taxes. Thus it is an exceptional example of a terrorist organization which managed to acquire semi-national financial capabilities to fund its military infrastructure and allow it to establish an alternative governmental system.
For the entire report and more, visit The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center…