Conflict & Justice

Why is the Islamic State still so strong?


Demonstrators at a rally supporting Kurdistan hold placards protesting against the Islamic State in front of the White House on August 16.


Mandel Ngan

CAIRO, Egypt — The rapid rise of the Islamic State in Iraq has wrought a staggering humanitarian cost in a country that has already seen over a decade of war. Adding to its atrocities in Syria, the group has slaughtered hundreds of mostly non-Sunni Iraqis, and has forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.

To veteran observers and analysts of the region, IS also presents a new, uniquely worrying model of extremist group: one with a sustainable funding model. With a base of local funds gained from a rudimentary taxation system as well as extortion, theft, and kidnapping ransom, combined with expansion of control over resources in Syria and western and northern Iraq, IS has built up its power in a way Osama bin Laden only dreamed of. Their major weakness? An inability to compromise and form regional alliances. This, say analysts, may be their undoing in the long run.

The Islamic State, formerly know as ISIL, ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) or Da’sh in Arabic, is an offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq that was born out of a security vacuum left by the 2003 American invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein.

In March of 2013, IS took over the city of Raqqa in northern Syria, where they have established their headquarters. There they enforce a literal interpretation of Sharia law, carrying out floggings and public executions, cutting off hands for theft, and impaling the heads of their enemies on spikes. But after more than three years of civil war, some sense of order, draconian though it may be, is not as unwelcome as it might once have been. In January of 2014 IS overpowered the Iraqi army in several areas in the western province of Anbar, and in June, IS expanded its control from Syria back into Iraq, taking the major cities of Mosul and Tikrit with startling ease when the Iraqi army abandoned their posts.

Most estimates put IS’ numbers at anywhere from three to ten thousand fighters, but their ranks are reportedly growing along with their military successes.

To the best of anyone’s knowledge, outside support for IS comes from private donors in the Gulf, usually funneled through Kuwait, which has looser controls over the financing of extremist groups than Saudi Arabia and the UAE. While analysts agree that there is no evidence of direct state funding of IS — in fact, IS is despised and seen as a threat by all governments in the region — professor Gregory Gause, head of International Affairs at Texas A&M University, says that there is some “indirect evidence that during the last couple of years when Prince Bandar was running Saudi policy in Syria, that he was supporting other Salafi groups like Ahrar al-Sham.” Gause says that while they were organizationally separate from IS, “the borderlines between these groups are very shadowy and porous,” and the money of some Saudi officials may well have ended up in IS coffers.

In both Iraq and Syria, IS has now consolidated control over a number of important resources, thereby shoring up its power. “Al Qaeda was just about fighting,” and depended a lot on outside funding, says Nabeel Khoury, senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a longtime US diplomat in the Middle East. The difference with IS is that “they have … set up an Islamic State. Osama bin Laden had that as a distant goal but he never felt that they were ready to do that.”

IS currently controls five oil fields in Iraq, much of the oil and gas resources in Syria, and Iraq’s largest oil refinery. In July, the group began selling crude to Turkish traders.


A more sophisticated extremist group

As for fighting power, IS strategy is “beyond car bombs,” says Khoury. The capture of military bases has left them in better military stead than any other regional extremist group before them. The Wall Street Journal reports that IS has around 30 US-made M1 Abrams tanks and howitzers, as well as some armored Humvees and mine-resistant personnel carriers confiscated from the Iraqi army — this in addition to Russian-made weapons capable of shooting down helicopters and transport planes.

On Aug. 3 IS took control of the electricity-generating Mosul dam, raising fears that they could flood major cities in Iraq or cut off water to communities. Iraqi and Kurdish forces retook the dam on Aug. 17, with the help of US airstrikes against IS.

IS also now controls 40 percent of Iraq’s wheat. Reuters reports the group is taking wheat from government silos and selling it in local markets, thereby not only controlling a large proportion of food production but generating income in the process.

And unlike Al Qaeda, which alienated the Sunni tribes and so had little on-the-ground support, IS has actively sought their buy-in, even in some cases intermarrying with them.

Although IS and the other Sunni groups in the coalition that supports them in Iraq don’t necessarily share all the same goals, so far, the alliance has held.


The Islamic State’s weaknesses

When it comes to other Islamist groups in the region, however, IS doesn’t have many friends. It has called Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood “unbelievers” because they participate in democratic governments. It despises Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant and political group, because it is Shia. And while it is ideologically aligned with Al Qaeda, the two groups formalized their split when Al Qaeda leader Ayman el-Zawahiri denounced IS in February.

IS’ inability to cultivate even one regional ally has left it in a vulnerable position. Beyond some support in the southern Ma’an province of Jordan and marginal clerics in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iraq, it has no significant support from other groups. “They are not only overextended, but their brutality and threatening presence toward all state and non-state actors in the region make their survival fundamentals weak. They are geographically encircled and vulnerable to air power. At some point, there will be internal pushback from the local population. It’s been a great ride, but it’s one that isn’t self-sustaining,” says Ramzy Mardini, non-resident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.

Their rapid rise has had another unintended consequence: “They’ve done the impossible. They’ve brought a number of conflicting parties together against them,” says Gause. The IS threat has aligned, for example, the interests of the government in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government, and perhaps even more strangely, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Unites States, none of whom want to see IS in Iraq.

That’s not to say these groups will manage to cooperate in a way that drastically shifts the dynamics in the region: “That’s a very difficult love triangle,” says Khoury. But IS’ ability to forge alliances among Sunnis, for example (largely a result of former Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's polarizing sectarian rule), is somewhat offset by its habit of accidentally giving its enemies common cause.

What’s next for IS? After running up against resistance in Iraq’s south, and now in the eastern Kurdish region in the form of the peshmerga and US airstrikes — in addition to a recent retreat from Arsal, Lebanon — IS will likely focus its efforts on consolidating power over territory already under its control in Northwestern Iraq and Syria.

How does it all end? The group could come under new leadership eventually, but that might not change much. IS’ mysterious current head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took power in 2010 when prior leader Abu Ayoub al-Masri was assassinated by the US military. Al-Masri had been the successor to Abu Masub al-Zarqawi after his death in 2006. “At some point, Baghdadi will be captured or killed, but it won’t collapse the Islamic State,” says Mardini. “[IS] could possibly fragment or some fighters might defect to other insurgent or jihadi groups.”

Despite its recent successes, IS is no match for a fully equipped army and air power. But thus far, no outside power has gotten involved in a way likely to tip the scales. Each group has a different red line. The US has said it will step in if its staff and consulate in Erbil are threatened, but has also said it will not put boots on the ground, without which, Khoury says, they’re “not going to influence that much.”

The other player in the region, the Saudis, “don’t have any boots to put on the ground,” says Khoury, which leaves Iran and their Lebanese Shia ally, Hezbollah. Hezbollah and Iran have said that they would intervene to defend the Shia shrines (IS members are extremist Sunnis who believe Shias to be heretics). So as long as IS remains on largely Sunni territory, external intervention is likely some way off, and once again, Iraqi civilians are left to fend for themselves.