Skip to main content

ISIS a fanatical force -- with a weakness

By Charles Lister
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Tue June 17, 2014
People inspect the site of a double car bombing in Baghdad on Wednesday, October 1. The United Nations said Wednesday that at least 1,119 Iraqis were killed in September in acts of terrorism and violence. People inspect the site of a double car bombing in Baghdad on Wednesday, October 1. The United Nations said Wednesday that at least 1,119 Iraqis were killed in September in acts of terrorism and violence.
HIDE CAPTION
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
88
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Charles Lister: ISIS gaining recruits, cash and weapons in inevitable offensive in Iraq
  • Lister: ISIS gains from what has become a Sunni uprising, but its ties to Iraq's Sunnis unstable
  • He says once ISIS brutality starts, support may change and ISIS will be forced back
  • Lister: ISIS a formidable, fanatical force bent on rapid results but may fail in long term

Editor's note: Charles Lister is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, where his work focuses particularly on terrorism and insurgency in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. He is writing a book on the jihadist insurgency in Syria. Follow him on Twitter @Charles_Lister. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Last week, Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul fell to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. In a few hours, the city's security forces had dropped their weapons and uniforms and fled. Since then, the militants introduced a political charter in Mosul and marched south, seizing additional towns en route to the capital, Baghdad.

In taking Mosul alone, ISIS gained as much as $425 million in cash, an unspecified quantity of gold bullion, huge amounts of light and heavy weaponry (mostly U.S.-made) and probably hundreds of new recruits from three main detention centers, all which were overrun.

Charles Lister
Charles Lister

This Iraq-based offensive has been coming for at least two years. After the last American military personnel withdrew from Iraq on December 31, 2011, the then-Islamic State in Iraq began its gradual but determined recovery -- befitting the organization's mantra of baqiya wa tatamadad ("lasting and expanding"). The strategy was meticulously planned and carried out in clear stages.

Principally, in Iraq these militants (ISIS since April 2013) have spent two years breaking senior leaders out of prison and re-establishing a professional command and control structure; expanding operational reach, including into Syria, and exploiting rising Sunni discontent with the Shiite-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, thereby encouraging sectarianism.

It has expanded extensive underground networks in Sunni strongholds, particularly Mosul, Baghdad and Anbar province; stepped up coordinated, often near-simultaneous bombings; and debilitated Iraqi security force capacity and morale through a concerted campaign of intimidation and assassination.

ISIS has substantial roots in Mosul, where it managed to remain a potent force during and after the U.S. troop "surge." The group has recently been raising $1 million-$2 million per month in Mosul through an intricate extortion network. This reality, plus Mosul's proximity to ISIS positions in eastern Syria, made the city a natural launching ground for this shock offensive in Iraq, which is ultimately aimed at Baghdad.

But this is not all about ISIS. Many other armed Sunni actors are involved in what has become, in effect, a Sunni uprising -- groups such as the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia, Jaish al-Mujahideen, Jamaat Ansar al-Islam, Al-Jaish al-Islami fil Iraq and various tribal military councils.

ISIS' self-interested pursuit of its absolutist ideals has made it countless enemies in Syria, and it will face huge challenges to avoid a similar fate in Iraq.

ISIS may be the largest force involved (with about 8,000 fighters in Iraq), but it is far from sufficient to take and hold multiple urban centers. It is still totally reliant on an interdependent relationship with what remains a tacitly sympathetic and facilitating Sunni population. But this "relationship" is by no means stable and should not be taken for granted. The militant group has consistently failed to retain popular support, or at minimum, acceptance.

Mosul residents might be praising the current stability and ISIS-subsidized bread and fuel prices, but once the public flogging, amputations and crucifixions begin, this may well change. In fact, it is not surprising that tribal elements are already preparing to force ISIS from captured areas.

The militants' prospects are also dependent on the government and its supporters continuing to advance sectarianism -- something that encourages Sunni actors to accept ISIS. Unfortunately, this apparent sectarianism has been consolidated in recent days with al-Maliki's call for a "volunteer army" encouraging the further reconstitution of the Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, Jaish al-Mahdi and the Badr Brigades (three Shiite militias active during the U.S. occupation of Iraq, which appear to be receiving a new boost in recruitment).

Further calls by Muqtada al-Sadr to form "Peace Battalions" and by the Shiite community in Diyala to form "Peace Committees" -- as well as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's call for Iraqis to take up arms against ISIS -- have increased the perception of sectarianism inside and outside Iraq.

Iran's role is crucial. Already, the commander of Iran's external Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, is in Baghdad, and Iraqi sources have reported 500 Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps personnel arriving in the capital and, allegedly, 1,500 Basij militiamen (Iranian paramilitary force) in Diyala.

As such, it seems wise at this point for the United States not to get actively involved militarily in Iraq but to focus on containment and intelligence collection. The conflicts in Iraq and Syria are intricately linked -- to act on one and not the other would be a strategic misstep.

Kurdish fighters hold back ISIS
Fareed Zakaria's take: Who lost Iraq?
Distinguishing Iraq news from propaganda

Last week, the Iraqi insurgency was just that, an insurgency. Fighters carried assault rifles and drove pickups mounted with heavy machine guns, while others drove civilian cars and minivans. Anti-tank weaponry was minimal (but growing, thanks to Syria), and anti-aircraft weapons were confined to guns and a small number of aging SA-7 man-portable air-defense systems.

In addition to massive quantities of small arms and ammunition, this latest offensive has seen ISIS reportedly seize dozens of U.S.-made armored Humvees and military transport vehicles, American M198 howitzers and possibly even helicopters. There have been reports that other Sunni groups have seized more than a dozen armored personnel carriers and tanks. There can be no underestimating the impact this will have upon Iraqi instability.

But this is not just about Iraq. Within 12 hours of seizing Mosul, there were reports that ISIS transferred Humvees, manpower and other weaponry into eastern Syria. Meanwhile, on Thursday, a human rights group reported that Syria-based al-Nusra Front crossed with other Sunni groups into Qaim in Iraq's Anbar province and captured several Humvees.

Opinion: Bush's toxic legacy in Iraq

The Iraq-Syria border is therefore increasingly immaterial -- conflict on both sides of the border has become inherently interconnected. As the only group genuinely operating on both sides of it, ISIS maintains an overarching strategy (aimed toward establishing a unitary Islamic State and the Levant), whereby operations in Syria and Iraq feed off one another. Considering recent events and its march to Baghdad, this objective might not be so inconceivable.

But beware of coming to too simplistic a conclusion. ISIS' self-interested pursuit of its absolutist ideals has made it countless enemies in Syria, and it will face huge challenges to avoid a similar fate in Iraq. Nonetheless, whatever its fate, ISIS represents a formidable force with an ever growing membership.

This latest offensive is arguably the most significant event in Sunni jihadism since 9/11. Having already challenged al Qaeda's ideological legitimacy, ISIS has now underlined its perceived military superiority to a receptive younger and more fanatical generation of potential recruits around the world.

While al Qaeda and its affiliates are embracing a more patient locally focused strategy, ISIS manifests a determination for rapid, dramatic results. It's certainly just shown these in Iraq. But whether this will prove a more effective long-term strategy remains to be seen.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 8:15 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT