Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The IS Conquest of Parts of Iraq and Syria

ISIS military parade in al-Raqqa, Syria, using US vehicles and weaponry seized from the Iraqi army
IS military parade in al-Raqqa, Syria, using US vehicles and weaponry seized from the Iraqi army

On 8 June 2006, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaeda’s fighters in Iraq, was killed by a US airstrike in northern Baghdad. Al-Zarqawi’s death left a major al-Qaeda position vacant, and the names of several possible successors were floated.

In October 2006, al-Qaeda’s main leadership chose Abu Ayub al-Masri (also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir) to succeed al-Zarqawi, but that choice faced opposition from the Shura Council of Iraq’s jihadists, which held a meeting shortly afterwards to discuss the decision. After a few months of persistent objection to the selection of al-Masri, the latter had eventually to cede power to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, who managed to bring all the Islamic fundamental groups spreading through Iraq into one organization, called, at the time, the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI).

A few years later, clashes between Iraqi government forces and ISI fighters broke out in the al-Tharthar desert, in Anbar Province. In support of the Iraqi government troops, the US Air Force conducted airstrikes against ISI sites in that area, including a house where Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and al-Masri were meeting. The two men were declared dead in the attack on 19 April 2010.

Within ten days, the Shura Council of Iraq’s Jihadists held another meeting to select a successor for Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. The Council finally chose Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of what today is known as the Islamic State (IS).

ISI and Jabhat al-Nusra

Next door, in Syria, the once peaceful protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad had begun to turn into a broad civil war. By 2013, armed clashes between al-Assad’s forces and various opposition groups had spread throughout the country. Among those groups was Jabhat al-Nusra, a powerful Islamist, al-Qaeda-inspired group that had developed into one of the strongest anti-Assad forces. Foreign jihadists travelled in ever larger numbers to Syria to fight for the radical groups.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi first announced that ISI supported al-Nusra completely and sent Abu Muhammad al-Golani, former ISI governor of Iraq’s Basra Province, to lead the group’s efforts against Assad. ISI’s military and financial support to al-Nusra and the high-level coordination between the two groups yielded major advances on the ground in Syria.

Having always seen al-Nusra merely as an extension of ISI, al-Baghdadi decided in April 2013 to merge the two groups into one and to create the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (IS), under his own leadership. Al-Golani, however, announced his rejection to the decision, declaring his group’s direct affiliation with al-Qaeda, under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri, not Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The relationship between al-Baghdadi and al-Golani dates back to before the outbreak of the war in Syria. Before moving into Syria, al-Golani had declared allegiance to al-Baghdadi’s group, vowing that he was ready to fight for it in Iraq.

Nonetheless, the disagreement over al-Baghdadi’s ’merger’ grew into clashes between IS and al-Nusra. The once closely allied factions ended up fighting fierce battles against one another, and they sustained large losses, giving their worst enemy, Assad, a respite from their attacks.

According to experts, the dispute was neither ideological nor methodological but concerned the division of the spoils of war, oil wells, and border crossings that they had seized during their war against al-Assad.

In an attempt to bridge the gap between the two groups, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called on al-Baghdadi to dissolve IS as an entity in Syria and to separate his group from Nusra. In that way, al-Nusra would represent only al-Qaeda in Syria, under al-Golani’s leadership, while ISI would stay in Iraq, under the leadership of al-Baghdadi.

Al-Baghdadi refused. ‘The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria will stay as long as our hearts can beat and our eyes can blink,’ he said. ‘We will never compromise or concede until Allah wills it or we die trying’.

Islamic State

Profiting from widely shared dissatisfaction among the population of Sunni areas of Iraq under the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, IS together with allied groups, conquered some major cities in al-Anbar province in January 2014. The Iraqi army, plagued by incompetence and corruption, was unable to retake these cities, including Fallujah and parts of Ramadi.

In June IS, again with allies such as ex-Baathist and tribal groups, launched a new offensive. On 9 June they took Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, followed by Tikrit, routing the Iraqi army and seizing their American-supplied materiel, such as armed vehicles and even some tanks. At the beginning of October, they had practically completed the conquest of Anbar, as well as parts of the provinces of Diyala and Niniveh. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, consisting mostly of non-Muslim minorities such as Yazidis and Christians, fled to Kuridish territories in northern Iraq and Turkey.

On 29 June, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the creation of a caliphate in all conquered territories in Iraq and Syria (mostly in the north), with himself as caliph, to be known as Caliph Ibrahim. IS became the Islamic State (IS). He proclaimed that all Muslims should declare their loyalty to the new caliph. In all areas under IS control, strict rules were promulgated, following the radical interpretation of Sharia law by al-Baghdadi and his advisers.

When IS, in its offensive in the northern and western Iraq, trapped thousands of Yazidi men, women, and children on Mount Sinjar, in northern Iraq, US president Barack Obama decided to intervene: airstrikes began on 8 August, and, in Syria, airstrikes on IS and some other targets began on 23 September. Obama began to build a coalition of countries opposed to IS and promised to ‘degrade and destroy’ the organization, but the first two months of airstrikes did not fundamentally change the situation on the ground.

Support for IS

The source of IS’s initial support—the resources that first enabled the group to become a power capable of capturing entire regions—remains unclear. Media assertions that certain governments supported IS are baseless or lack firm evidence. Every power in the region has accused its rivals of financing IS to serve its own political agenda. The governments of Israel, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have all been accused of sponsoring IS, but neither they nor any other party has declared support for IS.

IS publishes no data about its financial resources, but many believe that the group is financed by a combination of regional and international funds, along with some resources that IS has been able to secure itself.

Some of the governments accused, implicitly, or explicitly by the media, of supporting IS attempt to defend themselves by arguing that such support is ‘unofficial’, that is, that it does not come from the government. They claim that unidentified charities and wealthy individuals are providing such financial support to IS and that the support is based on religious and ideological grounds. Such private donors are to be found especially in Sunni countries on the Gulf, such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. They say that, because these funds are transferred through a variety of channels, it is difficult to track and block the transfers. The United States has been pressuring Kuwait to close the channels used to transfer funds from donors in other Gulf countries to IS.Today, IS collects considerable revenue from taxes and royalties it imposes on the residents of regions it has captured in Iraq and Syria, and the group has been selling crude oil from oil fields it has seized and has simply taken whatever cash it has found in the banks in captured territories.

IS bank accounts and transactions are held under false names of individuals or corporations. Domestically, IS financial transactions and wages are handled by an official called amin al-hisba, who is essentially a chief financial officer.

When IS seized control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, the group reportedly made off with 500 billion Iraqi dinars (USD 425 million) from the city’s central bank. That huge sum, along with those from other bank robberies, has provided IS with enough resources to run its military operations and pay wages to its thousands of (foreign) fighters for a long time. Furthermore, the weaponry IS has seized from the Iraqi army in Mosul and other cities in Iraq and Syria has greatly reduced IS’s armament expenses.