The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was already so deeply entrenched in Iraq’s west that the towns of Fallujah and Ramadi were unable to vote in Iraq’s spring 2014 national elections. At the time, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki still dismissed the group as a loose band of Al-Qaeda types with little reach beyond Anbar province. That all changed after June, when ISIL fighters seized the northern city of Mosul as Iraqi government forces abandoned the city — along with their uniforms and U.S. supplied weapons and munitions — without a fight.
ISIL captured almost $500 million in gold bullion and cash in Mosul’s central bank when it took control of Iraq’s second city. There was also the added benefit of the city's strategic location as an oil hub where Syria, Iraq and Turkey intersect. Seizing and holding this territory, ISIL raised its black flag, declared a new Islamic caliphate and drew thousands of volunteer fighters from around the world, many of whom were able to reach the group with relative ease via Turkey.
Analysts expect the group to seek to consolidate its gains in the coming year, both in territory and in resources, and in the face of punishing airstrikes from a U.S.-led coalition seeking to block and roll back its advances. Anti-ISIL forces are hoping that the promises of a more inclusive government by Iraq’s new prime minister and plans for a national military draft will help alleviate Sunni disenchantment with a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad that has alienated them.
ISIL has forged a violently sectarian order, targeting Christians and other minorities who refuse to convert or submit to paying religious taxes. In places where it can win over local populations, its governance can be less harsh and its fighters better placed to hold onto those towns.
Having opted for a strategy of holding territory, the key to ISIL’s survival is its ability to maintain order and governance in areas it has seized and to ensure the local economies keep working — to sustain ISIL’s tax-and-extortion revenues, if nothing else. It has collected millions of dollars in ransom payments for foreign hostages and has also bootlegged captured oil. Some reports say that along with the fighters ISIL is keenly courting, it has also opened applications for engineers to work in its refineries for annual salaries starting at $200,000.
ISIL is unlikely to try for more territory within Iraq, as Kurdish and Iraqi forces, bolstered by Iranian and U.S. support, are now pushing back and retaking key positions from ISIL fighters. Since the U.S. also began bombing Syrian towns, parts of that country may also be less hospitable for ISIL. The organization may only be able to expand there in partnership with local competitors such as the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.
While Western reaction to ISIL’s beheading of hostages, the executions of captured enemy fighters, and the enslavement of women has been one of outrage, the response from the movement’s target population has been the opposite. ISIL’s social media presence and propaganda arm have allowed the group to spread its message and find support in even the most developed countries. Its ability to woo disaffected youth everywhere will only improve as more tech-savvy members clamor to its ranks.
There are few places outside of the Iraq-Syria conflagration where an ISIL cell could take root, and the most likely candidate for 2015 would be Libya (although some Pakistani factions are also said to have pledged loyalty to the group). There are already Libyans working in the organization, there is enough anti-government unrest in Tripoli and beyond, and setting up a cell outside the Middle East would boost ISIL’s recruitment and propaganda campaigns. In the meantime, lone-wolf actions — such as the hostage taking at an Australian cafe that ended with two hostages killed — by self-styled ISIL supporters will remain a low-key threat.
ISIL has emerged and grown as a product of the weaknesses and failures of its enemies. Whether the coalition now formed against the group musters sufficient power to repair those weaknesses and roll back the extremists will be a major question in the coming year.