The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has lifted itself from obscurity to become the world’s most talked-about armed group, making major advances over the past week to challenge the Baghdad government. The group’s collaboration with local Iraqi tribes and groups opposed to Prime Minister Nour Al-Maliki’s rule — along with ISIL’s extensive wealth — have helped it flourish with relatively few fighters.
ISIL, with its mix of local and foreign fighters, swiftly took over Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul and other areas last week while continuing to push closer to Baghdad.
Analysts estimate the group has about 6,000 to 10,000 fighters operating in Iraq and Syria — with only a few hundred involved in the Mosul take-over — said Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. Discontent with Maliki has unified Sunni groups — secular and religious — in supporting ISIL’s advancements.
“ISIS (which ISIL is also referred to as) was able to infiltrate Iraqi government ministries and has the support of members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party, the Islamic Front (originally formed in 2004 as a resistance group to the U.S. occupation) and other Sunni groups,” Emran El-Badawi, director of the Arabic program at the University of Houston, said in an email.
The relationship between ISIL — an Al-Qaeda breakaway group — and other Sunni groups goes back to the beginning of the Iraq war. But in the 2005 surge in Iraq, local tribes with U.S. funding built a coalition (known as the “Sunni Awakening Movement” or “Sons of Iraq”) that began combatting Al-Qaeda and other extreme groups to restore security and calm sectarianism. The program met with some success.
"These 90,000 ‘Sons of Iraq’ made a significant contribution to the reported 90% drop in sectarian violence in 2007-2008," said an op-ed co-written by Derek Harvey, a former senior intelligence official, and Michael Pregent, a former U.S. Army officer and onetime senior intelligence analyst.
But all that changed after U.S. forces withdrew and Maliki refused to integrate the Sunni tribes into the government. Off the payroll and pushed aside, the Sunnis were at a disadvantage and felt abandoned — while the Shias had full control of Baghdad and the south, and the Kurds had control of much of the north.
That discontent sparked a months-long sit-in last year outside Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. Sunnis used the protest to express anger at what they considered second-class treatment and the Shia-led government's crackdown.
After Maliki’s crackdown on the protest, a re-alignment of ISIL and Sunni tribes became evident when they took control of Fallujah, Ramadi, and the rest of Anbar, Iraq’s largest province, in January.
Although ISIL’s brazen take-over of Mosul shocked many with its apparent swiftness, the recent offenses, with support from various Sunni groups, are a continuation of the Anbar assault.
“Those groups have been waiting for an opportunity to exact revenge on the Maliki government, which they regard as Shiite-dominated and divisive towards Sunnis,” Khatib said. “The collaboration between tribes and Baathists is not ideological but revolves around a shared interest, which is to push the Maliki government out of power.”
Many Sunni soldiers in the Iraqi army quickly abandoned their posts as they saw that the Baghdad rule was not worth fighting for, giving ISIL’s few fighters the ability to advance without serious battles.
In just two years ISIL has become one of the wealthiest armed groups fighting in Iraq and across the border in Syria, where ISIL has gained control of oil wells in the country’s east — and ironically sells that oil to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which ISIL is actively fighting.
ISIL "in addition relies on taxation, ransoms and raids of assets to generate income. The group is now financially independent in both Iraq and Syria,” Khatib said.
In the Mosul offense ISIL took control of the central bank where it gained access to $500 million, bringing the organization’s funds to an estimated $2 billion. The group also gained control of heavy U.S.-made weaponry left behind by Iraq’s army.
Like a Fortune 500 company, ISIL releases detailed “annual reports.” But instead of revealing revenue, it lists various attacks, city take-overs and prison-breaks. The report is aimed at potential investors and recruits.
The group's success against Iraq’s Shia-backed government and the Syrian regime has encouraged foreign donors, said Juan Zarate, a former deputy national security advisor for combating terrorism during the George W. Bush administration.
"It's the worst of all worlds: external funding from wealthy outside donors, state sponsorship from across the Persian Gulf, and the ability to raise large amounts of money locally," Zarate said.