TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria: A Primer
June 13, 2014
Bottom Line Up Front
• The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) used to be just The Islamic State of Iraq—with no ambition in Syria—and before that al-Qaeda in Iraq, with more emphasis on the I and less on the AQ, to the annoyance of Usama Bin Ladin and Ayman al-Zawahiri
• The ten-year history of what is now ISIS shows a steady resistance to the control of al-Qaeda Central, a merging of many Iraqi Sunni extremist groups, and a focus on destabilizing Iraq by any means
• After a decade of trying, ISIS is closer to its goals in Iraq than at any other time, almost entirely due to the ongoing catastrophe in Syria.
With the intense interest in the capabilities and future intentions of ISIS, it is important to know the group’s history, understand how it got to this point, and where it wants to go.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq
In April 2004, Jordanian hoodlum-turned-terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, renamed his Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), in order to benefit from al-Qaeda’s notoriety. Zarqawi had run a training camp in Afghanistan before 2001, but had resisted joining al-Qaeda.
As the insurgency against the US-led occupation of Iraq entered its second year, AQI achieved a reputation for bold attacks and extreme violence—a distinction that still reverberates today. After attracting members through successful attacks against coalition forces, Zarqawi shifted focus to his real goal of igniting a sectarian Shi’a-Sunni war. This he accomplished with the February 2006 AQI bombing of the Shi’a al-‘Askari, or Golden Dome, mosque in Samarra, which turned the insurgency into a civil war and led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis.
Islamic State of Iraq and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
Zarqawi was killed in June 2006 after an extensive US targeting effort and was succeeded by an Egyptian extremist, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, who was associated with al-Qaeda Central (AQC)’s al-Zawahiri. But to meet a criticism that the group was more foreign than Iraqi as well as a Sunni backlash against AQI’s indiscriminate and extremely violent tactics, which included killing Sunnis deemed insufficiently religious, and too willing to be part of the political process—or merely who had what AQI wanted—Abu Hamza soon joined forces with several other groups and accepted an Iraqi, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, as leader. In a further effort towards rebranding, in October 2006 the new amalgam was renamed the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).
The ISI drifted away from AQC control and became very much an Iraqi affair, with membership drawn more from former Saddam-era military officers than from people affiliated with al-Qaeda. Ultimately, however, the rebranding didn’t really work, since by that time the Sunni population upon whom AQI/ISI depended for members and support had turned against the group in what would be known as the Sahwah, or the Sunni Awakening movement.
Though ISI was still capable of conducting spectacular attacks by 2009, such as the August 2009 car bombing of the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs that killed over 100 people, it was in every aspect a diminished and struggling organization relative to its earlier impact. In the Spring of 2010, both Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Hamza al-Muhajir were killed in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, during a joint US-Iraqi raid. The group, originally founded by Zarqawi, was in serious retreat.
Upon the death of the two ISI leaders, the most influential surviving member of the group, Samir ‘Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi, aka Colonel Bakr, aka Haji Bakr, a former Iraqi army colonel who had worked on weapons development for Saddam, nominated Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim Bu Badri, aka Abu Duwa’, as the next ISI amir. Abu Duwa’ is from Samarra and belongs to the influential Bu Badri clan, which is part of the equally important Bu Abbas clan of Iraq’s Sunni heartland—of notable significance in forming and maintaining alliances in that part of Iraq. His kunya, and the name now most associated with him, is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He has no affiliation with Iraq’s capital of Baghdad, but took the kunya as a security measure and to obscure his origins.
Relatively little is known about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He is reported to have been an imam before the 2003 invasion and then an unremarkable official in AQI. The US military detained him in 2005, and held him until 2009 at the detention facility known as Camp Bucca where he met Haji Bakr. It is likely that his low-key approach is more in line with a number of Saddam-era officers who make up the group’s leadership.
Al Baghdadi was not immediately able to reverse the decline of the group, but something happened over the following year that completely changed the fortunes of ISI: Syria imploded.
By the summer of 2011, heavy fighting across Syria presented the beleaguered ISI with the gifts of sanctuary, weapons, and increased radicalization that come from persistent conflict. Haji Bakr and al-Baghdadi, after much deliberation, decided to open up a branch in Syria (though not with Iraqi fighters). This branch grew into the Syria-focused group Jabhat al-Nusra, led by Abu Muhammad al-Julani, a Syrian ISI operative. There was immediate friction between the two groups, and al Nusra later rejected al-Baghdadi’s April 2013 statement that al Nusra was the Syrian arm of his group, which he accordingly re-named ISIS. The Nusra/ISIS split pushed the former closer to AQC and the latter further away, leading to al-Baghdadi’s complete rejection of Zawahiri’s leadership, which in any case by then was no more than nominal. Haji Bakr was killed in Syria earlier this year, hurting but not crippling the group’s efforts.
The most significant among the extraordinary events of the last week was ISIS’ attack in Mosul. The operation was named by the group the operation of “Asadallah al-Bilawi, Abu Abdul Rahman” (Asadallah translates to the Lion of God) after ISIS’ nominal number two and military commander, Isma’il Najm al-Bilawi, aka Abu ‘Abdul Rahman al-Bilawi, from Khaldiyah in the Anbar governate. He, like al-Baghdadi, was from an influential clan among Iraq’s Sunni tribes. In what may have been a pivotal event for the timing of the Mosul attack, Abu ‘Abdul Rahman was killed on June 5 during a police operation in Samarra. It was al-Bilawi, a former Republican Guard Lieutenant Colonel in the Saddam-era military, who had led the planning for the offensive. Unconfirmed allegations suggested that ISIS quickly launched the attacks after al-Bilawi was killed and his driver captured, for fear the Iraqi government would learn the details of the operational plans.
It is significant to note that the Syrian civil war not only kept ISIS from collapsing but also propelled it well beyond the scope and influence of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The near-term international response to the current ISIS crisis will be ineffective in the long-term if Syria continues to burn.
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