In early 2014, the world witnessed something never before done by al-Qaeda: expulsion of a formal branch, formally ending all ties to and distancing themselves from the even-more-radical Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS or the Arabic acronym Da'esh). The group, led by a man named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has its roots in the former Islamic State of Iraq--also known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Nowadays, however, they seem to be playing by their own rules in their rampage of swallowing up towns and cities in western and northern Iraq. While they may have lost and are losing ground in Syria, the exact opposite seems to be taking place in Iraq.
Brief background on ISIS and their expulsion from al-Qaeda:
Before they were known as ISIS, the group had its origins in Jama'at aT-Tawhid wal-Jihad. The group's leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a shadowy figure with a long history of ties to al-Qaeda, swore allegiance to Usama bin Laden after the US-led invasion of Iraq. The swearing of bayat (loyalty) effectively made them change their name to Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad fi bilad ar-rafiydan--better known as al-Qaeda in Iraq. AQI was one of the fiercest groups fighting the American-led coalition of troops. One perfect example of their effectiveness in Iraq was the bloody Battle of Fallujah in 2004, in which around fifty US servicemen lost their lives and more than 400 were wounded.
In 2006, al-Zarqawi was killed in an US airstrike. A man named Abu Ayyub al-Masri then took the helms, who quickly established the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC). The MSC, who's leader was Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, was a coalition of several Sunni jihadist groups, including AQI. Eventually, however, the MSC disbanded and the Islamic State of Iraq was born. In a joint-American-Iraqi raid in 2010, both al-Masri and al-Baghdadi were killed. A little known man with the kunya (a teknonym) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi then took the helms of the Islamic State.
Since early this year, al-Qaeda (AQ) forces in Syria, notably Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), have been fighting against their former brothers-in-arms in the ISIS. To summarize these events, al-Baghdadi tried to merge JN into his own organization calling it the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham; it is, however, worth noting that JN is thought to have been formed from former al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters. When the emir of JN, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, refused to be merged into al-Baghdadi’s group and instead pledged allegiance, or rather publicly declared his allegiance to the emir of al-Qaeda Ayman al-Zawahiri, all hell broke loose inside Syria. Al-Zawahiri, knowing full well the consequences of Julani’s actions, tried to reconcile the two fighting emir’s problems in a letter addressed to both of them. Al-Baghdadi then subsequently denied Zawahiri’s request; Zawahiri was then forced to send trusted individuals, like Abu Khalid al-Suri, to mediate the differences. When nothing positive came into fruition, al-Zawahiri then issued a statement that kicked ISIS out of al-Qaeda.
Renewed focus in Iraq:
In January of 2014, ISIS effectively took control of both Ramadi and Fallujah. This established a foothold of territory stretching from ar-Raqqa in Syria to the heart of al-Anbar Province in Iraq. Following the capturing of these two cities in the heart of the Sunni Triangle, ISIS has been pushed out of several towns and cities inside Syria. While they still control some areas near Dier az-Zour and all of ar-Raqqa, ISIS seems pretty content with leaving other towns and cities and focusing on the Kurds in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan). It is in Rojava where they just recently massacred fifteen Kurdish civilians, many of them children. On the Iraq front, however, there seemed to have been lull in the fighting for ISIS. Until now.
On June 9th 2014, ISIS took complete control of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city. On June 11th, ISIS took complete control of Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein, and complete control of Bayji, home to Iraq's largest oil refinery. In addition to controlling the heart of the Sunni Triangle and several other cities and towns in al-Anbar, they are in total control of Nineveh Province, and large parts of Salah ad Din Province and Kirkuk Governorate (this puts them in control of almost a third of the country). There are also reports of ISIS moving towards Samarra in what appears to be a blitzkrieg towards Baghdad.
In almost all of these attacks on cities, they were heavily organized and showed a level of strategic-depth for ISIS's military commanders. According to a New York Times report: "In Tikrit, the home town of Saddam Hussein, residents said the militants attacked in the afternoon from three directions: east, west and north." This offensive also showcases how unprepared the Iraqi military is in dealing with this large of a terrorism threat. From the same NYT article, "Witnesses reported some remarkable scenes in Tikrit, where soldiers handed over their weapons and uniforms peacefully to militants who ordinarily would have been expected to kill government soldiers on the spot".
If Samarra is taken, ISIS will be only 78 miles away from Baghdad. It appears to be almost certain Samarra will be the next to fall and then it will be only a matter of time before they try and take Baghdad. If one thing is for sure: Iraq's capital is in al-Baghdadi's crosshairs. One must wonder if al-Baghdadi is beginning to comply with Ayman al-Zawahiri's demands of returning to Iraq; something al-Baghdadi has vehemently opposed in the past. It may be too early to tell, but I believe we should not rule out this possibility knowing ISIS's reversal in Syria. We should keep a keen eye out for any statements or addresses confirming or denying this possibility.
Iraq now faces a large problem from not only this large, existential threat from ISIS, but also in now having to do what they seem to not want to do: work in cooperation with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Peshmerga forces (Kurdistan's military), and Sunni tribes to work together to combat a mutual threat. Hopefully, this will come as a realization for the Maliki government in the need for unity and cooperation between all sects and parties in his country. This Washington Institute report outlines exactly what needs to be done between the Shia-dominated Maliki government, the KRG and the Sunni's of Iraq.
The United States can also help Iraq in this dire situation. While no one in Washington really wants to go back to Iraq, it may be in our best interests to at least fast-track weapons sales to Iraq, expand a training program for elite Iraqi soldiers, and offer logistical and intelligence support. Too many Americans lost their lives fighting for a stable Iraq for us to sit back and let Iraq implode. We need not send troops back, but we should at least assist Iraq in their fight.
Note: The map above belongs to The Long War Journal. I take no credit for the making of the map; all credit goes to those responsible at the LWJ.