As forces from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria sweep across Iraq, conquering cities like Mosul and Tikrit, the Obama administration is pledging greater support for the Iraqi government. Yet even if the Iraqi army is able to stop ISIS’s advance on Baghdad, the violent jihadist group will likely retain control of vast swaths of Iraq and eastern Syria.
In a matter of days, ISIS’s bold and effective fighting in the heartland of the Arab world may have made it the pre-eminent force in the Sunni jihadist movement. It has now arguably eclipsed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and his Pakistan-based terrorist core in the eyes of potential recruits and funders. Indeed, unlike al-Qaida, ISIS is on its way to controlling a quasi-state, exercising de facto sovereignty over a territory, even if unrecognized by the international community. The territory already under its control is larger than Israel, and it is not some barren desert: It includes oilfields, electrical grids, prisons, small manufacturing centers, and the weapon depots abandoned by the Iraqi military, including arms provided by the United States. When ISIS fighters conquered Mosul, they seized the central bank—and its reported $425 million. By comparison, al-Qaida’s budget before 9/11 was about $30 million—and we called it rich.
Everyone agrees an ISIS-controlled state could be deadly—but in what ways? We typically think of terrorist outfits like al-Qaida and ISIS as nonstate actors. But what does it mean when a nonstate actor carves itself a state?
The disaster is worst for those unlucky enough to find themselves living under ISIS rule. The jihadist group’s extreme ideology calls for killing or subjugating not only Christians and Jews, but also many Muslims. Shiite Muslims, who make up a majority in Iraq, are particularly hated for their supposed apostasy, as are the Alawites who rule in Syria. ISIS also targets Sunni Muslims, if the group believes that they are insufficiently zealous or have collaborated with the United States or its allies, including the current Iraqi government. In Syria, ISIS members shot and then crucified the bodies of their Muslim enemies, leaving their corpses to hang as warnings. Beheading is common. “Repent or die” is its motto. ISIS is so violent, al-Qaida leader Zawahiri disavowed the group in February, excoriating it for its brutality and attacks against other jihadist fighters. Half a million Iraqis fled Mosul as ISIS forces entered the city, and hundreds of thousands more will surely flee wherever ISIS goes.
If it consolidates power in the territory it now controls, ISIS can exploit the rewards other governments enjoy. It will sell oil from the fields under its control, smuggling out what can’t be sold legally. Millions will pour into its coffers. ISIS can also tax the businesses and residents that remain under its power. They will not offer rich pickings, given the war’s devastation, but they will still give ISIS wealth far beyond that of a typical terrorist group. ISIS can also levy troops, demanding that young Muslims serve in its ranks as proof of their loyalty, enabling it to expand its fighting forces. All this will probably be done inefficiently and will lead more people to flee, but ISIS will still emerge stronger.
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