XXI Century Challenges (IV): ISIL Origins And Expansion


The successful story of the Islamic State has perplexed many in recent years, but its existence is not new. The group has existed under various names and shapes since the early 1990s, the latter name is Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). As mentioned in previous report, its story is also the the story of the evolution of modern terrorism. The funder of the group was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and the roots go back to Afghanistan. A small group without influence at that time, found a safe haven under the Taliban regime until its fall in 2001, when al-Zarqawi fled to Iraq. Although Bush administration exploited his presence to claim links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, he did not belong to Bin Laden’s organisation as a subsidiary group until 2004, when al-Zarqawi joined and rebranded it as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). One of the main strategical moves was the targeting of fellow muslims, especially Shiites, aimed to introduce the sectarian element and transform Iraqi context into a sectarian conflict between the Shiite-led governing coalition and Sunni groups. This was a political calculated action, the Sunnis had long dominated the political arena of Iraq and at that moment were replaced by Shiites, as a result al- Zarqawi expected to gain favour of the local Sunni population.

During the first stage of post-invasion Iraq, the organisation was considered as a small group of foreigners within the insurgency. Later on, the US military realised AQI posed a serious threat to security. The new US policy was to finance the “Awakening”, an insurgency within the insurgency designed to reduce violence and fight AQI, however the Shiite-Sunni rift intensified. These groups , around 100,000 people at its pick, were formed by tribesmen and former Iraqi military forces. The “Sons of Iraq”, as they were also known, had members among their ranks who earlier fought US troops, and some reports claim links with al-Qaeda. The US promised a share of political power in Baghdad to the Iraqi Sunni groups fighting al-Qaeda Iraq. Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite-led governing coalition on the contrary, were not interested in reconciliation. Prime minister al-Maliki disbanded the different coalitions and broke the promises, denying payment and government contracts to the “Sons of Iraq”. Moreover Sunni politicians were ignored and often humiliated in Bagdad, some of them arrested or fled into exile in 2012, all in all, forming a sectarian war in which the lines between allies and enemies were increasingly blurred.

The group profited from the new tensions in such a way that former archenemies Salafists and Baathists formed alliances of convenience to fight the Iraqi Shiite goverment, bringing back to the field the old statement my enemy’s enemy is my friend. The genesis of those alliances emerged to some extent in Camp Bucca, a US controlled detention facility in Iraq where moderates groups came face to face with radicals jihadis. A considerable number of Iraqi insurgents detained in Camp Bucca became later the leaders of ISIL, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. From 2006 on, the amalgam of Baathist, Sunni tribes, and jihadi insurgent groups merged progressively under the command of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (killed in 2010). By 2011, the group gained momentum after the addition of many different Iraqi groups, turning into a largely Iraqi operation with its brand new name ISI (Islamic State of Iraq) under veteran of Camp Bucca, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. An impressive characteristic of ISIL is the great ability to reinvent itself and overcome some defeats or strikes to its core, for instance the targeted killing of the funder al-Zarkawi or the successor Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

At that moment ISI had thousands of fighters with experience, former Saddam’s officials and “Sons of Iraq”, which allowed al-Baghdadi to open a new front in Syria where the Sunni population was rebelling against Bashar al-Asad. The organisation was quickly able to establish among those rebels and recruit fighters in Syria. Soon after al-Baghdadi claimed the merge of ISI and the al-Qaeda Syrian brand al-Nusra, forming ISIL and openly confronting with al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. ISIL received worldwide attention when at the beginning of 2014 took complete control over the Syrian city of Raqqa. Consequently, it meant a step forward towards the creation of a state with its own territory. The biggest achievement came in June 2014 when Mosul fell into ISIL’s hands together with a large stock of weaponry from the Iraqi army. At that point, having territory across 2 countries ISIL declared a worldwide caliphate. From that moment until today ISIL has tried to expand into surrounding territory by attacking nearby enemies, from the branch of al-Qaeda to al-Assad’s regime or the Iraqi government.

It has been argued by many experts, that seems difficult to develop this level of organisation, growth, and expansion without external help. There is no clear evidences although there are suspicions that ISIL has been used as a weapon against Shiites and Kurdish by regional actors, whether individuals or states. Currently, ISIL is basically Iraqi with some Syrian elements and relative important presence of foreign combatants. The clear presence of former army officials of the Ba’ath party gave al-Baghdadi’s fighters, the characteristic air of an army, and great organisational capacity and strategic thinking. Today, this succession of events forms a situation that once the most wanted man on earth, Bin Laden, could have only dreamed of.


The Organization for World Peace