With all the recent talk of possible large scale US military involvement beyond airstrikes in the Middle East to fight the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), many people are wondering why we should be involving ourselves in this conflict. To really understand the nature of this conflict and why it involves the US we need to examine the history of those involved. IS can be traced back to 1999 and the founding of Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad by deceased terror leaser Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In 2003, after the US invasion of Iraq al-Zarqawi pledged his allegiance to Osama bin Laden and renamed his group Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, also known al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). AQI was a notoriously well armed and lethal insurgent group that operated primarily in the al-Anbar province of Iraq during the height of the Iraq war. In early 2006 AQI joined with several other Sunni jihad groups to form the Mujahideen Shura Council. Later that year Al-Zarqawi was killed by US forces and following his death the group re-branded into what was known as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) which served as a sort of umbrella group for numerous Sunni insurgent and terror groups operating in western Iraq.
In the years following al-Zarqawi’s death US forces in conjunction with Iraqi militias and military units steadily weakened ISI to the point where they were no longer considered to be a major threat. Their numbers as of late 2007, early 2008 were estimated to be less than 1000 fighters. However as US forces began withdrawing from Iraq in 2011-2012 ISI forces began a fierce recruiting campaign and their ranks quickly swelled to over 2000 fighters. Under their new leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (who took over leadership in 2010 with the death of Abu Ayyub al-Masri) ISI began a resurgence that saw them return to prominence in western Iraq. Unlike his predecessors al-Baghdadi realized the potential of former Ba’ath party military and intelligence officers and brought several of them into his cabinet. By bringing in trained soldiers and intelligence operators al-Baghdadi was able to turn ISI into a fairly professional military force capable of acting as a cohesive unit on the battlefield.
Al-Baghdadi recognized the value of the on-going civil war in Syria and in 2011 he authorized a Syrian fighter named Abu Mohammed al-Golani to setup an ISI offshoot in Syria. This group became known as Jabhat al-Nusra I’Ahl as-Sham, also known as Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) or the al-Nusra Front. JAN quickly became known for the combat prowess of its fighters and they began attracting support from local Syrians. Upon seeing the success of JAN al-Baghdadi attempted to publicly fold the group into ISI by declaring the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). However, JAN was composed primarily of Syrians and rejected this attempt at foreign leadership. JAN fighters recognized that al-Baghdadi was more interested in conquest and spreading his brand of Islam than in liberating Syria from Bashar al-Assad. Ultimately fighting broke out between the insurgent groups and JAN fractured with half remaining with al-Golani and half going over to ISIS. This “civil war” between ISIS and the al-Qaeda backed JAN caused al-Qaeda to cut ties with ISIS and the two groups are no longer connected.
By 2013 ISIS now possessed a strength of more than 10,000 fighters and had a considerable influence in Syria; accordingly they adopted the name Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Throughout 2014 ISIL continued to make gains across Syria and Iraq. They captured border crossings along the Syrian, Iraqi and Jordanian borders, they captured Mosul in northern Iraq and pushed hard into Kurdish territory. They captured oil fields and refineries, recovered vast caches of heavy military weaponry including tanks and armored vehicles. They stole hundreds of millions of dollars from Iraqi banks. They conquered large swaths of territory in western and northern Iraq and pushed to within 15 miles of Baghdad. Along the way they murdered tens of thousands of innocent people and rendered more than a million homeless.
Riding high on their gains in Syria and Iraq al-Baghdadi declared the founding of the Islamic State as a new worldwide caliphate in June of 2014. He declared himself Caliph and proclaimed his authority over all Muslims worldwide. It is from this act that stems the greatest threat. Militants in at least 12 countries outside Iraq and Syria have pledged allegiance to IS. In Libya IS fighters have taken control of the city of Derna and areas around Benghazi. In the Sinai and Gaza Strip more than 2,000 fighters have pledged allegiance to IS. Jihad groups in Algeria, the Philippines, Jordan, Pakistan and Chechnya have pledged allegiance to IS, some of them having actually changed their allegiances to do so. Recruitment drives are under way in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. These foreign fighter “conversions” represent significant ideological victories for IS and lend additional legitimacy to their caliphate.
Their current strength is estimated by the CIA to be between 20-30,000 within Iraq and Syria and between 21-35,000 outside Iraq and Syria. This massive accumulation of strength both in and out of the war zone is incredibly troubling. Having such a large force outside the Middle East region gives IS the means to launch attacks at targets all over the world. Indeed IS already claims to have smuggled more than 4,000 fighters into Europe to begin operations there. While it is widely believed to be an exaggeration the presence of IS fighters in Europe has already been confirmed. Though this number of troops is hardly enough to conquer much, if any territory outside the Middle East, it is more than enough to destabilize large regions both socially and economically through the use of terror tactics. Paris was practically put under martial law following the Charlie Hebdo attack. Because the allure of IS to Islamic fighters stems from their successes on the battlefield and through terror attacks, continued terror attacks across Europe and in other regions are a certainty.
Surprisingly IS is incredibly well funded primarily due to the hundreds of millions of dollars they stole from banks around Mosul when they took the city last year. Additionally IS also controls numerous oil fields and refineries and through black market oil sales it is estimated that IS is capable of making up to $1 million per day. Some have estimated their total wealth to be in the billions of dollars. IS is also involved in a number of criminal enterprises like arms trafficking, extortion, kidnapping and human trafficking for the sex industry. Their criminal activities make them even more dangerous as they expand into neighboring countries.
IS has enjoyed an enormous amount of success fighting in Iraq and Syria and the publicity from that success is attracting more and more fighters to its banner. Today they control an area the size of Pennsylvania with an estimated 8 million people living under their rule. Additionally they have claimed provinces in several other countries. Their forces continue to grow in strength every day. And as anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe continues to build in the face of terrorist attacks, more and more European Muslims will be tempted to join. Several cases have already been confirmed of young Europeans leaving home to join IS and now such cases are happening here in America. Just last week three men were arrested in New York while attempting to fly to Istanbul to join IS. Recently new videos depicting IS soldiers undergoing combat training have begun to surface. While many find these videos and the tactics involved laughable they demonstrate a cohesive, trained, professional military force that is far above the “junior varsity” label applied to them by President Obama last year.
If their massive size, wealth and ability to wreak havoc in nations around the world weren’t enough to prompt American involvement there is another element to this fiasco that needs to be considered, Iran. Currently Iraqi military forces along with militias and Iranian Revolutionary Guard force are launching an offensive against IS forces entrenched in Tikrit. Iran has deployed thousands of soldiers into Iraq to help combat IS in recent months. While this seems on the face of it to be a prudent move on the part of the Iraqi government it is not necessarily so. Iraq is a Shiite majority country and many of them favor joining with Iran or at least developing stronger ties with Iran. Iran has long sought greater influence and control over Iraq and this gives them that opportunity. If this offensive and the inevitable offensive against Mosul are successful Iranian troops already on the ground inside Iraq will have opened a corridor to Syria. The Syrian government is a strong ally of Iran and with their help they could finally win out over the rebels.
With Iranian troops on the ground in both Iraq and Syria, Iran would finally be in position to achieve its ultimate goal of creating a single Shiite Muslim nation that spans the entire Middle East. However, with Iranian forces positioned so close to Israel, and with Iran have a publicly stated goal of destroying Israel it’s not a stretch to think Israel would launch a preemptive strike against Iran. Lest we forget Israel is a nuclear armed country. On top of that both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan (also nuclear armed) are Sunni countries and such a move by Iran would surely be viewed as hostile to them thus provoking action from both nations. Add in a complex web of international alliances involving the US, Russia and China and this could quickly spiral into a world war. While this is a worst case scenario and not likely to occur it is very much a possibility.
Because IS is as strong and wealthy as they are, because their message is so appealing to so many disaffected, uneducated, or idealist Muslims around the world, and because they represent such a hugely destabilizing entity they must be dealt with. It remains to be seen whether or not Iraqi forces are capable of defeating them but all signs indicate they are not. And although the Iranians are likely capable of defeating IS allowing them to do so creates far too much uncertainty. The only real solution is for the US to step in and get a handle on the situation before it gets any worse. And no matter what some may say it can get much, much worse.