The IS (“Islamic State” movement), originally ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), has now eclipsed Al-Qaeda in ferocity and publicity. How?
ISIS has been written off as a product of Western and Syrian intelligence agencies managing to pull together a number of disenfranchised senior military figures who have had expert training.
Much of that narrative just isn’t true.
The most important figure in the rise of ISIS died five years before it came into being. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. who would lead the proto-ISIS group until he was killed by a US airstrike in 2006, travelled as young Jordanian Bedouin to Afghanistan in 1989.
By 1989 there were no Russian troops left for him to fight. Mostly he wrote reports for various Islamist newsletters and attempted to make contact with local figures who would later go on to form the Taliban. Al-Zarqawi returned to Jordan determined to form an organisation that could fulfil his primary aim, the overthrow of the Jordanian monarchy, and its replacement by an Islamic State.
His virulent hatred of Shia Muslims would later put him at odds with other leading figures in the international network of salafi-jihadi groups, including with the leader of Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden.
After being arrested for stockpiling weapons, al-Zarqawi was sent to prison. He continued to network with other Islamist radicals from Jordan, Palestine, Egypt and Iraq. He built an influential network of Islamists, many of whom had experience fighting and plotting attacks across the Middle East.
Al-Zarqawi was never considered a scholar of Islam. He was an enforcer, known primarily for being brutal and intimidating.
Upon his release from prison in 1999 he went to Herat, on the Afghan-Iranian border, determined to setup a training camp, primarily for his Jordanian followers. He met with Bin Laden and persuaded him to provide funding for his group, Jund al-Sham (Soliders of the Levant).
In later years US intelligence would suggest that Bin Laden and al-Zarqawi were close. But they saw each other as rivals and had major disagreements regarding their respective plans.
Bin Laden and the burgeoning Al-Qaeda were tactically oriented to fighting what they viewed as the “far enemies”, notably the USA and Israel. That meant reducing civilian casualties, attempting to win over a range of Muslims internationally to fight the “far enemies”, and downplaying Sunni sectarianism against Shia and other minorities.
Al-Zarqawi was obsessed with the overthrow of the Jordanian monarchy, and was fiercely sectarian in a way which is said to have unnerved Bin Laden.
After being injured following the US invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, al-Zarqawi went to Iran. There, despite his virulently anti-Shia ideology, he was sheltered alongside various AQ operatives and began to regroup his organisation through fundraising and travelling between Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. He remained wanted by the Jordanian Government for plotting to attack the Radisson SAS Hotel.
He entered Iraq in 2002 to seek medical treatment. By 2003 he had founded Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad), which would eventually, after mergers and splits, become ISIS.
Following the US invasion of Iraq the organisation conducted most of its operations from within Iraqi borders. It was still largely made up of foreign fighters, combatting both US forces and the Shia dominated Iraqi government.
Prior to the invasion the US had identified al-Zarqawi as a key link between AQ and Saddam Hussein. In fact, al-Zarqawi had no links to Saddam Hussein, although some generals would defect to JT as the insurgency progressed.
JT was never an official AQ affiliate and al-Zarqawi is said to have admonished his supporters outside of Iraq who took guidance directly from the leadership of AQ and not directly from him.
In 2004, in a deal to get extra funds and fighters ,t al-Zarqawi formally pledged allegiance to Bin Laden, and renamed JT Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (Al Qaeda in Iraq).
There remained differences. The AQ leadership believed that AQI’s regular targeting of Shia places of worship, settlements and civilians would put off Muslims abroad who might otherwise back AQ.
In 2006 a US airstrike killed al-Zarqawi. He was replaced by Abu Hamza al-Muhajir and Abu Omr al-Baghdadi, both of whom were killed in 2010.
By 2006 AQI were at the height of its powers. But then the US managed to recruit a large “Sons of Iraq” movement among Sunnis who wanted to push out the foreign-fighter-dominated AQI. That movement, and the US troop “surge” of 2007, all but destroyed AQI's base in Iraq.
Figures such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi kept the organisation going in diminished form.
Subsequent years of Nouri Al Maliki's Shia-dominated Baghdad government pursuing anti Sunni polices helped to establish the chaos that allowed AQI, now re-named ISIS, to regain influence.
The Maliki government forcibly demobilised the anti-AQI Sunni force that the US had nurtured.
It did not do as it had agreed with the US, and integrate these fighters into the regular Iraqi army.
When, in June, Iraqi troops fled before ISIS, it showed a sectarian Shia army unwilling to defend historically Sunni territory.
Among Iraq's Sunni Arabs, a mixture of indifference to ISIS and incipient sympathy for it helped it grow. It now has many native Iraqi Sunnis in its ranks.
Was the US to blame? Partly, in that, along with Iran, it propped up al-Maliki and his government despite its failure to to integrate the army and Iraqi institutions.
The current leader of ISIS and “caliph” of “the Islamic State”, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is an Iraqi national. He worked to convert Sunni Arab discontent with the Iraqi government into recruitment for a force that would fight Shia and “un-Islamic” forces.
Former Ba'thists are less sympathetic to ISIS’s ideology, but remain part of their periphery, providing military advice and gaining from ISIS conquests, particularly of oil fields.
ISIS is now largely self-funding, and does not rely on the rich individuals in the Gulf states who helped to keep it going at the beginning of the conflict in Syria.
After AQI was defeated, it renamed itself the Islamic State in Iraq and its brief merger with the official AQ affiliate in Syria produced the name ISIS. ISIS’s focus on sectarian warfare and attacking other Syrian rebels rather than the Assad government led to it being shunned by many of its former allies and officially rejected by AQ.
ISIS now has a proto-state with the ability to collect taxes and oil revenue. It trades oil, through middlemen, largely back to the Iraqi and Syrian governments whose territory it is occupying.
The New York Times has stated: “Millions of dollars in oil revenue have made ISIS one of the wealthiest terror groups in history. Experts estimate the value of the output from the dozen or so oil fields and refineries under its control in Iraq and Syria at $1 million to $2 million a day”.
Al-Zarqawi was most likely responsible for the execution of British aid worker Ken Bigley. ISIS knows that most European countries will negotiate and pay ransom for captured civilians.
Some on the left suggest that ISIS are solely a product of the US. The US trained them and fostered them by invading Iraq. That is largely untrue.
The US's support for al-Maliki, despite his broken commitments to the Iraqi Sunni population, has helped to boost ISIS, attracting supporters who are not wholly in favour of its overarching ideology. But the US did not invent Sunni-Shia intra-Muslim sectarianism.
There is a theory that the US backs ISIS in order to benefit from ISIS's oil revenues. But in 2012 the US produced 7 million barrels of oil a day, compared to the 40,000 being produced in ISIS-controlled territory.
US senator John McCain has met with leaders of the Free Syrian Army and other militias. Allegations that he met with ISIS are false. The blog http://snowdenhoax.blogspot.co.uk/ has debunked in detail the story that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was trained by the CIA and Mossad.
Conspiracy theories, resting on the assumption that nothing can stir without the unseen hand of shadowy US and Israeli intelligence agencies, are politically paralysing rather than enlightening. Edward Snowden’s lawyers have publicly confirmed that there is no proof of the so-called US-ISIS link in anything that has been released from the data he has exposed.
Some members of ISIS have benefited from US-funded military training: that is not the same as ISIS being a US creation. ISIS has taken weapons from the well armed Syrian and Iraqi armies; that does not equate to them being armed by the US.