The seizure of Iraq’s second largest city by a group too ruthless to make it in “core” al Qaeda represents the culmination of years of history and a U.S. foreign policy that has failed to properly conceive of and counter the Al Qaeda movement at its most basic level.
Long War Journal recently produced an excellent GEOINT model of ISIS’s gains across Iraq and Syria; though ISIS’s control of the towns and cities in question is not universal or uniform, neither is the Iraqi or Syrian government’s respective control of their own space. Including recent gains, Al Qaeda now controls a space roughly the size of Syria.
From a tactical standpoint, ISIS’s recent assault fits squarely within traditional special operations doctrine; in fact, it is almost as if Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, has read William McRaven’s master’s thesis. ISIS forces moved swiftly to remove Iraqi army and national police forces from Mosul and other cities under control, outpacing national forces’ ability to react and respond accordingly, despite larger numbers and better equipment.
According to STRATFOR, a private intelligence and geopolitical analysis firm, Iraq’s 30,000-strong military presence in Mosul was caught by surprise, retreating against a much weaker force and regrouping only near Samarra, 100 miles north of Baghdad. For perspective, ISIS forced more than a full division of the Iraqi army–once the fourth largest in the world–into a 200-mile retreat, all the while suffering a reported numerical disadvantage of 15 Iraqi soldiers for every single ISIS jihadist. The Iraqi military relies on U.S. equipment and training and maintains a relationship with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), but it still turned tail as soon as ISIS made any show of gain. If you can’t win with 15:1 odds, American equipment, years of U.S. training, and guidance from Iran’s Qods force, you probably are not very long for this world.
Irregular warfare such as that we are seeing in Iraq is almost always a dual-sided affair involving (1) a clandestine political entity that seeks to build support and “out-govern” the enemy, and (2) a militant organization designed to intimidate locals, seize space, then weaken and occupy the enemy until a larger political goal can be enforced. For the Viet Cong, this was practiced by what the U.S. government called the “Viet Cong Infrastructure” which was covertly supported by Hanoi. The same strategic principles apply in Islamist forms of insurgency; ISIS and the larger Al Qaeda apparatus are militant organizations that seek establish political control. To this effect, ISIS’s assault has opened up the door for ISIS to put down roots in new neighborhoods, broadening their foothold in a region that is neglected if not ignored by Baghdad and at odds with the state on sectarian terms.
History is determined by the people who care enough to make it happen. ISIS, like the rest of Al Qaeda, is not merely composed of well-armed young men but also of seasoned strategists who have read Mao, McRaven, and Lenin, not just the Qu’ran and Hadith.
Arab nation-states, the basic building blocks of any kind of regional peace, are dying; the Shi’a governments of Iraq and Syria are now more than ever mere rumps of their former selves, barely able to project power outside of their ethnic and sectarian fiefdoms. The only reason ISIS didn’t expand into Irbil and the Kurdish region of Iraq is that autonomous Kurds met them with greater force than did the Iraqi army.
Al Qaeda hasn’t won the titles of Damascus and Baghdad, but it’s time to quit pretending that they have to do so before being recognized as an actual geopolitical threat that controls a huge swath of territory at the heart of the Islamic world.
Ignore every “expert” who tells you that ISIS is not al Qaeda because their leaders don’t get along. ISIS, like al Qaeda, is involved in a global press to restore a totalitarian conception of an Islamic Empire across the Muslim world, and in the absence of a clear-headed strategy by their enemies, they are winning.