U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke of “an imminent threat to every interest we have.” Senator James Inhofe asserted that “we are in the most dangerous position we’ve ever been in as a nation.” Former Marine four-star General John Allen went further, saying “World War III is at hand.”
The cause of these alarms is Islamic State, a swarm of murderers led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Little is known of him. The name isn’t his real one. He spent the past eight years rising through the ranks of Iraq’s jihadist underground to become its commander and most recently the self-proclaimed leader of Islamic State. He’s both a product and a creator of the region’s chaos.
Practically overnight, al-Baghdadi’s group has become the U.S. military’s chief foe and, following the Aug. 19 beheading of journalist James Foley, a source of revulsion to Americans. The threat al-Baghdadi poses shouldn’t be dismissed, of course. But before the U.S. engages in what could be another messy military intervention in Iraq, one that may well extend into Syria, it’s worth taking a closer look at Islamic State and its internal dynamics. Contrary to the rhetoric, Islamic State does not surpass every threat the U.S. has seen.
According to intelligence analysts, al-Baghdadi’s arsenal includes old Soviet tanks, new U.S. Humvees, some artillery, and lots of machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades captured during recent conquests in Iraq. His most powerful weapon, however, is social media, which enable Islamic State to launch volleys of threats on the Internet, barrages on YouTube, and salvos on Twitter. Gruesome images of beheadings and mass executions are professionally recorded and posted. The atrocities serve a purpose. Like Genghis Khan’s massacres, they terrify adversaries, such as the Iraqi soldiers who threw down their weapons, running away as al-Baghdadi’s forces approached Mosul in June. The tactics reflect the man and his intentions.
The ambitions of al-Baghdadi transcend terrestrial boundaries and extend to assuming the role of caliph
Al-Baghdadi’s public persona is a carefully crafted myth that’s enabled him to attract like-minded fanatics, troubled young men, and violence-seeking sociopaths from around the world, turning a jihadist gang into a fearsome force. The group’s name outlines territorial ambitions under al-Baghdadi. Before taking its current form, it went from the Islamic State of Iraq to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or, in Arabic, al Sham, meaning the “north,” This is an area that encompasses Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and a slice of Turkey. It was the “north” to the first Muslim warriors who in the 7th century rode out of the Arabian Peninsula to conquer the Middle East, North Africa, and southern Spain.
Al-Baghdadi’s personal ambitions transcend terrestrial boundaries. In a rare appearance in Mosul, he delivered a sermon that was also a kind of inaugural address. Wearing a black turban and robes—the visible assertion that he’s a direct descendant of Muhammad—he pronounced the restoration of the caliphate with himself as the Caliph Ibrahim, successor to the Prophet and the supreme religious authority and absolute political leader of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. Al-Baghdadi obeys only God, so all Muslims must obey al-Baghdadi. Traditional Muslim scholars consider that declaration presumptuous and a violation of Islamic law. Even Osama bin Laden never contemplated such a step.
A lucrative criminal empire supports Islamic State’s operations. According to a recent RAND report, its diverse criminal operations bring in $1 million a day. Operating on a spoils-of-war principle, it lives mainly off plunder, emptying the banks of towns it captures, confiscating and stealing goods—mainly machinery, construction equipment, automobiles—which the group sells at a discount to buyers in Iraq and elsewhere, and seizing the property of those who have been forced to flee. Its videotaped demolitions of Shia mosques and Christian religious sites conceal a profitable trade in antiquities. Recently captured records of its financial transactions show that in one region of Syria alone, the group netted $36 million from smuggling plundered archeological artifacts.
Ransom from kidnappings, protection money and other extortion, and taxes levied on the population it controls—even truck drivers pay road taxes—augment the group’s income. It’s also taken control of several small oil fields in Iraq and a refinery in Syria, enabling it to sell smuggled oil, adding millions to its coffers.
Contributions from sympathetic supporters abroad appear to account for only a small portion of Islamic State’s income. This self-sufficiency gives the group greater autonomy but also creates a different kind of vulnerability. Its funding is predatory, which is why it must keep expanding. Otherwise, once the banks are emptied, the businesses looted, and the bulldozers and generators sold off, confiscation and extortion from the remaining inhabitants must increase, and that provokes opposition. The foes of Islamic State can accelerate this process by going after the obvious and vulnerable sources of cash flow—oil smuggling, for one.
The presence of foreign jihadists in growing numbers, including zealots from the West, will also affect Islamic State’s trajectory. Al-Baghdadi can direct these violent impulses, but he cannot easily rein them in. To stay in charge—to be the most terrifying of terrorists—he may have to go along with violence that even he may regard as excessive. These tensions affect all such groups. Al-Baghdadi himself was a firebrand whose own thirst for violence al-Qaeda couldn’t contain. Among his commanders today are even more extreme copies of al-Baghdadi.
The violence will inevitably alienate some of the Baathist commanders and Sunni tribes who support al-Baghdadi in Iraq. As Islamic State expands, it will be unstable both on the edges and inside. Al-Baghdadi has shown skills in creating alliances, but he’s also rapidly accumulated enemies. Islamic State forces remain at war with other jihadist groups in Syria, whose enclaves it will likely attack. Not one of al-Qaeda’s affiliates or any of the other jihadist movements has declared allegiance to Islamic State. And though the Syrian government may have allowed the group a degree of immunity because it tarnished the entire rebel movement, Syria won’t abandon the defense of its own enclaves.
In Iraq, Islamic State faces an ineffectual Iraqi army, but sectarian demographics will impede the group’s advance to the north and east. To the north, it’s battling the more effective Kurds. As has been evident since the start of the Obama administration’s bombing campaign against Islamic State, al-Baghdadi’s handful of captured tanks and guns provide little defense against U.S. airstrikes.
That doesn’t mean Islamic State will be a pushover. Its destruction, however, isn’t the sole responsibility of the U.S. President Obama should demand more of the regional powers most directly threatened by the jihadists. That begins with the Iraqi army: If Iraq, with almost 300,000 men under arms, can’t defend itself against 7,000 jihadists, how can the U.S. protect it? Saudi Arabia, with a quarter million under arms and 500 advanced combat aircraft, worries about the danger posed by Islamic State, but it won’t attack Sunnis to assist Iraq’s Shia or Syria’s Alawite regimes. Turkey and Jordan, which face the extremists directly across their borders, must contribute to the fight as well. And if Europe worries about the terrorist threat posed by Islamic State, it can also do more.
Until his Mosul sermon, few of al-Baghdadi’s devoted followers had seen or heard him. For security reasons, he communicates with only a small group of lieutenants, who carry out his instructions. Some observers argue that the man who spoke in Mosul wasn’t al-Baghdadi at all but a stand-in. Islamic State’s cohesion depends heavily on the survival of its hunted leader. Al-Baghdadi’s three predecessors were all killed by U.S. military operations. The caliph may be the group’s charismatic center, but he’s also its weakest link.