The Islamist militants who swept into Mosul had a simple message for residents of the northern Iraqi city: The path to a caliphate comes with clear rules. Lots of them.
No smoking, drinking or drugs; prayer times should be respected. Women must stay indoors, or, if they have to go out, then respectable, baggy clothes are a must. Thieves will have their hands amputated. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant posted the guidelines on June 12 on websites used by jihadist groups. To cement its message, it hung the group’s black banner from a Mosul bridge and uploaded videos to the Internet showing what happens to “anyone who insists on apostasy” -- execution.
Sunni fighters belonging to ISIL captured Mosul, the north’s biggest city, on June 10 as government troops fled. They advanced on Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit and moved south toward Samarra, a city holy to Shiites, just 120 kilometers (75 miles) from Baghdad. They celebrated each advance with videos bearing their logo and Twitter postings.
“Through their use of media, the propagation of their message, and their explicit and gory operations, they create a real intimidatory factor,” said Matthew Henman, head of IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre in London. “From videos and releases, it’s clear how violent and brutal ISIL is. As groups go in that part of the world, it’s the most extreme.”
The guerrilla movement, which has also been battling Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria’s civil war, took Iraq’s western town of Fallujah in January. Its new conquests, which IHS says were likely abetted by Sunni factions of Saddam’s former Baathist regime and tribal groups, create an arc of territory under ISIL control or influence that extends across international borders - - from near Syria’s northern city of Aleppo to the outskirts of Baghdad.
While some in Sunni-dominated Mosul said they were glad to be rid of the daily humiliations meted out by troops of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government, evidence of abuses didn’t take long to emerge.
United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay said her office has received reports of summary executions and kidnappings of civilians and those believed to have worked with Iraqi security forces and the police. While “the full extent of civilian casualties” is not yet known, initial reports suggest hundreds were killed and as many as 1,000 wounded in recent days, Pillay said in an e-mailed statement.
A representative of Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric yesterday urged worshipers at Friday prayers to defend the nation, sharply heightening fears that a sectarian conflict could drag in Iran, the region’s Shiite power and a key backer of Maliki. The premier’s own Dawa party reiterated the call, saying Iraqis able to bear arms should be ready to “shoulder the responsibility” of helping to defeat ISIL.
The outfit that morphed into ISIL was established shortly after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam. Under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, it pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda three years later. In April 2013, the group expanded its focus to include Syria, modifying its name to reflect those bolder ambitions.
The group’s extreme brutality contributed to its falling out with al-Qaeda, which cut ties earlier this year, Henman said in a phone interview yesterday. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who leads the al-Qaeda core, had warned in a statement that ISIL should rein itself in.
The plea was rejected. The group has carried out crucifixions in Syria, stoned a couple to death for adultery, and executed a mentally ill man for blasphemy, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which uses a network of activists living in the country’s war zone.
There are no firm estimates of the strength of the group, now led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi with a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head, according to Ben Connable, a counterinsurgency and intelligence analyst at RAND Corporation.
“We don’t know how many fighters it has. Even the ISIL commanders don’t know,” he said. “It’s not a monolithic group and a lot of people fighting alongside it, or under the banner, are members of other groups who give temporary allegiance to the strongest one on the battlefield.”
The conflict in northern Iraq, where there’s widespread sectarian resentment of the Baghdad government, is “beginning to look more and more like a Sunni uprising” and not just an ISIL attack, Connable said. “Maliki has done a lot of damage, the conditions were ripe, set by both sides.”
With the capture of Mosul, Baghdadi came closer to achieving his goal of a caliphate that would reshape the Middle East.
The group’s firepower will be strengthened by the equipment it has access to after seizing army bases in Mosul, cash from the city’s banks, and the release of 2,500 fighters from local jails, Eurasia Group, a New York-based political risk analyst, said by e-mail on June 11.
“It’s only been with the seizure of Mosul that international attention has been brought back to Iraq, where violence has been claiming the lives of 40 to 50 people each day, mostly civilians,” said Henman of IHS. ISIL’s “immediate objective is to drag Iraq back to civil war to facilitate the establishment of an Islamic state in the Levant.”
(An earlier version of this story corrected the year of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in eighth paragraph.)