The radical Islamic State’s advances in Iraq are strengthening its challenge to al-Qaeda in a contest for the leadership of the global jihadi movement, according to five U.S. intelligence officials.
Its territorial gains and declaration of a caliphate spanning parts of Syria and Iraq, reinforced by its use of social media to broadcast its accomplishments in many languages, are attracting recruits and even drawing defections from the leadership of the core al-Qaeda group and some affiliates, the officials told reporters at a briefing today. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence assessments.
The U.S. intelligence community thinks the Islamic State has an incentive to conduct a major terrorist strike against U.S. or European targets, in part to further assert itself as the true leader of radical Islam, the officials said. There’s evidence that the group is establishing cells beyond Iraq and Syria, they said.
There’s a “competition for jihadi leadership” in which the Islamic State disparages al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri and his lieutenants for hiding in the mountains as it tries to seize the global jihadi crown, retired U.S. Army Colonel Derek Harvey, a former senior analyst on Iraq for General David Petraeus, said at a panel on Iraq today hosted by the New America Foundation, a Washington policy organization.
While President Barack Obama has sought to separate events in Syria, where he’s avoided military intervention in the civil war, and the challenge from the Islamic State, the intelligence assessments suggest a close connection, according to two of the intelligence officials.
The intelligence officials didn’t discuss possible U.S. military or other actions now being considered by Obama.
Echoing former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s criticism of Obama’s failure to act more forcefully in Syria, the officials said the conflict there provided the ungoverned space and sectarian fuel to revitalize the group. One of the intelligence officials said the Islamic State’s caliphate could not happened without the opportunities it had in Syria.
IS began as al-Qaeda in Iraq, was suppressed by U.S. forces and local Sunni tribesmen during the so-called “surge” in 2006-2007, then transformed itself into the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant and finally into its current form, the Islamic State.
The Obama administration also may have underestimated the Islamic State’s capabilities in Iraq and Syria -- with the president famously comparing it to a junior varsity team -- in part because of the president’s reluctance to put his “toe, foot and then leg” back into Iraq, said Harvey.
While the U.S. intelligence community had estimated that the Islamic State had about 10,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq before it captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, that estimate is now being revised upward, the intelligence officials said.
The officials said the Islamic State’s ranks are bolstered by thousands of foreign fighters, including some from Europe and the U.S. whom officials said may return home with orders or independent plans to hit targets. That threat is highlighted by recent arrests in Europe, including about 40 men detained in Kosovo who reportedly had been fighting for the Islamic State.
IS is a well-organized group with a hierarchy and succession plan, the intelligence officials said. Its leaders are experienced fighters, and most were detained or imprisoned during the U.S. occupation of Iraq, which provided key connections for them, they said.
Its leader, known by his nom de guerre, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, frequently on the move between hiding places in Iraq and Syria, is in control, though he doesn’t micromanage the group’s actions, officials said.
The Islamic State is essentially self-funding, able to draw on hundreds of millions of dollars through taxes, money looted from banks, sales of oil from areas it now controls, extortion and other measures, the intelligence officials said.
That means one key element of the strategy used against al-Qaeda -- curbing the money flow from the Persian Gulf and other outside sources -- wouldn’t be effective, they said.
Islamic State militants are “better equipped, they’re better manned, they’re better resourced, they’re better fighters, they’re better trained than the al-Qaeda in Iraq that our forces faced,” Brett McGurk, deputy assistant U.S. secretary of state for Iraq and Iran, said yesterday on the Charlie Rose show.
“It is a global expansionist, global jihadist organization” he said. “It is swollen with foreign fighters and suicide bombers” who will go “wherever the organization tells them to go. And that could very easily be capitals in the region, it could be capitals in Europe and, God forbid, it could be here.”
Still, there are factors that may limit the group’s ability to conduct a major al-Qaeda-style attack, the intelligence officials said. These include lacking the kind of technical know-how that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s top bomb designer has shown in building devices to be smuggled aboard aircraft, the officials said.
IS also may eventually face financial pressures because the areas it controls in Syria and Iraq are not economically self-sufficient, the officials said. Another vulnerability may be the militants’ main transit route through Turkey, if the Turkish government can be persuaded to crack down on would-be fighters traveling to Syria and Iraq, the officials said.
Although the U.S. officials said they don’t consider the Islamic State invincible, they said it now has so much momentum that it will be difficult and take time to thwart. If the group begins losing ground, and some recent Iraqi Sunni recruits peel off, it may be weakened, but will remain difficult to eradicate, they said.
Weakening it will require military and counter-terrorism actions, and their effectiveness will depend in part on whether there are social and political changes that begin to drain Sunni support, the officials said.
Many disaffected Sunnis in Iraq are willing for now to see if the Islamic State can govern its areas without the kind of brutality and atrocities it has used against foes and minorities, the officials said.
Territorial setbacks could blunt the group’s power, the officials said, since an Islamic State without territory will be less appealing to international jihadists.
The intelligence community doesn’t anticipate a move against Baghdad soon because the Iraqi capital is defended by security forces and Shiite militias, the officials said. It’s an unlikely target, since the vast majority of city’s population are Shiites who would fight the Sunni insurgent group, the officials said.
IS also faces a rival in al-Qaeda, with the major rift now between Osama bin Laden’s designated heir, Egyptian exile Ayman al-Zawahiri, and al-Baghdadi, who during the U.S. occupation led al-Qaeda in Iraq, the officials said.
Their personal and ideological disputes, first over the group’s activities in the Syrian civil war -- where it competes with the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate -- and then over the declaration of a caliphate, have led to a public breach and an open rivalry.
“Since the late ’90s, al-Qaeda has been focused on prioritizing attacks against the U.S.” while the upstart Islamic State and its predecessor groups seek to control territory in the Middle East -- from Iraq into Syria and the Levant and down into Jordan, said Brian Fishman, a fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and the author of studies on al-Qaeda and global jihad.
The Islamic State wants “to eliminate all borders in the Middle East, and that’s where they’re putting their resources,” Fishman said. While al-Qaeda shares that eventual goal, it has targeted its resources on planning attacks on U.S. targets at home and abroad.
That leaves Obama facing questions about how far to go in trying to defeat the Islamic State. Obama will have to weigh the potential consequences at home and abroad. Opinion polls have found little support for further overseas military engagements. Limited U.S. airstrikes this month have fueled thousands of hostile posts on social media threatening U.S. embassies in the Mideast and other American targets, one of the officials said.