When Islamic State seized Iraq’s largest northern city of Mosul almost a year ago, tribal leader Hekmat Suleiman was sure the extremist militants wouldn’t expand further into his hometown.
“We bet Islamic State won’t have what it takes to last,” Suleiman said in October during a visit to the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil, smoke rising from his shisha water pipe. “We’ve reached the beginning of the end of extremism.”
The battlefield victories ahead of the first anniversary of the group’s self-declared caliphate on June 29 emphasize its ability to endure U.S.-led coalition airstrikes as well as lower oil prices, which have slashed a key source of income.
More and more radicalized Sunnis from elsewhere are being drawn to the group at a time of deepening sectarian tensions between Sunni power Saudi Arabia and mainly Shiite Iran. It has also expanded its influence, with Nigeria’s Boko Haram militant group formally pledging allegiance.
What’s made it easier is that the ingredients of the “toxic recipe that gave life” to Islamic State, also known by the abbreviations ISIS or Da’esh in Arabic, haven’t changed, said Patrick Skinner, director of special projects at Soufan Group, a security firm based in New York.
“They’re blessed with bad opponents at every single stage,” said Skinner. “Everything that put ISIS where they are now still is there and is keeping them there.”
Some Iraqi Sunnis initially welcomed Islamic State because they felt marginalized by the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Despite a new prime minister, little has changed.
Machinations and interference in Iraq largely by regional foes Saudi Arabia and Iran continue, the economy hasn’t improved and Islamic State’s rivals, with the exception of the Kurds, have been weak at every turn, said Skinner. The Iraqi army remains ineffective even after time and effort spent training. The four-year Syrian conflict that led to the emergence of Islamic State is nowhere close to being resolved.
Islamic State can get “very far” unless stopped, and air strikes alone “are not going to do the trick,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a Bloomberg Television interview in Moscow on Tuesday.
The U.S.’s “obsession” with Assad isn’t helping in the common fight against the threat from Islamic State, Lavrov said. “People put the fate of one person whom they hate above the fight against terrorism,” he said.
Islamic State evolved from al-Qaeda in Iraq, which U.S. troops and Sunni tribal leaders and militiamen defeated after its powers peaked in 2006 to 2007 in a campaign that was known as the awakening. It regrouped and was able to expand in 2013 in Syria, where a civil war has raged for more than four years.
Suleiman, a spokesman for the awakening movement, said it helped expel the fighters from Ramadi and the wider Anbar province at that time.
Almost a decade later, Islamic State declared its caliphate on June 29, merging territory it already held in Syria, including its de-facto capital Raqqah, with Mosul and other Iraqi areas. In Syria, it now controls half of the country’s territory and most of its oil and gas fields, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based group that monitors the civil war there.
“Each new base, town or supply depot that it secures only boosts its foothold in Syria’s civil war, which in turn translates into gains across the border in Iraq,” according to a report by Texas-based consulting firm Stratfor.
“The Syrian government and disparate rebel forces must now dedicate more of their attention to the Islamic State threat,” said the report e-mailed on Tuesday.
The caliphate has attracted more than 25,000 foreign fighters from 100 different countries, turning the area into a “veritable international finishing school” for extremists, according to a United Nations report.
The issue has become “a worldwide problem and it is not going to go away,” U.S. Representative Peter Sessions, a Texas Republican who has studied the foreign fighter issue in travel to Europe and the Middle East, said in an interview.
Despite the steady flow of fighters and the recent gains, Islamic State faces the problem of how to govern areas beyond the core territories in Raqqah and Mosul, said Aram Nerguizian, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy group. The group was defeated in Syria’s Kobani and was forced to retreat from Tikrit this year.
“When you go beyond those core areas of control, you’re engaged in a game of giving up and taking back territory on almost constant basis,” said Nerguizian. “That’s not a stable foundation for any real form of governance.”
Islamic State had been trying to take Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, since last year. Suleiman said one of the reasons his hometown fell was because Sunni tribes were attached to Iraq’s army, which was disorganized and fled as soon as Islamic State advanced into the city.
Militias in the Shiite parts of the country are better organized and equipped to take on the extremists, though more Iraqi Sunnis today want to fight Islamic State, he said.
“How can anyone living a modern life accept to be taken back to before the Stone Age?” Suleiman said by phone from Baghdad last week. “But no one is helping them.”