The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant: More than Just a June Surprise

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ISN: Bryan Price and others believe that the latest offensive by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant isn’t unique – i.e., it’s consistent with the operations it undertook between 2012 and 2013. They also warn that limited military interventions will not roll back the group to its previous and more modest status.

By Muhammad Al Ubaydi and Daniel Milton and Bryan Price for Combating Terrorism Center (CTC)

This article was originally published in the CTC Sentinel (Volume 7, Issue 6; June 2014) by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point.

On June 29, 2014, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) declared a caliphate in territories it holds in Iraq and Syria.[1] In the past few weeks, the world has watched as the rapid advance of the ISIL has offered a serious and significant challenge to the stability of Iraq. In the past few weeks, the world has watched as the rapid advance of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has offered a serious and significant challenge to the stability of Iraq. Combined with the announcement from President Barack Obama about the deployment of 300 U.S. military advisers to help combat the threat posed by the ISIL, the quickly evolving nature of the crisis has focused public attention more on recent developments.

While the importance of understanding the ISIL’s current actions is clear, it is also critical to understand the group’s past actions. Indeed, the ISIL has deep roots in Iraq, going back as early as 2002, when the leader of the ISIL’s predecessor group, Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi, set up operations in Baghdad.[2] In 2004, al-Zarqawi pledged bay`a to Usama bin Ladin and his group became known as al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI).[3] During its existence, AQI conducted numerous attacks against coalition forces, but it was Iraqis who bore the brunt of the campaign.[4]

Since al-Zarqawi’s death from a U.S. airstrike in Iraq on June 7, 2006, AQI has undergone several changes. In late 2006, al-Zarqawi’s successor declared the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and AQI came to be known by that name from that time forward. Finally, in April 2013, the leader of the ISI, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced in an audio message that his group was merging with Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) in Syria to form the “Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham.”[5] This merger triggered a public rift between JN and Ayman al-Zawahiri on one side and the ISIL on the other.[6] In the end, al-Qa`ida and JN broke from the ISIL, leaving the ISIL to operate on its own.

This article offers a recent operational history of the ISIL. It relies on a new source of data: the words of the ISIL itself. The ISIL has published an extensive listing of its operations from November 2012-November 2013, including where and how each of its operations were carried out.[7] Reviewing this record, particularly given the ISIL’s recent actions in Iraq, allows the examination of the ISIL from a different perspective. Indeed, this brief exploration of the ISIL’s actions demonstrates that the events of the past few weeks are not surprising, but consistent with the ISIL’s activities during the past year. The sheer number of successful ISIL operations between November 2012-November 2013 suggests that a limited military solution that rolls the ISIL back to its pre-May 2014 state will not eliminate the threat posed by the group in the future.

The ISIL in its Own Words
One interesting characteristic of the ISIL is that it has placed a large amount of information in the public sphere to further its goals. This section presents some of that information in an effort to contextualize the ISIL’s success and illustrate its actions in the year leading up to June 2014.

In early April 2014, the ISIL posted a 410-page document through the Twitter account of its media arm—al-I`tisam Establishment for Media Production—that listed each of its operations in detail from November 2012-November 2013.[8] It is worth noting that, in addition to publishing their attack data on an annual basis, the ISIL also posts attack information in the hours and days after an attack to their Twitter feed. Such a public and real-time accounting by a terrorist organization is rare and highlights the ISIL’s savvy propaganda campaign as it seeks to spread fear, attract recruits, and raise money.

Before presenting some of the descriptive statistics from the ISIL’s annual report, it is important to recognize that the report is ISIL propaganda. Terrorist organizations like the ISIL often publicize their attacks for their own self-interested reasons.[9] Whether to gain a competitive advantage over other organizations or simply to spread more fear, terrorist groups have powerful incentives to exaggerate their activities and their capabilities. For example, the Afghan Taliban claimed to have killed more than 5,000 foreign troops during 2008, a number 20 times higher than the actual figure.[10]

Because of this dynamic, the authors were understandably skeptical about the validity of the casualty and attack numbers in the ISIL report. To offer some assessment of the veracity of the report, the authors took a small sample of the ISIL’s attacks (those which occurred in Baghdad) and attempted to find corroborating evidence in various media reports. One of the challenges highlighted in the previous section is that international media attention on this group and its activities in Iraq was at a low-point during this period of time. This forced a reliance on local Iraqi media sources, where questions of accuracy and the government’s own incentives come into play.

Of the 345 attacks that the ISIL says took place in Baghdad during the November 2012-November 2013 timeframe, the authors found a media match in 198 cases (57.39%). Before it can be determined whether the ISIL overstated its operations, the possibility that the media systematically overlooked incidents and failed to report on many operations must be considered. If underreporting was a factor, then the media would have likely underreported minor attacks that produced small numbers of casualties. Indeed, of the ISIL operations for which no media match could be found, 85% produced fewer than three casualties. Therefore, even though the possibility exists that the ISIL exaggerated the number of operations it conducted, the media has also likely underreported the number of their attacks.

By examining the 198 instances in which corroborating media stories about the ISIL’s purported attacks were found, it is possible to address the question of whether the ISIL exaggerated its casualty count. Within these 198 operations, the average number of casualties as reported by the ISIL is 25.95, while the media reported an average of 21.47. Of course, it is not clear if this is a result of the ISIL exaggerating figures, media under-counting, or a combination of the two.[12] What is relatively surprising, however, is the fact that the numbers are as close as they are. If the ISIL were padding its numbers, one would expect to see a larger discrepancy.

Up until this point, the descriptive statistics presented have focused only on the figures that could be extracted from the ISIL’s report of its Baghdad operations. As one might imagine, the numbers tell a far more sobering tale when considered in the aggregate across the entire country. Table 1 (see PDF) shows the aggregate numbers of operations that the ISIL claims to have carried out across several Iraqi provinces in a one-year span from November 2012-November 2013.

At the aggregate level, the ISIL purportedly conducted the fewest attacks in Baghdad and the most in Ninawa Province, the latter of which includes Mosul where the events of this month captured the world’s attention. In this context, the ISIL’s recent success in June 2014 was not an anomaly, but a continuation of the group’s proven organizational capability over several years.

In light of the group’s rapid advance through northern and western Iraq in June, one interpretation of the data in Table 1 (see PDF) suggests that the ISIL purposefully focused the majority of its operations in Ninawa and Salah al-Din in 2013 (~57% of their attacks) to prep the battlefield for its June 2014 assault. The purpose of these attacks may have been to soften the government’s defenses and lay a psychological foundation of fear and intimidation in these specific provinces prior to the campaign. Another theory suggests that the ISIL chose to advance on Baghdad from north to south via Mosul, Tikrit, and Samarra rather than from west to east through Anbar Province because it enjoyed more operational success in Ninawa and Salah al-Din provinces in 2012-2013. Like any good business wanting to reinforce success and exploit operational gains earned in the past, the ISIL may have chosen the north to south axis simply because it enjoyed the most success in that area during the past year.

The ISIL also broke down its purported operations by attack type. This data is presented in Table 2 (see PDF). The group accounted for every time it used a different weapon during an operation. For example, if the ISIL detonated a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) and simultaneously launched a mortar attack, it then accounted for both the VBIED and the mortar attack as separate operations. The ISIL also recorded the types of attack by province. This breakdown of operations provides additional insight into the ISIL’s operational capability and organizational priorities.

The data also offers insight into the ISIL’s strategy in the year leading up to its 2014 advance. For example, “parked VBIEDs” were a key component of the ISIL’s strategy in Baghdad. Assuming this count to be comprehensive, about 47% of all parked VBIEDs it used during this period of time were in Baghdad. This stands in stark contrast to Ninawa, where other types of IEDs were primarily used. It is also worth noting that, particularly in Ninawa, the ISIL employed a strategy of intimidation and coercion through more personal assassinations using small arms. This strategy appears to have paid off, as month after month of these types of tactics against security forces and civilians may have contributed to the military’s willingness to drop their arms, shed their uniforms, and flee.[13]

The data presented in Table 2 (see PDF) also reveals the extent of the logistical network that the ISIL has built to support these operations. For example, the use of a VBIED involves the purchase of a vehicle and explosives. Often, the actual execution of an operation may include a team that positions the VBIED, another one that films the operation, and follow-up reconnaissance to assess the success or failure of the operation. Each of these individuals likely receives some financial incentive from the ISIL, if not a salary.[14] Given that the ISIL claims to have conducted an average of more than one VBIED attack per day during the course of a year, this is an astonishing feat from an organizational perspective.

The cost of such operations is not inexpensive. The total cost of a VBIED ranges from several thousand at the lowest end to over $15,000.[15] Focusing on the cost of the vehicles alone, several thousand dollars for 537 parked VBIEDs means that the ISIL spent millions of dollars on these operations from November 2012-November 2013.[16] Add to that the salaries of those involved in planning, preparing, and executing the operation, and it is apparent that this organization has been well-funded for years. After raiding Mosul’s central bank and stealing an estimated $429 million in June 2014, one report speculated that the ISIL may now be sitting on nearly $1.5 billion in assets.[17]

Avoiding Going Back to the Future
Sun Tzu stated that “he who lacks foresight and underestimates his enemy will surely be captured by him.”[18] The ISIL, as an organization, has existed in some form or another for a number of years. It has undergone many changes since its inception, however, which have allowed it to become a very active and capable terrorist organization. In attempts to understand the ISIL and to avoid the shortcomings identified by Sun Tzu, it is critical not just to focus on recent actions, but also on what the group has done in the past.

The sharp and sudden focus on the ISIL’s recent advances alone may lead some policymakers to seek an attractive but unwise solution to the problem at hand: simply roll the ISIL back to where it was on May 31, 2014. Given the preceding analysis of the ISIL’s record of its own actions from November 2012-November 2013, it is clear that returning to the status quo ante bellum will not eliminate the threat posed by the ISIL in the future. The insights gleaned from the ISIL’s accounting of its operations, even allowing for some exaggeration in their own reporting, indicate the group is more capable, dangerous, and organized than most mainstream media outlets gave it credit for prior to this month’s alarming activity, and it will likely remain so regardless of how the short-term military campaign ends.

The views presented are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, or any of its subordinate commands.

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[1] Together with the declaration of a caliphate, the ISIL also shortened its name to the “Islamic State.”

[2] U.S. Intelligence Community’s Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq S 108-301, U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 2004, pp. 337-338.

[3] “Al-Qaeda in Iraq,” U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, available at www.nctc.gov/site/groups/aqi.html.

[4] Scott Helfstein, Nassir Abdullah, and Muhammad al-Obaidi, Deadly Vanguards: A Study of al-Qa’ida’s Violence Against Muslims (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2009). Separately, while AQI is the commonly-used name for al-Zarqawi’s organization after it joined al-Qa`ida, the group refers to itself as al-Qa`ida in Mesopotamia.

[5] This is the name used by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in this statement. This article uses ISIL to refer to the same group. See “Iraqi al-Qaeda and Syrian Group ‘Merge,’” al-Jazira, April 9, 2013.

[6] Nelly Lahoud and Muhammad al-`Ubaydi, “The War of Jihadists Against Jihadists in Syria,” CTC Sentinel 7:3 (2014); “Al-Qaeda’s Zawahiri Disbands Main Faction Operating in Syria,” al-Arabiya, November 9, 2013.

[7] This is not the first article to make use of the ISIL’s “annual report.” See Alex Bilger, “Backgrounder: ISIL Annual Reports Reveal a Metrics-Driven Military Command,” Institute for the Study of War, May 22, 2014. This article builds on Bilger’s work with the insight of recent events, as well as with a dedicated effort to corroborate what the ISIL puts in its annual report using local media sources.

[8] This time period corresponds with one year in the Hijri calendar (1434), which started in the middle of November 2012.

[9] For an excellent discussion and analysis on why groups claim credit for attacks, see Aaron M. Hoffman, “Voice and Silence: Why Groups Take Credit for Acts of Terror,” Journal of Peace Research 47:5 (2010): pp. 615-626.

[10] Jason Straziuso and Rahim Faiez, “Taliban Whopper: 5,220 Foreign Troops Killed,” Army Times, January 5, 2009.

[11] (This footnote does not appear in the above text. It is in the PDF version only, as it refers to Table 2.) A number of categories were dropped to streamline the presentation. For example, in Ninawa there were four reports of “sniping,” as well as “dozens” of reports of “the removal of cameras spying on Muslims.” Neither of these categories appeared in all of the other provinces. For the “Other IED” category, the ISIL does not just employ large-scale IEDs. It also, particularly when targeting individuals, uses smaller IEDs that can be attached to the undercarriage of a car or thrown at a particular target. In the document summarizing their operations, the ISIL refers to these IEDS as “explosive, sticky, flying, etc.” For the “Assassinations and Eliminations” category, the ISIL notes that these were operations conducted “using silenced weapons, normal weapons or cold weapons.”

[12] It should be noted that this second possibility cannot be discounted. A number of media stories relied on casualty figures from local police, the Interior Ministry, or other government sources. Each of these actors has an incentive to downplay the magnitude of violence.

[13] Bryan Price, Dan Milton and Muhammad al-`Ubaydi, “Al-Baghdadi’s Blitzkrieg, ISIL’s Psychological Warfare, and What It Means for Syria and Iraq,” Combating Terrorism Center, June 12, 2014; Liz Sly and Ahmed Ramadan, “Insurgents Seize Iraqi City of Mosul as Security Forces Flee,” Washington Post, June 10, 2014.

[14] Salary numbers of ISIL fighters/personnel are hard to assess in the current environment. Based on captured documents, however, salaries were paid in the past. For details, see “ISI Fighter Registry March-April 2007 (English Translation),” Combating Terrorism Center, Harmony Program, undated. In addition, current reporting suggests that the ISIL continues to pay competitive salaries and death benefits to its members in a more reliable fashion than the Iraqi Army. See Mitchell Hartman, “ISIL Gets Rich in Attack on Iraq’s Cities,” Marketplace, June 13, 2014.

[15] Spencer Ackerman, “$265 Bomb, $300 Billion War: The Economics of the 9/11 Era’s Signature Weapon,” Wired, September 8, 2011; Tom Vanden Brook, “Afghan Bomb Makers Shifting to New Explosives for IEDs,” USA Today, June 25, 2013; “Car Bombs: History and Facts,” Sky News, February 24, 2014.

[16] Of course, one may argue that the group need not spend money on the vehicles and instead just steal them. The authors do not have evidence to determine the primary mode of acquisition of vehicles for VBIEDS. Theft of a vehicle that will later be used in an operation, however, carries risks for a terrorist group of having the plot discovered beforehand and/or unnecessarily raising the awareness of security forces. For a group with no shortage of money available, this seems an unwise course of action. Even if they were to steal them, there would be some cost associated to carry out the theft. The purpose is not to state the primary mode of acquisition, but to offer a crude minimum estimate of the ISIL’s financial capabilities.

[17] Martin Chulov, “How an Arrest in Iraq Revealed Isis’s $2bn Jihadist Network,” Guardian, June 15, 2014.

[18] Sun Tzu, The Art of War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 122, translated by Samuel G. Griffith.