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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A New Day for ISIS

The capture of Mosul by the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) is shaking things up in the jihadi world and the region. Here are four points to keep in mind as we try to assess what this means for the regional conflict, but also the war on terrorism.

1. Momentum 

ISIS has been trying to compete with al Qaeda for leadership, both symbolic and pragmatic, of the global jihadist movement. Its efforts to gain influence "off the ground" have so far proceeded in fits and starts, and they were starting to show signs of reaching a plateau, and the particular plateau they had reached was lower in stature than al Qaeda Central. No longer. In the popular jihadist imagination, ISIS is now building a commanding lead. If it doesn't make any major mistakes in its next moves, this could be a genuine tipping point. I've criticized analysts in the past for getting too far out ahead of the curve in anointing ISIS as the new center of gravity for jihadism. We might be getting to the point now where that is a fair assessment.

2. Regional Threat

I'm not a military analyst, but ISIS obviously presents a significant and probably existential insurgent threat to Iraq at this point. I haven't seen what I would consider a definitive estimate of the size of its fighting force. While there has been much talk of an ISIS march to Baghdad, it's entirely unclear to me whether that would involve stretching its forces too thinly and risking serious setbacks. ISIS has shown some signs of discipline in the past. It might be more logical for it to consolidate its current positions than continue expanding. I just don't know.

But there is no question that the type of regional threat presented by ISIS has fundamentally changed. As many have discussed, with Mosul, it has captured heavy weaponry and armored vehicles which it should be able to deploy, and aircraft, which it may not be able to deploy in a long-term manner (although if they can get the planes off the ground, they may be able to spend them on suicide attacks). There is not a lot of evidence to suggest ISIS has the technical capabilities to maintain these new assets (can they build replacement parts? do they know how to maintain an air fleet?), but it's not impossible either. At any rate, in the short term at least, this would seem to add considerable potential to their military strength.

3. Global Terrorism Threat -- Follow the Money

Starting early yesterday and continuing through today, ISIS sources on social media have noted that when they captured Mosul, they also captured Mosul's banks. Sources have consistently reported the haul at more than $400 million. It's not clear how this money is distributed in terms of types of currency, although some reports indicated it was mostly Iraqi dinars, so it's not clear how much spending power this represents and whether ISIS will be able to exploit the full amount.

Nevertheless, this is very significant, and analysis of the fall of Mosul so far has given it short shrift. If the number is accurate, ISIS now has more money than Osama bin Laden ever did -- not accounting for inflation, but also not counting ISIS's previous bankroll and the fundraising bonanza that its conquest of Mosul is likely to produce.

Media coverage has thus far focused on pictures circulated by ISIS of its jihadists driving around in American Humvees captured from the Iraqi army. But you can't fly a Humvee into a skyscraper in Manhattan. Armor travels regionally, money travels globally. ISIS is now arguably in a better position to bankroll global terrorism than al Qaeda ever was.

UPDATE 6/12: To be clear, ISIS may face significant challenges in deploying all this paper currency. After all, they are destabilizing the government that supports it and they may have difficulty converting it into a form they can use. In other words, they are almost certain to lose some of that money in the process of laundering it. They may have a plan for that, and there are also reports they obtained gold from the banks. There is a possibility that their money will not spend as effectively as bin Laden's, but there is not much chance they will fail to profit significantly from all of this. END UPDATE

The smart play would be for ISIS to use this money to build up the economy (and thus popular support) in areas it now controls, but jihadists have very little precedent as builders. Thus far, they have been much better at tearing things down, a drive fueled in part by ideology, in part by temperament, and in part by lack of imagination.

While by no means certain, the most dangerous scenario is not especially unlikely -- that ISIS will allocate some significant part of this money to terrorism. ISIS has dramatically increased its European-language propaganda efforts over the last two weeks. We've also seen terrorist suspects with ties to ISIS arrested in Saudi Arabia, Libya, France and Germany, with several of those happening over just the last couple weeks. The suspects' ties to ISIS run the gamut from loose to strong, but the message is clear -- ISIS wants to make its bones with a terrorist attack outside its geographical dominion. It now has the money to fund such activities lavishly, if it chooses to make that investment.

ISIS fighters have also been aggressively encouraging "lone wolf" attacks from supporters in the West, thus far with few results. As I've written before, this kind of tactic is extremely limited in the long run. It's very hard to get people motivated to act, rather than just talk, and when they do act, they are often ineffective. But so-called lone wolves can do some damage, and they may be more likely to act during a period when the online radicalizing community is pumped up and excited, which is most definitely the case at the moment. In the short term, at least, the risk of individual actor attacks in the West by ISIS supporters is as substantial as it has ever been.

4. What next for al Qaeda?

This is a critical moment for the old guard al Qaeda. After confronting ISIS publicly earlier this year, AQ Central and its leader Ayman al Zawahiri came off looking weak from various perspectives, as it clearly failed to rein the actions of its prodigal child. Nevertheless, AQC has held onto significant loyalties at the core, wresting control of its online forums back from ISIS over the last two months and holding the center by preventing defections from any other major affiliates. Now, it faces the perception that it may have backed the wrong horse in Syria, or worse, that it is actively seeking to hinder what is arguably the most successful jihadist movement in the world today.

AQC needs a new game plan, and fast, but it has very few apparent options on the table. Aside from capitulation to ISIS (which seems unlikely) or a coup within AQC by pro-ISIS factions (which could well happen), one of its few practical remaining plays would be to squander the entirety of whatever resources it has left on an attack against the West, in the hopes of regaining its reputation. The downside to this approach is that it would likely expose AQC's remaining infrastructure (if it has any to speak of) and could result in a catastrophic final blow against the organization by Western forces.

All roads forward for AQC now are paved with massive risk, except perhaps for one -- play the long game, and wait patiently for ISIS to overreach and self-destruct.

This isn't a terrible plan. Nothing succeeds like success, but nothing exceeds like excess. ISIS is currently enjoying the former, but it has a well-earned reputation for the latter.

Related reading: 

Smarter Counterterrorism in The Age of Competing Al Qaedas

ISIS's Rise After al Qaeda’s House of Cards

Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam

Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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