The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL), currently controls about one-third of Iraq. It was originally a combination of:
- the al-Qaeda-sponsored Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) organization that tried to take over western Iraq 2003—2006, and
- Sunni Syrian rebel groups, including some elements of the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra).
Turkey, Qatar, and – indirectly – the United States supported the Nusra Front early in its existence in the Syrian civil war, although it is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. In 2011/12, the U.S. was supplying arms from Libya to Turkey for distribution to Syrian rebels, and both Turkey and Qatar provided them to their preferred radical jihadist groups, not the so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels at least politically favored by the U.S. The Nusra Front was a recipient of both arms and money. The CIA was working in the area at the time, ostensibly helping the Turks “vet” the opposition groups and providing them “non-lethal” aid.
Current ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (as the self-styled Caliph of the Islamic State, he is now known as Amir al-Mu’minin Caliph Ibrahim) was an early follower of Abu Musab al Zarkawi, a Bin Laden loyalist. In 2003, al Zarkawi’s “Group for Monotheism and Holy War “(JTJ) bombed the UN Headquarters in Baghdad, killing 34 people. In 2006, after al Zarkawi was killed, the group became the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) under the control of Abu Abdullah al-Rashid al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri, an Egyptian. The American “surge” in Iraq pushed ISI across the border to Syria in 2006/7.
After both al-Masri and al-Baghdadi were killed in 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi assumed leadership of ISIS.
IS gunman in Syria.
In April 2013, ISIS announced that the Nusra Front in Syria was affiliated with al-Qaeda and the two would work together in Syria and Iraq. There were reports that ISIS had waned in influence early in 2014 and in February, al Qaeda separated itself from ISIS. This may have accounted President Obama’s comment that the group was “the jayvee team” – a reference to the apparent rise of the still AQ-affiliated Nusra Front at the expense of ISIS. But in June 2014, the Nusra Front was reported to have merged into ISIS, providing it with an additional 15,000 soldiers for its latest push across western Iraq.
ISIS has enormous financial reserves. When Iraqi forced killed the ISIS commander of Mosul in June 2014, they retrieved 160 computer flash drives – which the CIA, among others, has been combing for information. According to The Guardian newspaper, the drives contained “noms de guerre of all foreign fighters, senior leaders and their code words, initials of sources inside ministries and full accounts of the group’s finances.” A British official told the newspaper, “Before Mosul, their total cash and assets were $875 million. Afterwards, with the money they robbed from banks and the value of the military supplies they looted, they could add another $1.5 billion to that.”
ISIS, then, was not unknown to American, British, Iraqi or other intelligence services before it began its streak across the Syrian-Iraqi border and the acquisition of territory in which it has declared its caliphate.
Background & Resource Material
The group has changed from an insurgency in Iraq to a jihadist group primarily in Syria, to an army largely in Iraq. Following the past of least resistance, the group moved from Iraq to Syria, then Iraq again and today is in control of parts of both countries.
- Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi established al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in April 2004 and swore allegiance to Osama Bin Laden. [i]
- The Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) fought multiple battles with U.S. and kidnapped American soldiers.[ii] It also carried out IED and suicide attacks against Iraqi and U.S. forces.
- Following the 2006-07 surge, many of the group’s members, including al-Zarqawi, were killed by Iraqi or U.S. forces; some remained in hiding. As of 2010, the U.S. considered the group to be dislodged from central AQ leadership. [iii]
- Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi – ISI leaders – were killed in a joint U.S.-Iraqi mission in April 2010, leaving the leadership of ISI to Abu Bakr.[iv]
- In 2011, all U.S. combat troops had left Iraq, but ISI predominated on the Syria-Iraq border. Had Syria not collapsed, ISI would have had a harder time gaining territory and funds.
- By late 2012, much of the group’s reformed leadership was already targeted by the U.S. treasury. [v]
- The Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant (ISIL), another name for the same group, started operations in Northern Syria following large demonstrations against Assad.[vi]
- ISIL officially declared its governance over the Levant in April 2013
- In August 2013, U.S. officials said ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was operating from Syria, but directing suicide attacks in central Iraq[vii]
- The group refocused efforts on Iraq-Syria border after fighting began with other rebel groups and Assad in late 2013 early 2014 [viii]
- AQ Central and ISIS split due to differences over methodology and fighting in early 2014 [ix]
- ISIS pushed deeper into Iraq, capturing Fallujah in Jan 2014[x] and Mosul in June.
Early funding of ISI (later ISIS) included many rich and religiously connected Gulf donors. One of the most notable is Nayef al-Ajmi, Kuwait’s former Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs and Endowments. The U.S. Government later sanctioned al-Ajmi for sending money to Syrian Jihadists. [xi] The whole al-Ajmi family appears to have been involved in financing jihadists. Sheikh Hajjaj al-Ajmi used his 250,000 Twitter followers and some of his own wealth to fund various radical Sunni groups in Syria, sending over $1 million. Syrian rebels even sent him “thank you” videos on Youtube.[xii]
The former Head of British MI6 says the Saudi government probably not sending money, but overlooking when citizens do [xiii] Qatar appears to be the only country openly funding jihadist groups in Syria, but the money tail appears to include a number of rich families in the Gulf.
Ad hoc funding included bank robberies and the looting of antiquities. [xiv]
- Raiding oil fields and processing facilities in Iraq. Oil cannot be shipped out of the country – ISIS doesn’t have the transportation capacity and no one on the outside will buy it, but there are ways to make it profitable internally.
– Traders sell both refined and crude oil to nearby groups including Kurdish smugglers.[xv]
– Iraq’s Anbar Province, the ISIS stronghold, doesn’t have much oil, but Northern Nineveh and areas around Kirkuk do.[xvi]
– ISIS has taken control of Baiji, the site of a large refinery that supplies oil to much of Iraq
- In June, ISIS looted the central bank in Mosul, taking away an estimated $429 million
– With that, it is estimated that “ISIS could pay 60,000 fighters $600 a month for a whole year.”
- Money is also made from business and personal “protection” taxes extorted from residents of areas captured by ISIS.
Shoshana Bryen, Senior Director and Michael Johnson, Senior Research Associate, compiled this report.