Shock and Awe: The Rise of the Islamic State & Implications for the Middle East – Part I


By mid-June 2014, Sunni jihadists under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), later known as the Islamic State (IS), 1 had seized much of northern Iraq. However, their swift gains could not have been without the assistance of other antigovernment factions and tribal support. From the Western perspective, the capture of the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit were totally unexpected. Many of the Western intelligence establishments, particularly those of the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US), were taken by surprise as their focus had been concentrated upon the activities of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his persistent intrigues in the Crimea and Ukraine. Chinese activities throughout the Far East and the South China Sea, as well as their interplay with American allies in the region, were a simultaneous intelligence priority particularly for the American intelligence community. These intelligence operations are in accordance with the Obama administration’s policy of the ‘pivot’ to the Pacific. Accordingly, intelligence sources were downgraded for monitoring Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Evolution of a Loose Coalition

The ISIS was not alone in its march towards Baghdad; it was augmented by elements of the Naqshabandi Army, consisting of an underground network of the late Saddam Hussein’s former Baathist regime members. 2 It was reported that the town of Tikrit was controlled by former Baathists rather than ISIS jihadists. This loose coalition was further augmented by local Sunni tribal leaders 3 who were intent on unseating Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shia dominated government in Baghdad. 4 A number of these Sunni tribes had led the “Awakening” or “Sahwa” to take on Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which was created in 2003. Ansar al- Sunni, a small Islamist group, also joined this loose knit coalition.

Contrary to the foreign fighters seen in Syria, the Iraq conflict has been characterized as a localized insurgency aimed at replacing the Shiite dominated Baghdad government. 5 Should this transpire, the coalition could easily split and turned inward in a violent competition among tribal leaders, former Baathists, ISIS jihadists, and other Sunni extremist elements for who want to take power.


The ISIS was formed in April 2013. It grew out of Al Qaeda in Iraq, created 10 years earlier, but has since been disavowed by the current Al Qaeda leadership. 6 In its movement into Syria, ISIS has evolved into one of the main jihadist groups fighting against the Assad government and has reportedly surpassed Al Qaeda as the most dangerous jihadist organization. 7 There is little information about ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al -Baghdadi, who was reportedly born Ibrahim Al-Samarra 8 in 1971 in Samara, north of Baghdad. 9 It is believed that he joined the Iraqi insurgency in the wake of the US-led invasion in 2003. In 2005, Baghdadi was reportedly a middle-ranked militant in the Sunni insurgency and was captured by American forces. In the wake of his release he took over the leadership of Al Qaeda’s Iraq branch. 10 Baghdadi’s recent success was predicated upon the splintering of AQI in 2013, when he openly challenged the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri when he attempted to assimilate the Jabhat al –Nusra (JN), an extremist Sunni militia 11 fighting in Syria. 12 According to reports Zawahiri ordered Baghdadi to keep the group separate, however, he assumed control over most of the JN, along with a substantial parcel of land spanning parts of northern Iraq and Syria.

By 2010, Baghdadi had moved up the leadership chain of the AQI. Baghdadi’s reputation as a battlefield commander and sound tactician enabled him to attract young recruits to the ISIS cause. In contrast, the leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is perceived as a pure Islamic theologian, not a dynamic field commander.13 The ISIS claim to have attracted recruits from the United Kingdom, Germany, France, other European countries, as well as from the Arab world, the Caucasus, the United States, and Canada. 14

ISIS has proven capable of acquiring a number of military successes. In March, 2013, it seized the Syrian city of Raqqa—the first provincial capital to fall under insurgent control. 15 In January, 2014, it took control of the predominantly Sunni city of Fallujah in Anbar province, as well as a number of towns located near the Turkish and Syrian borders. 16 The group has garnered a reputation for violence with numerous reports of massacres and for ruling their conquered areas with an iron fist.


The financing of ISIS comes from a spectrum of sympathizers, many of whom are in the Gulf and have business interests in some of the territories under ISIS control. More recently, it was reported that ISIS acquired some $422-500 million 17 in the looting of the Iraqi Central Bank in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

Iraqi officials believe that ISIS has accumulated a war fund of $2 billion 18 and is now considered the richest terrorist organization in the world. The sources that provide such funds remain controversial. Iraq’s Shia dominated government argues that Saudi Arabia has been directing and financially supporting the ISIS jihad, a claim which the United States 19 —a close Saudi ally— refutes. 20 In contrast, Gunter Meyer, Director of the Center for Research into the Arabic World, University of Mainz, argues that there is little chance that funds flowing to ISIS are coming from Sunni sources connected to the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. 21 Meyer believes that the goals of ISIS are invariant from those of Hussein’s former Baathist network. Meyer furthered that while both groups want to upset the Shia-led government in Baghdad, the former Baath party members wish to establish a secular democracy, while the strategic intent of ISIS is to recreate an Islamic theocracy in the form of a Caliphate. 22 This prickly relationship would appear to be a marriage of convenience for the present time.

Financing to date has been from the Gulf States, specifically Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and United Arab Emirates. 23 According to Meyer, the motivation by many of the Gulf States to support ISIS was predicated on the fight against the Iranian backed Syrian regime of President Bashar al Assad, although the overwhelming majority of the Syrian population are Sunni Muslims. However, Syria is ruled by an Alawite minority who were an offshoot of the Shiite Islam. 24

Should it surface that Saudi Arabia is providing financial support to ISIS, this could be a double edged sword, as Saudi nationals comprise the largest contingent of foreign fighters in ISIS and pose a direct danger to the continuation and stability of the Saudi regime. 25 Another source of ISIS funding are the oil fields in northern Syria that supply fuel into Turkey, which, in turn, provides funds for ISIS coffers. 26  ISIS further generates funds through the systematic employment of extortion, as witnessed in the recently conquered city of Mosul, according to Charles Lester of the Brookings Doha Center. 27 The tactic of extortion is applied to small and large businesses, and has reportedly expanded into local government representatives. Moreover, it is suspected that the levying of taxes in ISIS controlled areas in Syria and now Iraq provides further funding for ISIS endeavors. 28

Meyer argues that it is unlikely that monies flowing to ISIS are derived from Sunni sources connected to the late Saddam Hussein regime. Although both groups want to overthrow the Shiite government in Baghdad, the ISIS strategic design is to create and establish an Islamic theocracy. This is in direct contrast to the Sunnis of the Baath party who wish to establish a secular democracy. 29

It is estimated that ISIS has a total of 10,000 fighters and, assuming that it pays them as well as their foreign fighters, the funds being generated are substantial and could last a long time. 30 It is also noteworthy that in the areas under ISIS control, are known to subsidize water, bread, as well as fuel with the hope of garnering support from the local population. 31 Reportedly, ISIS also finances the maintenance and operation of some basic public services which would be a heavy burden on the financial resources of this group. As well, there have been reports that ISIS has been selling looted antiquities seized from various historic sites in order to top off their coffers. 32

ISIS and Al Qaeda: Competition for Global Leadership of the Jihad Movement

The astonishing success of ISIS could be seen as a harbinger of major political, religious, and economic shifts that will undoubtedly occur within the region. As well, we are witnessing a substantial shift within the jihadist movement itself as the recent successes of ISIS could supplant Al Qaeda for the role of global leader in the jihad movement.

Tensions between ISIS and Al Qaeda have existed for a number of years, but did not come to a breaking point until April 2013 when Baghdadi attempted to bring the local Al Qaeda group—Jabhat al-Nusra (JN)—under his control. Al Qaeda’s chief, Zawahiri, addressed this friction calmly by assigning the JN to be responsible for jihad in Syria and ISIS to focus on Iraq. Baghdadi rejected this compromise and persisted in expanding and prosecuting operations in Syria. In doing so, he undermined a variety of Syrian groups who were partaking in the insurgency, which included a number of radical Islamist organizations.

As could be expected, opposing rebel groups, including the JN, quickly united and undertook a counter offensive against ISIS. By February 2014, the differences between ISIS and the Syrian opposition forced Zawahiri and Al Qaeda’s leadership to disown ISIS. This underscored that ISIS, Al Qaeda, and the JN had divergent views when it came to power, control of the region, control of the global jihad movement, and the application of the strategies and tactics to be employed.  More importantly, these differences included issues relating to Islamic authority, the imposition of Islamic law, the prominence of one Islamic group over the other, and the application of violence against non-Sunni Muslims-read Shia.

Al Qaeda had learned from its experiences with the AQI in the wake of the American invasion that large-scale violence, although potent, can disenfranchise popular support and turn the population against the group. 33 In the case of the AQI, their orchestration of suicide bombings, attacks on mosques, mass casualty bombings, as well as the assassination of respected tribal leaders severed any support for Zarqawi and his group, which contained a number of foreign jihadists. This brought about a split between the Sunni nationalists and the AQI, which witnessed the ‘Awakening’ (2006-2011) and the creation of the ‘Sons of Iraq’. 34 This greatly assisted in countering the influence of Al Qaeda within the Sunni tribal areas, while laying the foundation for its subsequent destruction. 35

The success of ISIS could help strengthen its influence over those Al Qaeda elements operating in Syria and beyond. Along with substantial funds already secured, ISIS has also captured large quantities of munitions, weapons, and abandoned Iraqi army military equipment, which included armored vehicles, tanks, as well as artillery. They have also liberated hundreds of prisoners—many of whom were former fighters. These successes have resulted in a dramatic rise in the popularity of ISIS that will likely translate into the recruitment of more young radicals and attract funding. This will enable ISIS to undertake an expansion of their influence and facilitate the planning and execution of more ambitious operations in and out of the region.

The startling success of Baghdadi and his organization has raised its regional and international profile, while posing a serious leadership challenge to Al Qaeda whose most important achievement was the extraordinary attacks of 11 September 2001, which precipitated the Global War On Terrorism, and subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Importantly, this also prompted over a decade of mass investment in global intelligence, police, and military operations to pre-empt any future terrorist operations,

The Al Qaeda dream of re-establishing the Caliphate has, for the most part, been a failure. Their efforts have seen the winning and losing territory in Yemen, Somalia and northern Mali. These temporary successes pale in significance when measured against the seizures of cities and territory taken by ISIS and its coalition in recent weeks. Furthermore, the “reality” that Baghdadi and his followers have re-established at least in their own eyes the Caliphate, has supplanted al Qaeda’s dream. Baghdadi announced that he intends to rule through the guidance and imposition of Islamic values and Islamic law known as Sharia. 36

Implications of Success

Thus far, the achievements of ISIS have rendered them territory, influence, money, military equipment and the recruitment of new followers. Their social media capabilities and information operations employ the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter and provide a vital venue for their messaging to local, regional, and global supporters. 37 These substantial achievements reinforce their credibility and demonstrate their organizational capability, as well as establishing their fundamental legitimacy and place in the global jihad and as leaders of the Caliphate. This poses a direct threat to Al Qaeda who has tried to delegitimize ISIS through a number of strategies including the employment of young but popular jihadi scholars with the aim of usurping ISIS influence and recruitment initiatives.

However, decentralization of religious authority within the jihad movement, combined with the advantages of modern technology and social media have enabled any persuasive, charismatic, budding jihadi leader a venue to attract an audience and, ideally, a following. Moreover, a new generation of young men lured by holy war may view Al Qaeda and its leadership as already having been eclipsed by those, like Baghdadi, who seek to make their mark. Today’s young jihadist needs to identify with their leadership. Therefore, today’s jihadist leadership must be visible and able to communicate with their followers. The provision of guidance and direction from afar, as Al Qaeda’s Zawahiri is doing from some clandestine location along the Afghan -Pakistan border does not resonate, nor is it in touch with the current reality.

Baghdadi’s announcement of the Caliphate on 29 June 2014, 38 reportedly in a Mosul mosque, was strategically symbolic and highlighted the long-term advantage of ISIS. His claim that ISIS represents the real Islamic emirate and, therefore, he has the inherent right to lead has been criticized by other extremist organizations, 39 as well as Islamic scholars. Buttressed by ISIS’s seizure of large swaths of Iraq and Syria, Baghdadi has—for the moment—control of territory essential to creating an Islamic emirate. 40 As well, Baghdadi has assumed the title of Emir of Believers, a title specifically reserved for the Caliph. 41 In his sermon in the Mosul mosque, Baghdadi announced the founding of the new Caliphate and demanded that all Muslims accept him as their leader. 42 For many observers, this may seem premature and grandiose, however, one cannot discount Baghdadi’s recent successes in Syria and Iraq. As the Iraqi government does not appear to have the military capability, nor political leadership, to regain its lost territory in the near future.

Baghdadi has demonstrated both the leadership and the skill to build the support of those Iraqi-Sunnis who want to see total change within the Iraqi government. This is in direct contrast to his personal goal in recreating a global caliphate that would include Iraq. 43 Baghdadi also believes that the Shia must be eradicated as they are, in his view, apostates. 44 In the wake of his destruction of the important Shia shrine in Samarra, Baghdadi will likely target other important religious sites that will likely incite further violence. Hence, Baghdadi appears to be setting the conditions for civil war. 45 For Maliki, the situation becomes more complex as the Obama administration is reticent and unlikely to intervene directly in this conflict beyond the provision of intelligence armed drones, selected munitions, military advisors and the possibility of strike aircraft. 46

The recent accomplishments under the auspices of Baghdadi’s leadership underscores an irrefutable reality—that ISIS now has territory, money, financial support. Importantly, he is equipped with a capable insurgent force that has taken to the field and defeated–psychologically and militarily–an expensively trained and well-equipped Iraqi Army. One cannot argue with such tangible success.

Iran and Saudi- The Proxy War

Over the past 30 years, the Islamic regime in Iran has employed a proxy warfare against its competitors and enemies in the region. 47 Tehran has continuously backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as the regime of Syrian President al-Assad. Recent events demonstrate that the Syrian conflict has become a far bigger risk to the national security and territorial integrity of Iran than anticipated. The disintegration of Iraq, and the spillover of sectarian violence into Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni areas could have serious cascading consequences for Iran. Further, this could impact Tehran’s own population, as a wide variety of ethnicities, including Kurds and other religious minorities, occupy this land and may have their own political aspirations. 48

The long and bloody Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s still resonates within this region, as do the ghosts of half-million dead on both sides. The reigning Iranian government is “‘still paying for the destruction of that war, which is why Iran cannot tolerate any forces worse than Saddam to rule Iraq,’ said a regime member. ‘We will fight ISIS in every way and everywhere we can.’” 49 Although the Iranian government has stated that it has no intention of sending troops to Iraq, it is believed that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are assisting in the mobilization of Iraqi-Shia volunteers to combat the ISIS and fellow Sunni insurgents who have undertaken a number of advertised massacres as well destroyed a number of Shia holy sites in Iraq. 50

Although Iranian government officials deny any military presence in Iraq, it is reported that Iran was directing surveillance drones from an airfield in Baghdad, as well as supplying Iraq with military equipment, supplies, and other assistance . One report noted that Maj. General Ghasem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds forces is coordinating Iran’s response to the Sunni insurgents. 51 His mission is thought to be to keep Mr. Maliki in power even though Tehran is displeased with the Iraqi Prime Minister for politically sidelining Sunnis and requesting military assistance from the United States. 52 Tehran is greatly concerned that a change in Baghdad would embolden ISIS and buttress the Saudi position on the need to have Mr. Maliki removed from the office of Prime Minister. 53

Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, understands that any overt Iranian military commitment in support of the Shia dominated Iraqi government would be problematic. This would likely raise the specter of an Iranian sponsored and led Shiite crescent spanning the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea. This could not sit well with the Shia majority that take up residence in the neighboring countries, particularly Saudi Arabia. 54

Iraq: Issue of an Intelligence Failure for the West

A number of public reports have surfaced suggesting that the UK and the US had been warned of a pending Sunni revolt. 55 ISIS was said to be in cooperation with remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime and his former deputy Izzat al–Douri. Reportedly, a Kurdish intelligence asset advised his handlers that a formal alliance between Baathists and ISIS was to be signed, which would lead to the takeover of Mosul. 56 Although ISIS considered itself too small to carry out its plan to take the city, it brought on board former Baathists seeking revenge on Maliki’s Shia dominated government. This temporary alliance was most opportune. According to the report, Kurdish intelligence forwarded this information to both the British and the American governments, advising them of the ISIS alliance and strategy. 57 The recent events in Iraq strongly indicate that the Western intelligence community was again caught off guard and fundamentally unaware of the evolving surge of ISIS in Iraq.

The Issue of Overreach

Recent reports indicate that the Islamic State may be spreading their resources thin. Considering the estimates of 10,000 fighters and the size of territory under control, there would appear to be too few jihadists to consolidate ISIS control throughout the towns and cities already under their control. This would likely be aided by tribal militias and former Baathist party members assigned to police the area and manage the local population. It would therefore be difficult for Baghdadi and the ISIS to impose Islamic rule as his coalition is at present comprised of a spectrum of groups and paramilitary elements that may not welcome such a strict imposition of Islamic law. Any attempt by Baghdadi to institute an extreme Caliphate centered on Syria and Iraq would require substantial public support and consent. Although the majority of the citizens in northwestern Iraq are Sunni, very few would accept the imposition of a rigorous and brutal application of sharia law by an autocratic group of Islamic scholars and judges.

The dramatic advance by the Islamic State over the past two months has been nothing less than astounding. However, greater challenges lie ahead for Baghdadi and the Islamic State, including the difficulties in instituting a functional new Caliphate. The government in Baghdad, with its deep divisions, will continue to hamper the formation of a new government and, therefore, will likely be unable to confront the Sunni insurgency with any real effect. 58

Regional Impact of ISIS

Baghdadi’s declaration of the caliphate may have wide reaching consequences for both the Middle East and the world. The Islamic state, which emerged on 29 June 2014, may herald a new order. This Caliphate does not have a constitution, but follows the Koran. It has combat hardened holy warriors and it is taking root in northern Iraq and northeastern Syria. This nation, reportedly for all Muslims, seeks to break down borders. In doing so, it has enabled the long-suffering Kurds to quietly put in place the necessary conditions so they may orchestrate their independence at an advantageous time.

The lack of concern from the Western community is disconcerting. The 1916 much-maligned Sykes-Picot Agreement has been usurped by the creation of a Caliphate which transgresses the borders of a number of modern-day states within the Middle East. Today’s Islamic State claims to control vast swaths of land in Iraq and Syria, as well as a number of major towns and cities. In addition, ISIS has acquired large quantities of US-made weapons and vehicles, including armored personnel carriers, tanks and artillery that were abandoned by Iraqi Army units in their withdrawal south.

Turkey continues to monitor the Iraq situation closely. The shared borders of Syria and Iraq are porous and the advent of ISIS can only exacerbate Turkey’s security concern. These concerns were augmented when ISIS captured Mosul taking a substantial number of Turkish diplomatic personnel prisoner. 59 This solidified for the Turkish government that they could be dealing with a potentially explosive situation within Iraq. For Turkey, the most important aspect that surfaces is a potentially outcry for Kurdish independence. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) under Massoud Barzani 60 may view this time as propitious to pursue unilateral independence. As Turkey has its own Kurdish population, it will want to monitor closely what is happening on its borders. In anticipation, Turkish officials have already proffered the view that an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq would be welcomed. Strategically, Ankara realizes the Kurdistan Regional Government could prove to be a very useful ally, particularly as an important buffer against the activities of the ISIS.61 Although a modern state with the Sunni character, the specter of Sunni extremists sharing a porous border poses a serious national security concern for the Turkish government.

Iran continues to be a staunch supporter of Maliki’s and has reportedly continued to provide advice, weapons, and personnel in the form of an Iranian Revolutionary Guard officials. 62 This support is partly based on memories of the long and bloody Iran-Iraq war that cost both belligerents heavily. As well, both of these countries have become important trade partners and the anticipated opening of a pipeline in the latter half of 2014 could enrich Iran by an estimated $3.7 billion annually. 63

Jordan, although a bastion of regional stability, has concerns. Along with Lebanon, Jordan is considered part of the Levant—a term used primarily to mean greater Syria. Due to recent events, Jordan’s military has reportedly deployed forces to buttress their porous northern and eastern borders. It is also important to note that approximately 10% of Jordan’s fuel 64 comes from Iraq. Therefore, the ISIS could easily sever Jordanian supplies, and spark popular unrest, as experienced years ago during fuel shortages.

To compound Jordan’s security situation there is an estimated 1,000,000 plus Syrian and 250,000 65 Iraqi refugees, who have arrived since the start of the Syrian civil war. These numbers will likely grow out of fears of what ISIS’s impact on Iraq. Protecting the Jordanian border with Syria and Iraq is stretching their hard-pressed army and security forces, particularly as much of the borders are not monitored. For the Jordanian intelligence services, it will be a challenge to interdict the infiltration of terrorist sleeper cells and jihadists. 66 It has been estimated that more than 2,200 Jordanian nationals 67 have been recruited to the ISIS cause since the group entered the Syrian civil war. This is despite a number of initiatives to control the recruitment of Jordanian extremists into Syria. For the most part, Jordan continues to cope with domestic political and economic problems, but recent developments in Syria and the potential Sunni threat posed by ISIS could alter the internal stability of that country.

Saudi Arabia also has interests in the evolving Iraq situation. In one aspect, the potential decline of Shia influence in Iraq, compounded by the growing influence and activities of their regional competitor Iran poses a number of dilemmas. What is disconcerting is that should ISIS and its adherents continue to gain purchase in the region, this could pose a direct internal threat to Saudi Arabia, and the stability of the Saudi royal family. 68 Therefore, the threat posed by radical Sunnis could drive Iran and Saudi Arabia to cooperate in containing the Caliphate and the aspirations of the extremist leader Baghdadi. Like many other countries, the Saudis have become a recruiting ground for Sunni extremism. Social media has facilitated this to a great extent. It must be remembered that many rich and influential Saudis have financially supported the extremist cause and the Saudi government will likely have to pick up the pieces should there be a blowback emanating from returning fighters.

Similarly, the Gulf States are concerned with entrenchment of the radical Sunni organizations operating in both Syria and Iraq. It is understood that these Gulf States view themselves as likely targets, particularly for ardent Sunni groups such as ISIS, who view their wealth and royal families as anathema their strict religious ideals.

As for the West, it is been estimated that there are 3,000 69 citizens of European or North American origin that have been or are currently fighting in Syria or Iraq. Reportedly, they hold passports from France, Spain, Belgium, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and a host of other nations. For the jihadist returning from his forays abroad, he brings home an extremist view, an intolerant religious ideology, and the skills, experience, and motivation necessary to possibly pursue his part of global jihad unilaterally at home. Some may be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, or further experiencing psychological dislocation upon returning to their home nations. 70


Arguably, it is still too soon to comprehensively assess implications of ISIS and the declaration of the Caliphate. The aspect of a regional conflict could easily evolve from the historic Sunni-Shia split. The failure of the Shia led government in Baghdad has been to embrace those political and religious elements that have been left out of the government underlines a serious leadership gap. Iraq’s deadlocked parliament has failed to overcome the deep suspicions that flow amongst their citizens. The failure to choose a new leadership that could hold the nation together and counter the immediate threat that is posed by the ISIS says much about the country as well as the personal determination of President Maleki who is reticent to give up his position and power. This is truly reminiscent of the captain and his sinking ship.

In Syria, the Obama administration formulated a strategy to provide limited assistance to more moderate opposition forces, so as to be able to confront and fight Hezbollah, Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist organizations. Unfortunately, this strategy collapsed the Free Syrian Army, like the Iraqi army, and disintegrated in the face of determined Islamic forces, especially ISIS and the JN. The American strategy of allocating resources to train and build the capabilities of partner countries and their forces facing extremists has come to naught. Furthermore, the strategy of deterrence also failed when the Obama administration threatened action should Syria employ chemical weapons. The failure of the American administration to exercise its power against Syria in the wake of their employment of a chemical agent has not been forgotten by America’s regional allies or its enemies

The series of recent atrocities perpetrated by ISIS against the Shia and the Iraqi military has provided the Syrian regime ammunition in both psychological and political terms. This has enabled Assad to brand ISIS as an example of the Syrian opposition. 71 On the other hand, for both the Syrian and Iraqi governments, the effectiveness of ISIS—compounded by their recently acquired wealth and armaments—poses a serious concern to the regional security and neighbouring countries.

The reality is that regional powers facing the threat from ISIS will likely undertake their own respective strategies and measures with the aim of marginalizing the threat. The creation of a Caliphate may not, as yet, be a catalyst for many to take action, but it does underscore the wider ambitions embraced by Baghdadi and his ardent supporters. As for the American allies in the region, they are increasingly apprehensive about American credibility believing that no matter what guarantees are provided by the Obama administration—the US will fail to come to their aid.


  1. For the purposes of this paper the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Islamic State (IS) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are interchangeable.
  2. Richard Spencer, “Iraq crisis: how ISIS grew from a guerrilla band to a national force: Western intelligence caught unawares at scale of threat to Iraqi government,” Telegraph, 16 June 2014. See also, Richard Spencer, “U.S. Britain had warning Sunnis were set to revolt: Intelligence information given by credible informant ‘fell on deaf ears,’” Ottawa Citizen, 23, June 2014.
  3. Ibid.
  4. For an overview of the Sunni- Shia issue see David D. Kirkpatrick , “Scramble for Power Exploits Ancient Rift” The New York Times International Weekly 12-13 July 2014.
  5. Ibid. For a historical view of the Sunni vs Shia split see Michael Crowley “Iraq’s Eternal War,” TIME, 30 June 2014.
  6. Barak Mendelsohn, “The Rise of ISIS and the Fall of al Qaeda,” Foreign Affairs, 15 June 2014.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Inside Story Team, “ISIL cell leader emerges from the shadows. Who is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?” Al Jazeera, July 7 2014,
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. BBC News, op cit
  14. Aaron Y. Zelin et al., “ICSR Insight: Up to 11,000 foreign fighters in Syria; Steep rise among Western Europeans,” The international Center for the Study of Radicalism, ICSR , 17 December 2013. See also Richard Madan, Terrorist group ISIS using online propaganda to recruit foreign fighters,” 22 June 2014.
  15. BBC News, op cit
  16. Ibid.
  17. There appears to be some discussion/confusion as to how much money was seized from the bank in Mosul. See Mendelsohn, “The Rise of ISIS” also Andreas Becker, “Who finances ISIS?” Deutsche Welle, 19 June 2014.
  18. BBC News, op cit
  19. Lori Plotkin Boghardt, “Saudi Funding of ISIS,” Policy Watch 2275, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 23 June 2014. According to Boghardt ,”Although Saudi donors and other private contributors were believed to be the most significant funding source for the original forerunner to ISIS, the importance of such donations has been marginalized by the group’s independent sources of income. This income, which is now estimated to overwhelmingly exceed private donations, is generated by activities such as smuggling (of oil, weapons, antiquities), extortion (e.g., the group levies around $8 million per month in ‘taxes’ on local businesses), and other crimes (e. g, robberies, counterfeiting). The group’s June 11 seizure of Mosul’s central bank alone netted tens of millions of dollars (though U.S. officials note that $400 million figure often cited in connection with the heist is not accurate).”
  20. Becker, “Who Finances ISIS?”
  21. Ibid.
  22. “Caliphate declaration looks like a turning point for Isis and for al-Qaeda,” Sam Jones, Financial Times, July 1 2014, The article notes that ISIS “has a dismal record in working with others and a low reputation among many more seasoned jihadist, it also has a huge war chest and more territory under its sway than any other group.”
  23. Becker, oc cit
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid. See also Araminta Wordsworth, “Latest Iraq crisis could be all about oil (as usual)”, Financial Post,June 20 2014. The article explores the impact of rising energy prices as ISIS has seized a number of Iraq’s oilfields and explores the cascading benefits accruing to Saudi Arabia. The article infers Saudi interests may be supporting the ISIS for financial benefit.
  26. Ibid. See also Damien McElroy, “Iraq oil bonanza reaps $1 million a day for Islamic State,” Telegraph, July 11 2014. The energy drawn from ISIS oil fields is reportedly being sold at below market prices to anyone willing to pay to see RT News.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid.” See also “Caliphate declaration looks like a turning point for Isis and for al-Qaeda,” Sam Jones, Financial Times, July 1 2014,
  30. Ibid. See also Juan C. Zarate and Thomas M. Sanderson, “How the Terrorists Got Rich,” The New York Times, June 29 2014.
  31. Ibid.
  32. BBC News, op cit
  33. Col. (RETD) Derek Harvey and Michael Pregent, “The Lesson of the Surge: Defeating ISIS Requires a New Sunni Awakening”, New America Foundation, June 2014. This paper states, “During the surge, AQI and its hardline Islamist allies alienated their Sunni popular support base by their heavy-handed imposition of Islamic law and by indiscriminate violence against Sunni communities. They also fought turf wars with other Sunni insurgent groups, fracturing what had begun as a broad insurgent front. This AQI overreach generated a popular backlash that enabled the Awakening and its affiliated ‘Sons of Iraq’ security initiative, in which almost 90,000 Sunni tribal fighters aligned with the U.S. military and the Iraqi army to fight the AQI.”
  34. Ibid.
  35. Ibid.
  36. “ISIS in Iraq: What is the Caliphate? Iraqi Jihadists announced establishment of a new Islamic state,” CBC News, June 30 2014,
  37. “Terrorist group ISIS using online propaganda to recruit foreign fighters”, CTV News, June 22 2014, See also Rosa Price, “Iraq crisis: Isis takes to social media to spread fear: Isis militants may appear medieval but use modern means of communication” Telegraph, June 16 2014.
  38. “Sunni rebels declare new ‘Islamic caliphate,’ Armed group ISIL changes name to Islamic State, and says its empire extends from Diyala in Iraq to Syria ‘s Aleppo”, Al Jazeera, June 30 2014, This report states: “in an audio recording released on Sunday, the group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant declared its chief, Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi, ‘the caliph’ and ‘leader for Muslims everywhere.’” This call was subsequently rejected by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) as Baghdadi did not consult with jihadi leadership. AQIM reaffirmed their loyalty to Al Qaeda and the leader Zawahiri. See “Al Qaeda's North Africa wing rejects caliphate” Reuters, July 14 2014,
  39. “Al Qaeda's North Africa wing rejects caliphate” Reuters, July 14 2014,
  40. “ISIS Does Not Have Enough Public Support to Extend its Caliphate in Iraq,” Paul Rogers, Global Economic Intersection, July 112014,
  41. Ibid.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Inside Story Team, “ISIL cell leader emerges from the shadows. Who is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ?” Al Jazeera, July 7 2014,
  44. Ibid. The numerous of massacres by ISIS against Shia and government forces has inspired much terror into the populace as well as an ominous view of the Caliphate.
  45. Erdbrink Thomas, “Rifts Among Shiites Further Threatened the Future of Iraq,” The New York Times, June 23 2014,
  46. Rogers, op cit.
  47. “Iran-Saudi Proxy War Heats Up as ISIS Entrenches in Iraq”, Najmeh Borzorgmehr and Simeon Kerr, Financial Times, June 25 2014,
  48. Ibid.
  49. Ibid.
  50. Ibid.
  51. Ibid.
  52. Ibid.
  53. Ibid.
  54. Rogers, op cit
  55. Spencer, op cit
  56. Ibid.
  57. Ibid. To Garner an insight into some of the issues relating to the challenges of intelligence regarding the Iraq situation, see Ken Dilanian and Julie Pace, “American intelligence struggles to locate ISIL leaders,” Ottawa Citizen, 19 June 2014.
  58. Matthew Fisher, “Seeking Shelter: Iraqis flee brewing religious war. They fear it will split the country in three,” Ottawa Citizen, 19, June 2014. Fisher states that “commentators have spoken often in recent days about how the country was likely to split in three with Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish states.” See also Sinah Salaheddin and Qassim Abdul-Zahra, “Iraqi politicians can't pick leaders as nation crumbles,” Ottawa Citizen, 14 July 2014.
  59. “ISIS Advance Creates Chaos and Opportunity for Regional Powers, The Global Observatory”, Omar el Okdah and Ramy Srour, July 10 2014,
  60. Ibid.
  61. Ibid.
  62. Ibid.
  63. Ibid.
  64. Ibid. See also “Middle East’s monarchy comes face to face with extremist threat”, Michael Pizzi, Al Jazeera, July 10 2014,
  65. “Middle East’s monarchy comes face to face with extremist threat”, Michael Pizzi, Al Jazeera, July 10 2014,
  66. “Isis ‘sleepers’ stand by to blast Bagdad,” Sam Kiley, The Sunday Times, June 29 2014,
  67. “Middle East’s monarchy comes face to face with extremist threat”, Michael Pizzi, Al Jazeera, July 10 2014,
  68. “ISIS Advance Creates Chaos and Opportunity for Regional Powers, The Global Observatory”, Omar el Okdah and Ramy Srour, July 10 2014,
  69. “Do Not Belittle the Islamic State”, Marck Perini, Carnegie Europe, July 10 2014,
  70. “Europe braces for potential threat of returned Syrian war veterans: experts say travel bans and other measures to track terror suspects radicalized in Syria are only part of the solution”, Michael Pizzi, Al Jazeera, July 10 2014,
  71. “ISIS Advance Creates Chaos and Opportunity for Regional Powers, The Global Observatory”, Omar el Okdah and Ramy Srour, July 10 2014,
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Dr. J. Paul de B. Taillon
Dr. Taillon is a professor at the Royal Military College in Canada, where he specializes in courses on special operations, intelligence and irregular warfare. He is a Senior Fellow at the Joint Special Operations University (USSOCOM) and adjunct faculty at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. From 2006-2013, he was the Counter-Insurgency/Strategic Advisor to the Commander Canadian Army, a position from which he retired in May 2013.