With Friends Like These, ISIS Is Doomed

The Islamic State is no longer a juggernaut, it’s a motley alliance of factions just waiting to betray each other.


BAGHDAD, Iraq — At the mention of Caliph Ibrahim, leader of the self-declared Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Abu Mustafa points at his chest and nods. “Ibrahim my friend,” he says.

Abu Mustafa says proudly that Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, has been peaceful since its conquest by the fighters of what used to be known as ISIS. He tells me his own ties to them go back to the days after the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003, when he fought against the Americans alongside ISIS’s progenitor, Al Qaeda in Iraq. He says the Americans arrested him eight times; an Internet search of his real name turns up one prison record.

“Life in Mosul is very normal,” says Abu Mustafa. Christians there are treated well, prices are low and people are safe and happy, he says, a description completely at odds with news reports and firsthand accounts describing a reign of terror against anyone in the city who hasn’t sworn loyalty to the caliph.

He seems to believe what he’s saying and performs the group’s public relations not just to blow smoke into the journalist’s eyes, but because he honestly hopes to see the caliph succeed in conquering Baghdad. And then, after the victory, he expects to see the caliphate destroyed.

“All we are doing now is just a liberation,” Abu Mustafa says. “After the liberation of Baghdad the Islamic state will be finished. The Sunni rebels are only using them against the corruption of the government.”

This is a view more common than one might expect among the Sunni Iraqis who have taken up arms against the government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, although it rarely is voiced so brazenly from inside the capital. They look at ISIS not as a religious prophecy come true or an end unto itself but as a weapon that will be used up after it is has done their work.

“They stay together only to fight the enemy,” and that is Maliki, says Najim al Kasab, an Iraqi political analyst with contacts among the Sunni insurgent groups. “The main force keeping them together is Maliki himself. If Maliki is replaced, the Sunni armed groups will turn on ISIS,” Kasab says.

This may well be wishful thinking. Maliki’s greatest political skill has been his ability to hang on to power. And even if he goes, it is far from certain the Sunni groups will have the wherewithal to defeat the caliph and his fanatics, many of whom are veteran foreign fighters. But such talk does underscore the political grievances—and the cynicism—within the alliance that follows, for the moment, the black flag of ISIS.

When Caliph Ibrahim proclaims from his Islamic State in Mosul that Rome and Spain are next to be conquered, his words may inspire young jihadists watching the speech on YouTube, but many of his allies in Iraq are focused on matters much closer to home.

In the Sunni coalition that includes tribal leaders, former Baathists, and other Islamists, the Iraqi nationalists may outnumber the believers in global jihad, at least for the moment.

Al Kasab estimates that ISIS has about 6,000 hardline followers including many foreign jihadists, while the other coalition members total about 8,000 core fighters who are all Iraqi. Yet ISIS has become the public face because its fighters have carried the momentum of battle and propaganda. And that momentum is likely helping ISIS grow at a faster rate than its partners.

There’s also the matter of money.

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“They have the oil,” say Iraqi journalist Ziad al Ajili. ISIS has seized oil fields in Syria and northern Iraq. “They can pay the fighters and they have the best weapons and vehicles.”

There’s a predictable aspect to shifting loyalties among insurgent groups, Ajili says. “The more money ISIS has, the more Baya [an Islamic oath of loyalty] they will get.”

To these ISIS allies the group is the battering ram that will break down the walls of Shia control around Baghdad and restore Sunnis to power in Iraq. That the battering ram has plans of its own and grows stronger in the process doesn’t seem to bother Abu Mustafa and others like him.

“The Caliph is just playing a role for his time,” says Abu Mustafa, “then we will be done with him.”

Leaders of the Sunni rebellion have expressed a similar view. Ali Hatim Al-Suleiman, emir of the 3 million-member Dulaim tribe, once an ally of American forces and leader of the “awakening” movement that turned against al Qaeda in Iraq, recently told an an interviewer: “When we get rid of the government, we will be in charge of the security file in the regions, and then our objective will be to expel terrorism—the terrorism of the government and that of ISIS.”

The forces in this war are a patchwork on both sides. On one is the Iraqi state’s assembled army, which includes Shia militias, some with a history of hostility toward the government, that are now fighting alongside the conventional military.

Against them there are those, like Suleiman, who advocate Iraq’s partition, Baathists seeking renewed Sunni power in a unified state, and countless other Sunni factions—to much of the world they are known only by the headline-grabbing jihadist rubrics of ISIS, the Islamic State, or the Caliphate. But the fiction of a monolithic force is maintained because it serves everybody’s interests.

Keeping ISIS out front allows the tribes to continue negotiating with the government and pushing for Maliki’s ouster, while exploiting the terror for political leverage. It allows Maliki to obscure his own corruption and the role his sectarian policies played in fomenting the crisis. Ignoring the legitimate claims of Iraq’s Sunnis, whom he has persecuted and marginalized, Maliki can pretend that ISIS is the only enemy, a rabid, death-seeking terrorist mass. Even the Kurds, who have engaged in some of the war’s fiercest fighting with ISIS, are accused by Maliki of sheltering the group.

Of course, ISIS loves the propaganda that makes it seem like the scariest group in the world. And ISIS really is as brutal as it claims to be, though not yet half as strong. Its fighters had impressive military victories in their first rush of advances, but now, even as they talk about conquering Rome, they’re struggling to take Tikrit.

There is a paradox to ISIS’s power. The caliphate has grown to rival al Qaeda for prestige in the global jihad movement but it becomes clearer with every day that, within Iraq, the Islamic State doesn’t extend very far outside of Mosul.

As an attacking force, ISIS might be the most powerful army in Iraq, able to ambush the army in lightning assaults that have either scattered or slaughtered government and militia soldiers. But the skills and composition that have led to ISIS successes on the battlefield haven’t set them up to rule in any more than a handful of cities. They are too small to impose their authority over extended territory. For that they rely on their allies, using them until the day they are no longer needed, just as they, in turn, are being used.

ISIS’s victories and social media theatrics have won it a flock of Internet supporters and death-seeking recruits, but most of its potential followers in Iraq aren’t looking online to choose a cause, they take orders from tribal leaders or other local authorities.

That’s one reason why ISIS has not managed to exert the as much control in Anbar province as it has in Mosul, even though it has been fighting longer in Anbar. The older tribal power networks are weaker in a big city like Mosul. When a U.S. soldier in 2007 asked an Iraqi sheik why the awakening had not spread to Mosul after taking root in Anbar, he was told: “Because the tribes are not strong there.”

Outside of Mosul, ISIS has depended on its Sunni allies, like the Baathist Naqshabandi Army, to control and administer areas where it has routed the army. They all know that eventually their success will turn them into enemies. The hybrid alliance is something of a Frankenstein monster where every arm imagines itself the brain.

The situation seems doomed to greater carnage and collapse, but many said the same during Iraq’s last civil war before the awakening movement bought the country a period of relative peace. The Iraqi government’s current position bears some similarities to where the U.S. found itself when the war reached its height of violence in 2006 and 2007. In both cases, the best chance for halting the escalation is to co-opt members of the insurgency to fight against the movement’s irreconcilable actors. It took the U.S. years to figure that out and Maliki so far seems not to have tried.

Many Iraqis say Maliki will never negotiate and that the war can only end when he’s replaced. Iraq’s fractures grow deeper in the meantime while more people are killed and displaced.

Kasab, the analyst, says of the Sunni insurgents, “They want to stop the corruption and the oppression of the Sunnis but they want a democratic Iraq.”

“All of what we are doing now is to take Baghdad,” says Abu Mustafa. “We don’t care about Mosul. It was only the first bite.” The endurance of Abu Mustafa’s coalition is still being tested. It probably won’t be able to take Baghdad. But it may last long enough to see a new government there that is willing to negotiate.