The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), alternatively called the Islamic State, ISIS or Daesh, declared the establishment of a Caliphate in northern Iraq on June 29, 2014 after a series of rapid military advances in northern Iraq and Syria. The pseudo-caliphate continues to be led by its self-declared emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has led the group since May 2010. Al-Baghdadi orchestrated ISIL’s transformation from an Iraqi-based Al-Qaeda affiliate to an independent terrorist network with affiliates and subordinates throughout the world.
ISIL successfully exploited the sectarian tensions and political disunity across the region that has escalated after the US withdrew from Iraq in 2011. The instability across the region further intensified the rapid fragmentation of Assad’s regime in Syria from 2011 to 2013, allowing them to carve out an Islamic state from their ashes. The military shortcomings of the US-trained Iraqi government forces, and the disenfranchisement of Iraq’s Sunnis with the post-Hussein Shia-dominant government, contributed to the sudden rise of ISIL and the establishment of al-Baghdadi’s Islamist pseudo-state.
The establishment of a Caliphate was precipitated by 6 months of conflict between ISIL, tribal militias and Iraqi security forces. The inability of the Iraqi military and the centralised Baghdad government to confront or contain the Islamic insurgency fermenting in the Sunni-dominant region in western Iraq effectively facilitated ISIL’s rapid expansion.
As early as January 2014, ISIL militants had driven Iraqi security forces out of the north-western cities of Fallujah and Ramadi and firmly established control of the Anbar province; a region notoriously dominated by Al-Qaeda affiliated militias in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. The incompetency of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and his continued and deliberate alienation of Anbar’s pro-government Sunnis ensured that ISIL managed to gain the loyalty of moderate and secular Sunni militias and tribal groups in the region.
The Fall of Mosul
ISIL unexpectedly attacked the northern city of Iraq, Mosul (pictured above), on June 6, 2014. ISIL’s success in this endeavour dramatically transformed the extremist group, originally considered by Barrack Obama as a ‘non-threat’, to a semi-state that was dangerously poised to threaten long-term stability in the Middle East. The numerical inferiority of ISIL’s forces did not prevent it from quickly establishing a foothold in the north-west and western side of the city, utilizing suicide bombers and vehicles rigged with explosives to inflict maximal casualties and terror on Mosul’s police and security forces.
“Sleeper cells”, groups of people lying dormant in Mosul prior to the attack, were activated throughout the assault. A temporary alliance between ISIL and other Sunni-dominant tribes and militias united the region against the Shia-dominant government forces. Government buildings and military posts were specifically targeted. The brutality of the ISIL onslaught and the horrific and sadistic methods utilised to summarily execute captured government soldiers and police contributed to the rapid capitulation of Mosul to ISIL.
According to Patrick Cockburn, a journalist and author operating in Iraq; Baghdad only had nominal control over Mosul at the time of the attack. Despite the presence of government police and armed forces in the city, ISIL and affiliated militants had long had an established presence in Mosul. For some time, ISIL had been taxing and extorting money from local businesses to fund their operations, with little interference from regional authorities. ISIL was aided by operatives resident in the city, and locals who were sympathetic to any Sunni militias who were willing to fight the Shia-dominant Iraqi troops.
Iraqi security forces had overwhelmingly deserted the city by June 10. Those who had not fled, abandoning their uniforms and weaponry, were either killed or summarily executed by ISIL, or had openly defected to join the ISIL militias. Mosul’s bloody collapse aided ISIL’s further militaristic ambitions. The rapid fragmentation of Mosul’s army division allowed the group to capture strategic military assets and weaponry, which would be later used in offensives against Kurdish militants and for further campaigns into Syrian territory. ISIL captured Mosul’s International airport, which allowed them to gain access to sophisticated jetfighters, helicopters and abandoned military vehicles. Al-Baghdadi’s forces were further bolstered by Sunni militants and terrorists released by their capture of state prisons and police stations. Non-Sunni prisoners were mostly killed on the spot.
The Fall of Baiji and Tikrit
ISIL’s capture of Mosul set off a domino effect of territorial advances. ISIL occupied surrounding territories, eventually capturing the town of Baiji and its oil refinery on June 11. Subsequently, the group came to occupy Tikrit, which had been abandoned by government forces with little resistance offered. ISIL forces continued to exploit the sudden disintegration and demoralisation of the Iraqi military and security forces, occupying towns in the Diyala and Saladin provinces before advancing upon Baghdad, albeit unsuccessfully.
Subsequent attempts by Iraqi security forces to halt the ISIL advance, and to recapture the cities of Tikrit and Baiji and other provincial towns were marked by minimal success. ISIL advances were characterised by excessive brutality, as captured soldiers were executed en masse. Throughout the months of June and July, conflicts between ISIL and disintegrated Iraqi army units continued to erupt in northern Iraq, as ISIL consolidated its hold of the region and rooted out the last remaining pockets of resistance. The ability of Iraq to successfully counterattack was debilitated by widespread desertions, loss of military equipment, and ISIL’s capture and usage of sophisticated weaponry.
The declaration of a Caliphate by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi cemented the rise of ISIL as a serious political threat in the region. Attempts by the Iraqi military to reverse ISIL’s gains in July 2014 were met with little success. By August 2014, ISIL was secure enough in the north to begin its bloodthirsty push into Kurdish-held territory in northern Iraq, eventually capturing Sinjar and beginning its advance upon Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Regional Government. The catastrophic and barbaric treatment of captured Yazidis and Assyrian Christians eventually prompted the US airstrikes that halted ISIL’s relentless expansion, which reached its maximal size by December 2014.
To see the latest progressions of ISIL occupied territory, you can access an interactive map here.
Feature photo is of Mosul in 1932. Source: AP Photo/American Colony Photo Department via Library of Congress