Isis: What will militant group do next?
- 27 June 2014
- From the section Middle East
Since capturing Iraq's second city of Mosul on 10 June, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) has marched south towards Baghdad, seizing a number of towns, military bases, and resource-rich assets on the way. But what is the group's long-term game plan?
It is the wealthiest militant organisation in the world; it controls large swathes of territory - stretching from al-Bab in eastern Aleppo province in Syria to as far as Suleiman Bek 415 miles (670km) away in Iraq's Salahuddin province - and it explicitly wants to establish an Islamic state.
In the immediate term, Isis will seek to sustain momentum in Iraq through further acquisitions of territory and finance-earning assets.
But crucially, Isis is not the only actor involved in fighting against the Iraqi government. Despite a few isolated clashes, a "coalition of convenience" - broadly encompassing Islamists, Sufis, Baathists, and tribes - has come to existentially undermine the legitimacy of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.
How long this loose coalition holds will determine the nature of Isis' role in what has effectively become a Sunni uprising in Iraq.
Establishing control over populations and implementing its absolutist form of governance will allow Isis to portray itself as an emerging form of shadow government.
This naturally extends into Syria, where Isis already controls a considerable number of municipalities, including its "beating heart" in the city of Raqqa.
Isis is a unitary organisation with an almost obsessive level of bureaucracy, account keeping, and centrally controlled but locally implemented military-political co-ordination. For policymakers anywhere to treat Isis in Syria and Iraq as separate entities would represent a concerning level of naivety.
With sub-state militant groups crossing the border with virtual impunity and governments on both sides reportedly having carried out targeted military actions on the other's territory over the past two months, the Syria-Iraq border has now effectively ceased to exist.
An immediate objective for Isis will be to cement its control over border towns on both sides.
Recent Isis incursions around Albu Kamal in Syria, and the defection to Isis of several key Nusra Front members in that town symbolises exactly the strategy Isis will likely seek to conduct - that of exploiting its sky-high reputation to undermine competing groups in strategically-valuable areas.
Isis overstretched in Syria in 2013 and may well have learned its lesson.
In Iraq, instead of insisting on a swift and dramatic attack on Baghdad, Isis has patiently targeted government weak-points and sought to control territory which could serve to facilitate a multi-pronged assault on the capital city.
In Syria, Isis has consolidated control over the financially lucrative north-east and sought to re-establish dominance along the Iraqi border in Deir al-Zour and Hassakeh. A move back west, into territory it ceded in February and March in western Aleppo province, Idlib, northern Hama, and Latakia looks almost inevitable later this year.
Isis thrives off instability and will consistently seek to create it. In so doing, perfecting an alternative mode of governance has proven similarly important.
Within hours of capturing Mosul, Isis distributed a political charter for the city modelled on what Isis already had in place in Raqqa and elsewhere in Syria.
In addition to imposing harsh rules on religious practice, women's dress, the prohibition of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, Isis standard governance practice now also includes establishing public welfare programs, offering countless forms of social service, commercial good quality inspections, tax offices, transport companies and much more.
Crucially, this is all part of a nearly entirely self-financed operation. Isis is not dependent on external sources of funding.
Threat to neighbours
Looking more broadly, Isis is likely to expand its horizons beyond Iraq and Syria in the coming months.
In Iraq, Isis fighters now control territory approximately 60 miles from the Jordanian border at Turaibil, where the border crossing is now controlled by anti-Maliki tribal fighters.
Within Jordan itself, Isis enjoys the public support of a growing community of sympathisers in the southern city of Maan (where several pro-Isis demonstrations have been held in recent weeks) and will certainly have other more covert supporters elsewhere.
While Isis is unlikely to seek to launch an assault into Jordanian territory anytime soon, the Jordanian military has nonetheless doubled its military presence along the 110-miles border with Iraq.
A bold Isis attempt to establish a major presence in Jordan looks unlikely at this stage, but sporadic cross-border attacks and a more confident and extrovert internal support base should be anticipated.
Meanwhile, Isis will continue to seek to expand its support base inside Saudi Arabia (where pro-Isis graffiti and leaflets have begun to appear) and also Lebanon, where Isis looks certain to soon become an active military player.
Widespread rumour in Turkey that a recent government crackdown over access into northern Syria has left dozens, if not several hundred, potential Isis recruits stranded could also produce another zone of potential instability.
In 2013, Isis carried out approximately 10,000 operations in Iraq; established control over significant swathes of Syria; and got expelled from al-Qaeda for effectively challenging the continued legitimacy of its cause.
Today, Isis presents itself as the world's new jihadist vanguard. Its spectacular military progress, unrivalled wealth, and slick media apparatus has arguably seen it succeed in assuming the pre-eminence it has long sought.
New recruits are still flowing into Isis' ranks, many of them from the West.
Having posed its challenge to al-Qaeda, Isis is now in the critical phase of seeking to definitively cement its ascendancy.
In such conditions, the chance of Isis seeking to carry out attacks further afield looks all the more likely.
Follow Charles Lister on Twitter @Charles_Lister