The face of a balding, middle-aged man stares unsmilingly into the camera. He is dressed in a suit and tie and could pass for a midlevel bureaucrat.
But the photograph is that of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who has transformed a few terror cells harried to the verge of extinction into the most dangerous militant group in the world.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has thrived and mutated during the ongoing civil war in Syria and in the security vacuum that followed the departure of the last American forces from Iraq.
The aim of ISIS is to create an Islamic state across Sunni areas of Iraq and in Syria.
With the seizure of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and advances on others, that aim appears within reach.
ISIS controls hundreds of square miles where state authority has evaporated. It ignores international borders and has a presence all the way from Syria’s Mediterranean coast to south of Baghdad.
What are its origins?
In 2006, al Qaeda in Iraq — under the ruthless leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — embarked on seemingly arbitrary and brutal treatment of civilians as it tried to ignite a sectarian war against the majority Shia community.
It came close to succeeding, especially after the bombing of the Al-Askariya Mosque, an important Shia shrine in Samarra, which sparked retaliatory attacks.
But the killing of al-Zarqawi by American forces, the vicious treatment of civilians and the emergence of the Sahwa (Awakening) Fronts under moderate Sunni tribal leaders nearly destroyed the group.
Nearly, but not quite.
When U.S. forces left Iraq, they took much of their intelligence-gathering expertise with them.
Iraqi officials began to speak of a “third generation” of al Qaeda in Iraq.
Two years ago, a former spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, warned that ”if the Iraqi security forces are not able to put pressure on them, they could regenerate.”
The capability of those Iraqi forces was fatally compromised by a lack of professional soldiers, the division of military units along sectarian lines and a lack of the equipment needed for fighting an insurgency, such as attack helicopters and reconnaissance capabilities.
The new al Qaeda was rebranded in 2006 as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). It would add “and Syria” to its name later.
The group exploited a growing perception among many Sunnis that they were being persecuted by the Shia-dominated government led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, starved of resources and excluded from a share of power.
The arrest of senior Sunni political figures and heavy-handed suppression of Sunni dissent were the best recruiting sergeants ISI could have. And it helped the new leader re-establish the group’s influence.
SOURCE: Tim Lister