News / Middle East

ISIL's Agenda in Iraq

Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, June 11, 2014.
Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, June 11, 2014.
Amanda Scott
The Iraqi militants known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, have taken control of Iraq’s largest oil refinery in addition to a central bank and at least 12 towns and cities, including the country’s second largest, Mosul.
Territory within Syria and Iraq, ISIL’s Planned Islamic StateTerritory within Syria and Iraq, ISIL’s Planned Islamic State
Territory within Syria and Iraq, ISIL’s Planned Islamic State
Territory within Syria and Iraq, ISIL’s Planned Islamic State

For some, the group’s advance into Iraq after fighting in Syria came as a shock, but taking over parts of Iraq was always at the top of ISIL's agenda - Syria was just a path to getting there.

Islamic state
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
  • Formed by members of al-Qaida-linked groups in Syria and Iraq
  • Aims to establish an Islamic emirate across Syria and Iraq
  • Led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, former leader of al-Qaida in Iraq
  • Believed to have 5,000 to 7,000 fighters
  • Has launched high-profile attacks in both countries
ISIL Sunni extremists have long had a goal of trying to create an Islamic state, or caliphate, stretching across Iraq and Syria and possibly other parts of the Middle East.  

The group came out of the ashes of the Islamic State of Iraq, which was led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who died in 2006.  After his death, it disbanded, resurfacing as al-Qaida in Iraq. 

When its current leader, Iraqi-born Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was released from a U.S. prison in 2008, he reconstituted the I-S-I, the group of al-Zarqawi, adding the words “and al-Sham” (ISIS), which translates to “the Levant” (ISIL) or “Greater Syria.”

Loretta Napoleoni, an expert on terrorist financing, says the addition of Syria to the name was both a strategic and financial decision for Baghdadi.

“The same people who sponsored al-Zarqawi were sponsoring him to fight the Assad regime, because they wanted a regime change in Syria.  But in reality what he did was use this money as a source of seed money to start his own independent financial construction to bankroll his return to Iraq.”

Napoleoni says the sponsors, whom she identified as individuals from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, were essentially “used” by Baghdadi, who spent his time in Syria to consolidate his group and build capital by smuggling and seizing strategic areas, particularly oil fields, held by other rebel groups.

“What they have done is sell oil or sell back some of the oil fields to the regime of Assad, and in exchange they got quite a lot of money.  So with these funds they have accumulated in four years of civil war in Syria then they were able to move back to Iraq and launch their attack on the Sunni areas of Iraq. They have managed to construct their own economy, so they are totally independent, “ said Napoleoni.

Breaking ties with al-Qaida

And it is that independence, both in terms of finances and in direction, that led the al-Qaida command to strongly disavow any ties to the militant group.

“While they're an offshoot of al-Qaida, they have broken with al-Qaida and we have some pretty good reporting that they have fought with the al-Qaida affiliate in Iraq as well," noted Ken Pollack, a national security expert with the Brookings Institution.

"The al-Qaida affiliate still takes orders from Ayman al-Zawahiri and the al-Qaida leadership in Pakistan.  ISIL doesn't; it does its own thing.  But it shares the same very virulent form of Islamist ideology, it is absolutely determined to fight the Shia, and of course Iraq is dominated by a Shia government," Pollack added.

The militants also are estimated to have thousands of fighters, many of them Westerners who believe in the vision of a borderless caliphate.  Baghdad hopes the militants can be stopped before it comes to that.

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Comment Sorting
by: Peter Penguin from: usa
June 23, 2014 11:28 PM
Well done. -- An analysis by an Arabist, supporting your use of "ISIL" vice "ISIS", may be viewed here:

by: meanbill from: USA
June 19, 2014 10:47 AM
The Iraq military is (Sunni and Shia) troops, and only a foolish person wouldn't recognize that when the Iraq military fights the Sunni terrorist, (the Sunnis in the Iraq military won't fight against them, and just might shoot the Shia troops in the back), -- (SO?) -- Now, the (Sunni and Shia) military troops can't trust each other, knowing the Sunni troops are probably helping the Sunni terrorists....

The Sunni troops must be disarmed. or at least segregated from the Shia troops, till after the Shia led government wins this war against the (ISIL) and revolting Sunni troops.... (think about it?) -- Iraq will only win this war, when they solve the problem of having the Sunni enemy in their army....
In Response

by: Ahmed Said
June 19, 2014 12:48 PM
This is exactly why there is a war going on. its because the shia have been pushing sunnies aside. this is what happens when shia have power just like nassereen in Iran when they got power they killed and persecuted the sunnies and established a shia religious stae. I think the problem between shia and sunni is due to the fact the shia wouldn't stop insulting the companions and the wifes of the prophet Mohammed PBUH. Until they stop they will never get along

by: Anonymous
June 19, 2014 8:59 AM
regional risky game played by USA, Saudi Arabia and others with regard to maintaining their interest in the region or threatening one and support the other considering the allies and non allies .......

by: John Poole from: Ardmore, PA
June 19, 2014 8:00 AM
"Borderless" is perhaps the natural state of things in the MidEast.
Western culture seems to believe very strongly in the need for definite borders. Westerners imposed arbitrary borders where perhaps we shouldn't have so it shouldn't surprise us that others who live in those regions may want to erase them.

by: Goldingen from: Mittawa
June 19, 2014 6:36 AM
The question is: who benefits? Who is making considerable political gains and increases own financial capital thanks to events in Iraq? Whose principal item of export soared in price and apperantly reduced to zero the sluggish Western sanctions? Who has managed to divert the public attention from the Ukraine to other geographical places?

by: meanbill from: USA
June 19, 2014 12:39 AM
MY OPINION? -- Only the "Sunni" Saudi King (who this US President bowed to), has the power to form a Sunni Caliphate, and declare himself Caliph of Sunni Islam. -- and the area that she's talking about borders on Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and Syria...

MY OPINION? -- This US President bowed to the higher power, and that was the "Sunni" Saudi King, who'd be the Caliph of Sunni Islam. ..... REALLY

by: Rudy Haugeneder from: Canada
June 18, 2014 11:29 PM
I wonder if young Shiite men and women around the world are making plans to join the spreading and increasingly sectarian war. If not yesterday and today, definitely tomorrow, next week, and next month. If so, expect a new breed of Shiite extremists to use Sunni extremist suicide tactics to attack and destroy their enemies, including oil fields, refineries, shopping centers, seaports, airports, etc. Nobody will be safe anywhere once it becomes a global sectarian war.
In Response

by: Ahmed Said
June 19, 2014 12:53 PM
ISIS represent a Muslim minority group smaller the the 15% shia of the Muslim world. the differences between the two however cannot be reconciled due to the gap that exist in what each sees as fundamental to faith.

by: D_Mann from: Upinya
June 18, 2014 8:30 PM
Kind of funny how plenty of people I served with over there (the ones that actually gave a thought to the whole thing) in 2004 and 2006 were saying that once we left, the Sunnis would be pissed that the Shiites were in put in charge of the place, and would likely just come in and try to undo what was done by our forces. I guess they were right.
In Response

by: John Poole from: Ardmore, PA
June 19, 2014 8:56 AM
Many who never had to actually visit Iraq sensed that nothing good could come from foreign invaders trying to impose their will on various tribes and competing religious sects. The ghost of Saddam is chuckling and shaking his head at the arrogant stupidity of American rulers. The clueless Paul Bremer was working with only Plan A (sweeping up the rose petals). There was no plan B, Too bad Bremer isn't forced to live with the mess he made but he's probably very comfortable back in some placid suburb of DC and has put the "unfortunate" consequences of our invasion out of his mind.

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