LONDON — The Sunni militant group that has taken over a large area of Iraq has financed its operations in part through an unlikely alliance with one of its enemies - the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The militant fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) want to impose strict Muslim rule throughout the region, and eventually the entire world. Their initial push in western Iraq 10 years ago failed, and many of them crossed the border to fight the Syrian government.
In the process, they took over some Syrian oil facilities, potentially a huge source of revenue. But they could only find one customer.
And, according to Shiraz Maher of London’s King’s College, that customer was their enemy, the Syrian regime.
“It will act in its own self-interest, and that will mean cutting a Faustian Pact with the fighters of ISIS [ISIL] for the time being," Maher said. "Both sides are being very pragmatic about that.”
Now, the militants have set their sights on Iraq’s Beiji oil facility, potentially providing another source of revenue to further expand their operations.
But, in order to keep such facilities going, they need the cooperation of local tribes, and in Iraq they alienated those tribes 10 years ago with their extremism and brutality. That turned the tide of the Iraq war against them.
So Maher says they’ve come back with a new approach.
“They’ve gone into these areas and they’ve said, ‘We’ve been told to forgive you because you were led astray by the United States. You were led astray by [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki and have they delivered on their promises? No, they haven’t. They betrayed you and we’re coming back with a gentle handm,’” he said.
A gentle hand toward Sunnis, perhaps, but the opposite toward Shi’ites, particularly those in the Iraqi Army, which many Sunnis see as an instrument of repression.
The militants hope their new approach will turn the tide of the current Iraq fighting in their favor, and put them in a stronger position in Syria, too.
If the plan works, the group will have significant allies, territory and revenue it could use to launch attacks on the West, warns terrorism expert Raffaello Pantucci of the Royal United Services Institute.
“The group may see itself as needing to sort of stamp its authority and show that it is a capable group and the new inheritor of the banner of global jihad," Pantucci said. "And part of that might be to launch an attack against the West.”
Experts differ on whether the militants will do that in the near term, or focus on consolidating their gains in Syria and Iraq. But the experts agree on two things - in the long term the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant wants to be a global power, and, with the resources it is acquiring, the West and its allies face a difficult job to stop it.