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How Isis works

How Isis works

The terrorist group Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has immense firepower, cash flow and organisation – but how does it operate?



Who runs Isis?

The self-styled caliph of Islamic State, and “ruler of all Muslims”, is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a 43-year-old with a PhD in Islamic Studies. Baghdadi was a student at the Islamic University of Baghdad when the US-led coalition invaded Iraq and deposed Saddam Hussein in 2003. Remembered by neighbours as quiet and scholarly, and a talented football player, he ended up in Camp Bucca, a US military prison, in southern Iraq in 2004. The reason for Baghdadi’s detention is not known – “he was a bad dude, but he wasn’t the worst of the worst”, says the camp’s commander – but he emerged as a skilled and ambitious militant. In fact, the management of Isis, its structure and efficiency, is one of the most dangerous things about it. “That’s really the crux and the key to its success,” says Patrick Johnston, a RAND Corporation researcher who has studied the group.

What do we know of its structure?

In June, Iraqi soldiers killed an Isis commander outside the city of Mosul and stumbled on 160 USB memory sticks containing an enormous trove of information – financial accounts, names, internal memos – about the workings of the group. Baghdadi has two deputies (one for Iraq and one for Syria), both former officers under Hussein, and a “war cabinet”. The rest of the cabinet has responsibility for media, finance and the families of suicide bombers. On the ground, Isis has around a dozen local governors in both countries, and hundreds of autonomous but co-ordinated field commanders, paid between $300 and $2,000 a month, who are able to carry out the group’s distinctive attacks.

What is striking about Isis’s attacks?

Their effectiveness, for a start. “Isis has kicked the s*** out of anyone that’s got in its way,” a US intelligence official told The New Yorker recently. “Without air power, I think our guys would have a hard time holding them off.” Since emerging in its current form in 2011, Isis has attacked towns and cities in a particular, unnerving way: first bombarding from the outskirts with captured tanks and rockets; then sending in a wave of suicide bombers (often foreign jihadis); and completing the assault with heavily armed fighters carrying US-made machine guns and body armour. The speed and synchronisation of attacks have also produced easy victories. In June, Isis captured the Iraqi town of Abbassi, outside Kirkuk, with a single truck and a taxi.

Who makes up its ranks?

According to the CIA, Isis can muster between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters in Syria and Iraq, with around half of its militants from overseas. Hundreds of foreign jihadis, from Tunisia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya and Western Europe, belong to the so-called “House of Islam” – its advance front in Iraq – but the top echelons of Isis are dominated by hardened terrorists, such as Baghdadi, or former Iraqi military officers. According to Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi government adviser who has studied the group’s internal documents, several of its 24 leading deputies were officers in Hussein’s military who were subsequently outcast and radicalised during the US-led occupation. “All of these guys got religious after 2003,” says Ahmed al-Dulaimi, who taught at the Iraqi military academy where Isis’s last three top commanders were trained.

So are they terrorists or soldiers?

The lines have long since blurred. “In the terrorism game, these guys are at the centre of a near-perfect storm,” a US intelligence official told The New York Times in August. Isis does differ markedly from other terrorist groups – including its own forerunner, al-Qa’eda in Iraq – by seeking to control territory and then ruling it with an unmistakable competence. Isis currently controls some 40% of Iraq’s grain production, and has made sure that bakeries and food supplies are open and operating. When the group captured Mosul in June, it despatched a team of forensic accountants to unpick the government’s rampant corruption. This administrative side of the group is responsible for its vast money-making operations.

And what are those?

Isis has two chief sources of income on top of the ransoms that it earns from its high-profile kidnappings. The first is widespread use of Mafia-like extortion, in which field commanders demand “protection money” from local businesses. The data found in June showed that the terrorist group had raised $36m from al-Nabuk, a single Syrian province, alone. Even before it took Mosul (and helped itself to $425m from its banks), Isis is thought to have been taking $8m a month from the city. The group’s other big earner is oil – smuggling at least 10,000 barrels per day from the fields it controls in Syria and Iraq to the black markets in Syria, Turkey, Iran and Kurdistan. In total, Isis is thought to have more than $2bn in cash reserves. Its international trade, however, could also be a potential source of vulnerability.

How would it be vulnerable?

So far, Isis has been the recipient, not always intended, of large quantities of weapons, money and volunteers sent from overseas. (Reams of hi-tech US military equipment given to the Iraqi army and moderate Syrian rebels have fallen into its hands; as has funding from Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.) If Isis’s supply lines of foreign fighters and oil money could be interrupted, it would in no time find itself seriously weakened. That, however, is proving no easy matter (see box), and in the meantime, Isis will continue its slick, well-funded and increasingly global campaign. The group now has an English-language magazine, Dabiq; 24-hour Twitter updates on its operations; and it hosts online Q&As, answering questions from potential recruits about desert conditions. “Are the bugs a problem?” asked one recently. “Can I buy a smartphone there?”

Isis’s open border

Syria’s 510-mile, largely ungoverned border with Turkey is regarded by Western intelligence agencies as a critical flank in the fight against Isis, but very little is happening to staunch the flow of oil, cash and fighters crossing the frontier. Most of Isis’s oil, delivered in armed convoys of tanker trucks, is being sold on the black market in Turkey, and thousands of jihadis – including 900 Moroccans in 2013 alone – are travelling via Turkey to fight for Isis. Yet even though it is a Nato member, Turkey has refused to close the border.

“Turkey in many ways is a wild card,” says Juan Zarate, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s a great disappointment.” So far it has resisted getting involved in Syria and Iraq for fear of unsettling its own, restive Kurdish population, and risking the lives of 49 hostages seized by Isis in June. These were released on 20 September, in return – the Turkish press reported – for 180 Isis militants being held in Turkish hospitals and jails. Now the international pressure on Ankara will increase, but cheap petrol is hard to argue with, even when it is coming from terrorists. “I’m sure there are substantial numbers of Turks who are… profiting from this,” says James Phillips of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, “maybe even government officials.”

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