Who Is ISIL Exactly?

Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S.’s involvement in dismantling the threat that is ISIL isn’t a short-term commitment, according to Secretary of State John Kerry. In recent remarks, he said that the U.S. will likely be involved in the conflict for years.

“Our commitment will be measured most likely in years, but our efforts are already having a significant impact,” Kerry said. “The roughly 1,000 coalition air missions that we have flown have reduced Daesh’s (the Arab term for ISIL) leadership and inflicted damage on its logistical and operational capabilities.”

The fact that it will take years to deal with the threat of ISIL is not surprising (though it does undermine President Barack Obama’s hesitancy to get involved in the conflict earlier this year). Though tensions and violence have increased intensely in the last year, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) has been building for years, always with the goal of establishing and maintaining a self-sufficient Islamic state.

According to an analysis by the Brookings Institute, “Intense turmoil in Syria and Iraq has created socio-political vacuums in which jihadi groups have been able to thrive.” ISIL is the biggest of these groups, having amassed a lot of territory in Syria and Iraq — according to Brookings‘ Charles Lister, it declared “the establishment of a caliphate stretching across 423 miles” in these countries in June 2014.

As stated previously, ISIL has been building for years — at least 15. The organization’s roots in Jordan and Afghanistan date back to 1999, when it was a small and loosely structured body with broad international ambitions to a vast organization focused on governing as an Islamic state across nation state boundaries. In 2000, an organization formed called Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (JTJ), whose goals included forcing a withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq, overthrowing the interim government, assassinating collaborators with the occupation regime, removing the Shia population, and establishing a pure Islamic state.

The Islamic State more officially formed in 2006 as a collection of Sunni insurgent groups and was preceded by organizations like Al-Qaeda. It attempted for a few years to gain power, but was less successful. Returning in 2013, the group was more successful at gaining the participants it needed. According to Brookings, ISIL commands as many as 31,000 fighters, and
20,000-25,000 of them are considered full-time members.

As such, it’s no accident ISIL has that amount of land in its newly revamped organization, which has established a seemingly sustainable structure — Lister describes the organization “a highly bureaucratic organization focused on earning a sufficient income to finance widespread governance initiatives.” It has turned to all sorts of ventures to maintain its financial independence (as opposed to needed big donors and then being beholden to their agenda).

The group creates income through business ventures such as “oil, gas, agriculture, taxation, extortion, kidnapping for ransom, black market antique selling, and other illicit trades.” And it’s been quite successful, reportedly earning $2 million a day by September 2014 — an amount which makes ISIL the wealthiest terrorist organization in the world.

Brookings notes that it’s ISIL’s ability to establish itself as “a proto-state across Syria and Iraq” which makes it more dangerous. The unstable region is the perfect home for such a takeover of military power and financial resources. Lister suggests that the only way to undermine ISIL is to “solve the socio-political failures within its areas of operation.” Such a task is the reason why this will not be an easy job for the U.S. or its allies. Air strikes don’t tackle those kinds of problems. As Lister says, ISIL needs to be viewed as a threat much more advanced than other terrorist organizations.

But though ISIL’s allies may be growing, so are its opponents. A senior Iranian official admitted to Iranian air strikes against the organization. Deputy foreign minister Ebrahim Rahimpour said his country’s air strikes against ISIL in Iraq were ordered by the Baghdad government in “the defence of the interests of our friends in Iraq.” Rahimpour indicated that these friends were the Baghdad government and the Kurdish region in the north of the country. “In this matter, we did not have any coordination with the Americans. We have coordinated only with the Iraqi government,” Rahimpour told the Guardian.

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