12 Jun 2014

Spoils of war: extremists on the rise in Iraq and Syria

Grinning from ear to ear, Syrian extremist rebel commander Abu Omar al-Shishani climbs out of a US-made Humvee – freshly delivered from Iraq where his extremist group is making gains.

Abu Omar al Shishani

The taking of Iraq’s second city, Mosul, by militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis) earlier this week, saw extremist rebels seize vehicles and weapons from fleeing government forces.

Social media has been flooded with pictures of the spoils of war, often US-made (for the US has been training and arming Iraqi security forces), that are reported to have been moved from northern Iraq to the bloody Syrian conflict.

The inventory of equipment includes, according to reports, Humvees, tanks and a helicopter.

It has not been 100 per cent confirmed that the attackers in Mosul are from Isis, but it looks highly likely that the group is responsible.

Pro-Isis social media accounts have been awash with pictures from the attack, and the picture tweeted by various pro-Isis twitter accounts and arabic media (top, right) of al-Shishani – formerly leader of an Isis-linked group of foreign fighters, who has since moved further into the Isis fold – is another indication that the equipment has already made its way across the Syrian border.

Translation: conquests of Mosul and Salahuddin, hundreds of military vehicles captured

It is also not just weapons that Isis has gained. Reports have emerged the group has also stolen up to 500bn Iraqi dinars ($430m) from banks in Mosul – significantly boosting the coffers of jihad.

Who are Isis?

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham was formed in April 2013, and grew out of an al-Qaeda affiliate organisation in Iraq. The stated aim of the group is the establishment of the Levant state – an Islamic state whose borders could stretch as far west as Egypt and north to Iran. Al-Sham in the group's name can mean Syria, but it also means this caliphate land.

In Syria the group has been fighting for control of areas in the north of the country – including fighting against other rebel groups. In Iraq the group is dominant in Anbar province. It has claimed responsibility for a spate of bomb attacks and, in January, took over the city of Fallujah.

The group is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The group broke its connections with al-Qaeda in February.

The fall of Mosul is a major boost to the group, that Isis is “getting stronger” and “certainly growing more confident”, argues Raffaello Pantucci, senior analyst at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi).

“We had previously seen in-fighting in the group,” he told Channel 4 News.

“It seemed that they were pulling back positions in Syria. What we see now is a more confident group taking Iraq’s second biggest city.”

Translation: See how the Safavid (as Isis calls the Iraqi government) army left their clothes out of fear of the Islamic State.

The spoils of war are a major boost for Isis, says Mr Pantucci, as it means the group is not only better equipped, but also able to pay off local tribes and smugglers, and buy better equipment.

In this way the violence in Iraq has bolstered the extremist rebels that have been fighting Assad in Syria and making western powers nervous about who will fill the hole if the Syrian president is eventually deposed.

But, says Mr Pantucci – the Syrian violence also bolsters violence in Iraq – and this is because Isis does not see the geography of the region in the same way as everyone else.

“For them it is a state that spans the borders of these two countries,” he said. “We are dealing with a group that doesn’t really see the border.”

In this state Isis regularly imposes taxes, controls education and even runs garbage collections.

Translation: Islamic State demolished an embankement between Iraq and Syria opening the border.

Criticism has been levelled at the US-trained Iraqi forces that fled from the advancing rebels in Mosul.

Though the reasons for this are unclear, Mr Pantucci says, the root of the problem may come from anti-government tensions caused by the divide between Shia and Sunni rebels in Iraq.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been accused of monopolising power and of favouring his own Shia community. Security forces in Mosul, a predominantly Sunni city, facing an attack from Sunni rebels, may have been feeling especially uncomfortable.

“If you have got a local population that are not happy with you and rebels at the gate, that is a pretty compelling reason to take off the uniform,” says Mr Pantucci.

Further gains

The confidence of Isis fighters shows no sign of abating – on Wednesday they advanced towards Iraq’s biggest oil refinery. Militants drove into the town of Baiji and burned down the court house and police station, and freed prisoners. The group offered safe passage to 250 men guarding the refinery.

On Thursday fighters reached Samarra, around 80 miles north of Baghdad where it has been reported that they have been prevented from advancing further.

The Iraqi air force also bombed insurgent positions in and around Mosul, footage aired on state television showed.

Nearly 800 people were killed in violence across Iraq in May – the highest monthly death toll so far this year. Around 1,000 people were reported to have died in Syria last month.