Islamic State ‘now controls resources and territory unmatched in history of extremist organizations’

By Terrence McCoy August 4    Washington Post  

isisIt’s a pattern of territorial expansion that has now become familiar. After the Islamic State captured Sinjar on Sunday, came the executions. Then arrived the orders to convert or die, the flash of the movement’s black flag, the fleeing of thousands — and, finally, the jubilant and chilling images on social media.

One showed a destroyed Shiite shrine, which had long sat in the ancient city of Sinjar in northwestern Iraq. Another depicted the executions of several blindfolded men. There was an image of two masked men who had climbed a tall building, enshrouded its edifice in a black Islamic State flag, and blasted a pistol into the air. Then there was a picture showing a masked jihadist hoisting a gun at the desk of the town’s mayor — a portrait of a famed Kurdish guerrilla leader looming behind.

The armed movement, which has surged in wealth, manpower and resources in recent weeks, also just took the town of  Wana on Sunday, according to The Washingon Post‘s Loveday Morris. The Islamic State routed a once-proud Kurdish army and forced an exodus of residents theUnited Nations said numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Calling the situation a “humanitarian tragedy,” a top U.N. envoy to Iraq said in a statement that their expulsion was “dire.”

“People were terrified,” Ilias al-Hussani, 27, told The Post. “They are savages. We’ve seen what they’ve done to people of their own faith. Imagine what they would do to us non-Muslims.”

Equally worrisome is what the Islamic State, led by the enigmatic and mysterious Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, will do with the Mosul Dam, which it may soon seize — if it hasn’t already. There were conflicting reports on Sunday as to who controlled Iraq’s largest dam. “The terrorist gangs of the Islamic State have taken control of Mosul Dam after the withdrawal of Kurdish forces without a fight,” Reuters quoted Iraqi state television as saying, though one Kurdish official disputed that account.

Either way, that Kurdish official said, “the situation has taken a turn for the worse over the weekend.”

It’s just the latest step in the Islamic State’s regional expansion. What was recently a ragtag cadre of former al-Qaeda operatives has now morphed into a transnational, fully militarized and very rich operation said to control more than one-third of Syria’s territory. It makes al-Qaeda look like a bunch of wannabe jihadists.

It’s “worse than al-Qaeda,” Brett McGurk, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran, told lawmakers last month. It “is no longer simply a terrorist organization. It is now a full-blown army seeking to establish a self-governing state through the Tigris and Euphrates valley in what is now Syria and Iraq.”

Some accounts say it’s no longer seeking to do this — but has already done it.

In the Syrian town of Raqqah, called the Islamic State’s capital, the movement governs with an austere, barbaric but orderly hand. According tothis telling New York Times piece, for which a reporter spent six days interviewing residents, crime is rare, traffic cops keep the streets moving and tax collectors are organized. Those accused of theft have also lost hands. It’s a glimpse of what may be coming to the rest of the captured territory, a nation-sized swath of terrain spilling across borders.

But it’s not just the land itself. It’s what the land holds that suggests the true extent of the Islamic State’s power. It “now controls a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organizations,” wrote defense expert Janine Davidson of the Council of Foreign Relations. She added: “Should [the Islamic State] continue this pattern of consolidation and expansion, this terrorist ‘army’ will eventually be able to exert a destabilizing influence far beyond the immediate area.”

The group has a keen eye for resources and cash, which some suspect is the the fulcrum of its continued growth. In addition to stealing and selling ancient relics worth tens of millions and looting hundreds of millions from banks, it has also recently captured a Syrian gas field east of Homs along with other oilfields, killing 23, Reuters reported.

Experts estimate the group is pocketing as much as $3 million per day in oil revenue by selling off resources on black markets in the greater Levant.

In this Thursday, July 31, 2014 photo, smoke rises from an oil refinery in Beiji, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq, after an attack by Islamic militants.  (AP Photo)

“They are trying to establish a state, and these types of revenue are important for the state’s formation because it makes up a significant chunk of revenue,” Theodore Karasik, research director of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, explained to Syria Deeply. “Seizing these types of fields are part of an ongoing plan to develop their own economic system.”

It’s unclear how the potential seizure of the Mosul Dam will factor into those plans. The largest dam in Iraq, it’s also one of the most vulnerable. Generating millions of kilowatts annually, the potential economic impact of owning such asset could be huge — but it could also be deadly. Observers have long feared what a burst in the dam may mean. It “could lead to tremendous loss of lives and assets,” according to a 2009 report by Mosul University experts. “When a dam is breached, catastrophic flash flooding occurs.”

Another report authored by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction concurred with that assessment, saying a dam breach could result in a 65-foot wave washing across northern Iraq. “The worst-case scenario would be a significant loss of life and property,” the report stated.

Worse, the militants have a record of using water as a means of terrorism. It could open the flood gates and deluge major Iraqi cities or withhold water from farms. Earlier this year, after it captured the Fallujah Dam, it closed eight of the dam’s 10 gates, wreaking havoc on local communities. “Using water as a weapon in a fight to make people thirsty is a heinous crime,” one Water Ministry adviser told Reuters. “Closing the dam and messing with the Euphrates water will have dire consequences.”

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University.
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  1. What You Aren’t Supposed to Know about America’s Closest Ally

    The Qataris, and their ruling al-Thani family, are slavers, narcotics traffickers, and financiers of international terrorism. They also happen to be America’s closest ally under Obama.

    When analyzing the foreign policy interventions of the Obama administration with respect to the Middle East, it is hard to reconcile their respective approaches Libya (2011) and Iraq (2014).

    In 2011, Obama justified the military action to remove Muammar Gaddafi on the basis of anticipated genocide by the Gaddafi regime. Speaking at the National Defense University on March 28, 2011, Obama explained “I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.” In October of that year, Gaddafi was discovered by Libyan rebels, many whom were Islamists linked to al Qaeda, sodomized, and summarily executed. It is worth recalling that Gaddafi had been, since shortly after 9/11/2001, effectively an American ally, if an imperfect one, in the war on terror.

    Yet following the fall of Mosul to ISIS in June 2014, and the subsequent exposure by the press of their horrific war crimes, the Obama administration acted strangely inert. The execution of defenseless Iraqi soldiers shocked the world, and ISIS (now known as the Islamic State, or IS) made no effort to hide their crimes: indeed, they proudly advertise them on YouTube. Despite the visual evidence of systematic war crimes and mass murder (à la the Nazi Einsatzgruppen), Obama announced that he would not provide air support for the Iraqi Army. Under the supervision of the Obama administration, Iraq has gone from relatively stable following the 2007 “surge,” to being occupied in large part by a genocidal army that targets Christians, Shiites, and all secularly-minded Muslims.

    How does one reconcile Obama’s actions in Libya, which were allegedly precautionary in nature, to his non-action in Iraq, which amounted to declining to intervene in an actual, real, and ongoing genocide? The most obvious way to explain this is through the lens of America’s closest ally these days, the tiny Middle Eastern peninsula in the Persian Gulf: Qatar.

    Qatar, from the very beginning, has been the primary agitator for the “Arab Spring.” Qatari forces were on ground in Libya, training rebels and planning their battles; and they were in the air, conducting air strikes with Dassault Mirage French-made fighter jets. The Qataris are one of the main benefactors of the Syrian rebels, where the murderous Islamic State began to coalesce. (ISIS was the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, after all.) In deposing Gaddafi and attempting to depose Bashar Assad in Syria, it can be said truthfully that the Obama administration and al-Thanis in Qatar were, and are, partners.

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