The al Qaeda offshoot terrorist group conquering parts of Iraq is gaining strength thanks to prisoner releases and its social media magnetism for foreign fighter recruits.
As its ranks grow, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, sometimes called the Islamic State, has become the first terrorist organization to plan and execute a two-front land war, presenting yet another challenge to the United States in its long war against Islamic extremists.
ISIL has demonstrated that it is an organized hierarchical army that launches campaigns based on brutal tactics, clear objectives and a time table.
“They’ve been able to project a lot of force projection capabilities into two countries simultaneously, which has been unprecedented for a single group,” said Patrick Johnston, a counterinsurgency analyst at the Rand Corp.
He said al Qaeda central, based in Pakistan, has projected power via franchises in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.
“But here we have a single group that is able to fight a two-front war, and you can’t do that without manpower and resources to run an organization doing complex operations,” he said.
ISIL’s growing prowess does not bode well for the underperforming Iraqi Security Forces. Its ranks fled in large numbers as ISIL’s fighters invaded from Syria, hooked up with old “Qaeda in Iraq” terrorists and proceeded to capture city after city, from Mosul to Tikrit on Baghdad’s doorstep. There were reports of ISIL militants emptying Mosul prisons of thousands of potential recruits.
“It’s getting larger,” Mr. Johnston said.
“ISIL is probably the strongest it has been in several years,” the intelligence official said. “Its momentum in Iraq and in Syria poses a threat to Western personnel and interests throughout the region.”
Analysts of the Sunni Muslim group’s YouTube uploads see evidence that ISIL owns some types of air defense missiles as well as tanks and artillery pieces.
The official said perhaps half, or 5,000 members, of ISIL’s army is composed of foreign fighters — non-Syrian or Iraqi. This raises the prospect that, in its quest to conquer Baghdad, ISIL may unleash suicide bombers in the Iraqi capital because foreign recruits tend to be more willing to assume that fatal role.