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.
Last week, ISIL showed it could capture towns and territory in Syria and Iraq at once. Al Qaeda and its franchises have not accomplished such a feat.
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.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIL's reclusive leader, has positioned about 3,000 fighters in Iraq and some 7,000 in Syria, according to a U.S. intelligence official.
Al-Baghdadi declared last week that he was the ruler of a new Islamic caliphate, which follows Shariah law, spanning swaths of Iraq and Syria.
"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.
"ISIL's military capabilities have greatly improved as the group has gained access to advanced weapons from Syria and Iraqi installations that it has overrun," the intelligence official said.
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.
Even before the offensive, ISIL cells with headquarters in Mosul showed an ability to unleash a wave of attacks against the Shiite-dominated government by deploying vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices.
"I think a lot of the capabilities they've demonstrated show that they are an organized group able to coordinate complex operations in places of their choosing," Mr. Johnston said. "That's really the crux and the key to their success more than materiel itself."
ISIL also has embraced social media like no other terrorist group. Its posts on YouTube are circulated by news media and private intelligence websites, which, in effect, are doing ISIL's bidding.
"A big part of its bureaucracy internally is a media committee," Mr. Johnston said. "This is information operations, propaganda type of entity that has been messaging within Iraq since at least 2006."
An example of the West spreading ISIL propaganda as a source of information is a report from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
"There is already a picture on Twitter of Abu Umar al-Shishani, the military commander of the ISIL in Syria, stepping out of his personal [U.S.] Humvee," the report notes. "Several posters on jihadist web forums and Twitter have sent out requests for helicopter pilots to potentially fly some of the aircraft that the ISIL captured in recent days."
The media committee also knows how to meet deadlines. Within hours of its Iraqi conquests, ISIL documented the victories in the English-language Islamic State News magazine. The stories outlined its economic goals for Iraq.
"Virtually all Islamic extremist groups make use of social media to advance their causes, but the ISIL's media production team is especially adept, and its target audience extends beyond the Arabic-speaking world," the West Point group said.
The combination of ISIL's growing power, the sorry state of Iraq's army and the lack of a Sunni-Shiite governing coalition prompts the highest-ranking U.S. military officer to say this:
"If you are asking me, will the Iraqis, at some point, be able to go back on the offensive to recapture the part of Iraq that they've lost, I think that's a really broad campaign-quality question," said Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Probably not by themselves."
Gen. Dempsey, who directed the training of Iraqi security forces from 2005 to 2007 and recently expressed disappointment in their performance, laid out what now must be done: "You'd like to squeeze them from the south and west. You'd like to squeeze them from the north and you'd like to squeeze them from Baghdad. And that's a campaign that has to be developed."
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