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A former senior U.S. intelligence official told The Washington Times in February that the “life arc” of al Qaeda as a movement is likely to last 50 to 60 years and that the movement is probably only about halfway through its evolution.

It follows that the group will go in unpredictable directions during the years to come — and permit the rise of a regional player such as al-Baghdadi to global stature, thereby overshadowing al Qaeda’s veteran leadership.

But other sources, speaking anonymously with The Times, have said there is also debate in counterterrorism circles over the extent to which al-Baghdadi simply has a penchant for biting off more than he can chew as an extremist leader.

Mafia-style tactics

Under al-Baghdadi’s leadership, ISIL’s strategy has involved fleecing the local population, running “protection rackets” and extorting money from wealthy businesspeople in northern Iraq.

While the mafia-style tactics may bring in piles of local cash that could make ISIL less beholden to al Qaeda’s original core, it also comes at a price.

By seizing control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul this week, ISIL is running the risk of undercutting its own fundraising source. “Mosul is where they get most of their money,” one source told The Washington Times, adding that if ISIL fighters attempt to hold the city, the local economy will inevitably crash.

There is also debate over the extent to which al-Baghdadi and ISIL pose a threat beyond Iraq and Syria — and particularly to the United States.

The group’s stated goal, which draws from an original mission outlined by al Qaeda in Iraq, is to establish an Islamist Sunni caliphate straddling the Syria-Iraq border.

The National Counterterrorism Center summary of al-Baghdadi’s rise noted that AQI initially “expanded its targeting outside of Iraq in August 2005 by attempting a rocket attack on a U.S. Navy ship in the port of Aqaba, Jordan, and in November 2005 with the bombing of three hotels in Amman that left 67 dead and more than 150 injured.”

There is no mention of the targeting of U.S. interests over the next seven years. But in 2012, the group “made vague threats against Americans everywhere,” according to the summary, which adds that the “arrests in May 2011 of two AQI-affiliated Iraqi refugees in Kentucky highlight the potential threat inside the United States from people associated with AQI.”

One U.S. counterterrorism official said ISIL is believed to have roughly 2,500 fighters inside Iraq.

Dozens of those fighters were reported to be struggling against anti-ISIL militants to gain control of the city of Samarra, roughly 70 miles north of Baghdad. Samarra is the city where al-Baghdadi, a Sunni Muslim, was born and raised.

The city is better known, however, as the home of al-Askari Mosque, a sacred shrine for the region’s Shiite Muslims that was bombed in 2006, triggering a bloody sectarian war that subsequently ripped through Iraq.