Al-Qaeda breakaway pursuing an Islamic state
12 June 2014, 13:13
Beirut - An al-Qaeda splinter group that has seized a huge chunk of northern Iraq commands as many as 10 000 fighters and has steadily been consolidating its hold on much of northeastern Syria across the border.
Its pursuit of an Islamic state that would straddle the two countries has thrown it into bloody conflict with governments, Kurdish militias and Syrian rebels of all stripes.
The group, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, has employed a calculated strategy to achieve its aims, using everything from beheadings to terrify opponents to ice cream socials for children to curry favour with local populations under its control.
But it is the group's military prowess that has brought under its sway a swath of territory that stretches from the Syrian-Turkish frontier in the north down the Euphrates River all the way to the Iraqi city of Fallujah just 65km west of Baghdad.
This week, the group's fighters, many of them in fast-moving pickup trucks mounted with machine guns, captured Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, before barrelling south to take the city of Tikrit, two urban centres in the heartland of northern Iraq's oil industry.
It commands between 7 000 and 10 000 fighters, according to US intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorised to brief the media.
The Islamic State is the latest and most powerful incarnation of what began as an al-Qeida affiliate in Iraq following the 2003 US-led invasion.
American forces spent years and enormous resources to bring the group largely to heel before US troops pulled out of the country in December of 2011.
Since then, the region has been convulsed in political turmoil and sectarian hatreds. The Islamic State has seized on those Sunni-Shi’ite tensions to help whip up its Sunni extremist followers.
The group is led by an ambitious Iraqi militant known by his nom de guerre of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi with a $10m US bounty on his head. After taking the reins in 2010, al-Baghdadi successfully transformed what had been an umbrella organisation focused mainly on Iraq into a transnational military force.
The Syrian uprising, which began in 2011, opened the door to his greater ambitions. Al-Baghdadi dispatched militants to Syria to set up a group called the Nusra Front.
Initially, more moderate Syrian rebels welcomed the group's experienced fighters. But the Islamic State alienated many rebels and Syrian civilians alike with its brutality and attempts to impose its strict interpretation of Islam.
Eventually, the Islamic State's presence in Syria proved so destabilizing that it fell out with the Nusra Front. Their mutual patron at the time, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, formally disavowed the Islamic State in February.
Other Syrian rebel factions were waging an offensive against the Islamic State. Activists say that fighting, which is still going on, has killed more than 6 000 people.