There is a widespread tendency for people to refer to any frightening group of Islamists as al-Qaeda. It's sort of like Texans referring to any sort of soft drink as a "coke". However, details matter when we're trying to understand the actions of heavily armed and dangerously violent psychopaths so let's start with the relationship between ISIS and Zawahiri :
Though the ISIS is mostly referred to as an al-Qaeda affiliate, information
seems to confirm the opposite, namely that the ISIS is not representative of
al-Qaeda in Iraq. On 03 February 2014, al-Qaeda general command published
a media statement on jihadi websites stating that the ISIS is not "a branch of
the al-Qaeda group".
ISIS members pledge of allegiance is to the ISIS leader al-Baghdadi and not to
Sheikh Zawahiri (al-Qaeda central command). this is reflected in an ISIS nasheed
(a song that carries with it an Islamic belief and/or practice) released during 2013
in which it states (translated version):
“They have closed ranks and pledged bay’ah to Baghdadi, For [he is] our amir in
our Iraq and ash-Sham."
The ISIS non-affiliation with al-Qaeda was also evident in Sheik Zawahiri (al-Qaeda central command) calling during 2013 for the dissolution of ISIS, anticipating that Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would accept authority and control from al-Qaeda
If you are confused by the media references to al-Qaeda in the surge of ISIS stories it is probably because there's so much inconsistency in how the group is discussed - even among experts who acknowledge the rift with al-Qaeda central. And it is probably safe to say that the relationship will continue to evolve. Whatever you call them though the broader movement that they both represent will undoubtedly benefit from the massive upsurge in ISIS's strength and capabilities. The group now:
I could go on. Bad news is flooding in around the clock. This is a tremendously worrying destabilization that will create an environment in which only really terrible things happen. Jessica Lewis and Ahmed Ali of ISW have given some thought to where all of this is heading and paint a pretty dire picture:
Iraq's security forces will not be able to retake all of the ground they have lost. They may not even be able to hold what they still have. The best-case scenario is a stalemate in which Iraqis manage to contain the ISIS state and army for now. The more likely case is the creation of another Syrian-style conflict pitting ISIS with increasing international support against desperate and increasingly brutal Iraqi Shi'a militias and ISF elements. The two civil wars, which have now completely merged, will continue to expand, destabilizing an already unstable Middle East and inviting further intervention by the Sunni Arab states and Iran. In the very worst case, the fall of Mosul could be a step down the path to outright regional war.
If there is any hope at all, and I am not sure that there is, it might be in that ISIS has overextended itself and the terrible performance by Iraqi forces has made them appear far more formidable than they actually are. Attacking and destabilizing areas that are so poorly defended is relatively easy. Securing cities and holding them long-term will be far more difficult, especially as forces inside Iraq (and quite possibly from beyond) rise to counter their momentum.
I should also add that the significance of their military hardware seizures is also somewhat overstated. The weapons grab is a very big win for the group but utilizing the advanced hardware (especially aircraft) in a meaningful way is just not possible without significant training and support resources that ISIS does not have. The captured small arms and ground transport will be far more useful.
In the end, ISIS may not get their state or hold it for long. But their reach, resources, and brand are all now likely strong enough to survive giving back some of their recent gains. The group is now a massive player in a massive problem that may continue to worsen for quite some time.
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