WASHINGTON — In one week, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, took over almost one-third of Iraq. The U.S. intelligence community has been blamed in press reports and some political circles for not warning of it ahead of time.
But a senior U.S. intelligence official tells WTOP, “Intelligence analysts for years have closely tracked ISIL and its predecessor organizations, and routinely provided strategic warning of ISIL’s growing strength in Iraq and increasing threat to Iraq’s stability during the past year.”
Questions have been raised about the U.S. intelligence presence inside Iraq, which was altered during the later years of the Iraq War — much of the collection duties were assumed by military assets. But not only did U.S. intelligence supposedly keep up with ISIL’s progress, “We also warned about the increasing difficulties Iraq’s security forces faced in combating ISIL, and the political strains that were contributing to Iraq’s declining stability,” the official said.
Intelligence, according to the official, showed that “ISIL has exploited Sunni political discord, uneven Iraqi counter-terrorism pressure, and the Syrian conflict to strengthen its operational capacity and intensify the threat to the Iraqi government.”
Robin Simcox, research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, said as a result of the exploitation and ISIL’s success in recruiting, “The ability of the Iraq government is questionable.”
Thousands of Iraqi military personnel, according to eyewitness reports, simply dropped their weapons and ran upon learning the news that ISIL insurgents were headed their way.
As ISIL continues to push its way south, Simcox warns the Iraqi government that “there isn’t going to be U.S. leadership on this, and that’s unfortunate, but it’s true — and Europe has already lost interest.”
ISIL, which was viewed by many political observers as weak and no threat, has risen rapidly to be considered “the world’s most efficient and dangerous” terror group, says Richard Barrett, senior vice president of the Soufan Group.
They simply took advantage of the ungoverned space in Syria during the civil war to practice and plan.
“No one was attacking them in Syria and they were able to regroup there; they were able to attract fighters and they were able to attract a lot of Iraqi’s as well,” says Barrett.
Pushing back against criticism the U.S. intelligence community didn’t diagnose ISIL’s divide-and-conquer strategy, the senior U.S. intelligence official says they reported on “ISIL’s efforts to spark uprisings in areas with substantial Sunni populations, and how the ISF’s failure to counter ISIL gains in Ninawa Province and, specifically, Mosul allowed the group to deepen its influence there, as well as ISIL’s keen interest in targeting Baghdad.”
As the Iraqi government scrambles to cobble together a strategy and partners to stop ISIL’s advance, a U.S. counter-terrorism official suggests they might get some help from ISIL itself.
“One of the big questions right now is whether ISIL can turn its tactical victories in Iraq into strategic gains. The group appears to be benefiting from a regional strategy that looks at Syria and Iraq as one interchangeable battlefield, allowing it to shift resources and manpower in pursuit of military objectives,” said the official.
Unfortunately for the Iraqi government, according to the official, “it’s also clear that ISIL, with only a few thousand fighters, couldn’t have moved as rapidly as it has without the support of some nationalist Sunni groups and sympathetic tribes, some of which are merely drafting off of ISIL’s advances and may not cooperate over the long haul.”
But apparently ISIL’s Achilles heel is long-term planning.
“As long as the support of these Sunni elements holds, ISIL looks well positioned right now to keep the territory it has captured, absent a major counteroffensive. However, there are still plenty of things that could go wrong for a group that typically has done well on its home Sunni turf but, if Syria is any guide, is hardly invincible when confronted in unfriendly territory by capable and motivated fighters,” says the official.
In addition to growing international opposition to ISIL’s ruthless run though Iraq, history is not on their side either.
“Jihadist groups have had difficulty holding territory for long periods of time. The situation on the ground right now is playing to ISIL’s strengths, but the group faces the real prospect of overstretch if it tries to press deep into Baghdad and beyond,” said the counter-terrorism official.