On Monday evening, as much of the international community struggled to comprehend the lightning-fast advances made by a militant group called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a 15-minute video clip began to circulate throughout some Arab-speaking corners of the social-media world. It was titled "The Grand Battle of Baghdad."
Slickly edited and replete with footage of advancing, victorious militants, the video makes it clear that the most successful and well-funded jihadist outfit since the rise of al-Qaeda now has its sights set on invading Iraq's capital – the central prize from which ISIL hopes to establish a new Sunni Muslim theocratic empire.
Roughly 10,000-strong and hardened by years of fighting in Iraq and Syria, ISIL has in just a few days recorded astounding victories against a demoralized and so-far outmanoeuvred Iraqi military. By most accounts, the Sunni extremist group now controls several major Iraqi cities, including Mosul and parts of Fallujah – the latter only about 70 kilometres west of Baghdad.
But even as ISIL (also sometimes referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) has suddenly become the topic of intense global attention, its years-long rise to power has been neither hidden nor unforeseen. Indeed, the group has capitalized on a confluence of factors. Virtually all of them stem from the initial 2003 invasion of Iraq by U.S. forces. Since that time, many Sunni Iraqis have grown increasingly estranged under the rule of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has largely purged Sunnis from his government. Prior to the invasion, dictator Saddam Hussein's Baathist government was Sunni-dominated.
"The drama of the last couple of weeks has been quite breathtaking," said Linda Robinson, a senior international policy analyst at RAND Corp. "But it would be a mistake for people to think there weren't ample indicators."
No attempt to hide brutality
ISIL traces its roots to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born militant who came to Iraq during the U.S. invasion and founded al-Qaeda's franchise in the country.
Before his death in a U.S. air strike in 2006, Mr. al-Zarqawi ran a particularly brutal al-Qaeda offshoot infamous for beheading hostages and promoting violence against Shia Muslims. After its leader's killing, al-Qaeda in Iraq mutated into a more standalone entity – one shunned by al-Qaeda's leadership for being too brutal. Indeed, ISIL has also clashed with other Sunni militant organizations, including the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front in Syria, for control of territory and resources.
ISIL makes no attempt to hide its brutality. The group has, in recent years, developed perhaps the most sophisticated public-relations arm of any extremist group. (Before Twitter got around to shutting down what is believed to be the group's central account, the social-media scribes of ISIL managed to essentially live-tweet the jihadists' capture of the city of Mosul.) As a result, it produces dozens of propaganda videos that outline not only its ideology, but also its methods.
Taken together, the videos offer an intimate look at the particular pathology of ISIL. The group's videos contain many of the same tropes found in other jihadist propaganda, including frequent description of American and Iraqi government officials as infidels and enemies of Islam (In some Iraqi militant videos, the editors are fond of using a still shot of U.S. President Barack Obama wearing a kippah, the Jewish skullcap, presumably taken during a visit to a synagogue or Jewish holy site). The group also tries to avoid using current-day place names, opting instead for descriptors dating back to the caliphate – the Islamic state system originally led by disciples of the prophet Mohammed and a system of governance ISIL believes it can recreate throughout the modern-day Middle East.
But whereas some other militant groups tend to shy away from showing overt bloodshed in their public-relations material – opting instead for stylized training montages featuring target practice and hand-to-hand combat for example – ISIL has no such restraint. Many of the group's videos show mass executions, wherein captured prisoners are made to get on their knees before a masked militant casually shoots them point blank in the back of the head. Much of the imagery is difficult to confirm – as is the group's claim that it recently executed more than 1,700 Shia men. However, the videos all contain the same watermarks, bear the same high-production quality and tend to come from social-media accounts believed to be associated with ISIL.
However, there are some lines ISIL refuses to cross: in virtually all the group's videos, any images of women are blurred out, in accordance with a set of deeply conservative Islamic guidelines about showing images of the female form.
Lucky timing, growing coffers
As it has claimed more Iraqi territory, ISIL has seen its coffers swell. From looting banks in the towns it has captured this week, the group is estimated to have collected upward of a billion dollars in new resources. ISIL has also benefited during its recent advance from fortuitous timing and favourable geopolitics. Conscious of a very war-weary U.S. electorate, Washington has so far all but ruled out sending troops to the Iraqi battlefield beyond a few hundred U.S. Marines to secure and possibly evacuate U.S. government offices in the country.
Mr. al-Maliki has also shown little in the way of an effective strategy to counter ISIL's stunning gains. Baghdad has tried to hunt down and punish military commanders who fled in the face of the militant group. The government has also attempted to ban the use of some forms of social media, hoping to limit the reach of ISIL's propaganda. So far, however, the Iraqi government's efforts have done little to slow the jihadists down.
So dire is the situation that senior U.S. officials have begun discussions with Iran – a Shia state extremely nervous about the rise of Sunni militants in a neighbouring country – about how to combat ISIL's advance. With ISIL militants on Baghdad's doorstep, time is running out for the Iraqi government and the international community to find a palatable solution – indeed, it's possible no such solution exists.
Ms. Robinson of RAND lays out three possible scenarios, adding that "all of them are bad." Should U.S. air strikes or Iraqi forces stop ISIL's advance, the group will still have control over what amounts to an extremist fringe state spanning parts of Syria and Iraq. Should ISIL move into Baghdad – a city whose population of Shiites, Sunnis, Christians and Kurds is a microcosm of Iraq as a whole – immense bloodletting and a full-on sectarian war for the city is likely to follow. Finally, it's possible ISIL may take Baghdad entirely, effectively defeating the sitting government.
Beyond the toll in human lives and wider security concerns, an ISIL victory would in many ways mark the most stunning and stark illustration of how profoundly the U.S.-led 2003 invasion of that country has failed to achieve its initial objectives.
Once largely free of overt sectarian strife under Saddam's iron rule (and repression of all but the ruling Sunni group and Christians), Iraq now faces the prospect of becoming an extremist Islamist state run by an ultraviolent group intent on recreating the caliphate – a group that, prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, didn't exist. And if ISIL's own words are to be believed, its ambitions extend beyond the borders of the Middle East.
Toward the end of an ISIL propaganda video, which documents the group's victory in taking control of Mosul, the militants address the United States directly. Referring to Americans as "the carriers of the cross," the narrator says the U.S. will not be spared the kind of violence ongoing in Syria and Iraq.
"Soon, you will be in a direct battle," he says.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the nom de guerre of the shadowy 43-year-old cleric who leads ISIL
* He has been called the next Osama bin Laden
* There are only two known photos of him in circulation
* His rise to power has been speedy. He was captured in 2005 as a low-level fighter and held at the U.S.-controlled Camp Bucca. But he was deemed a low enough risk that the Iraqi government released him in 2009 By 2011, the U.S. State Department had branded him a 'specially designated global terrorist' and was offering a $10-million (U.S.) reward for his capture or death
* Iraqi army officials think he is hiding somewhere in the country's eastern Diyala province