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A year into the caliphate, how has IS managed to capture so much territory?

Destruction from an early battle between IS and Iraqi forces in July 2014. EPA/STR

The self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, also known as IS, ISIS, ISIL and Daesh, took control of Iraq’s second city, Mosul on June 9 2014. It instantly implemented a brutal rule that resulted in hundreds of deaths. Ancient relics were destroyed, and an IS stronghold established. Using equipment seized through fighting in Syria, the group was able to defeat an increasingly demoralised Iraqi army, many of whom fled when the group was approaching.

The fall of Mosul marked the beginning of a staggering year in which IS tore across the Middle East. The group had emerged from the desert that straddled the Syrian-Iraqi border just four days before taking the city; it soon made huge gains into Iraqi territory, further decimating a state that had struggled to regain a sense of autonomy since the US-led invasion of 2003.

The capture of Mosul and ensuing IS rampage would ultimately bring down the rule of Nouri al-Maliki, who had been prime minister of Iraq since 2006.

Fertile ground

In the 12 years since the US-led invasion, power in Iraq has become increasingly decentralised, with the governments of first al-Maliki and now Haider al-Abadi struggling to gain control over a state that was becoming increasingly divided along tribal and sectarian lines.

These divisions were deepened by a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with both states offering support for co-religious kin across the Middle East. Along with Syria and Bahrain, Iraq became one of the primary arenas in this conflict, and the ensuing chaos helped facilitate the emergence of IS.

To make things worse, the Arab uprisings in the region had strained relations between states and societies to breaking point. Power seeped away from the core to the periphery, and ultimately made space for groups such as IS to grow.

IS emerged from the embers of al-Qaeda in Iraq, facilitated, in part, by the US prison, Camp Bucca. It was inside Bucca, in southern Iraq, that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now the self-proclaimed Caliph Ibrahim, developed a network of contacts that would some years later become IS.

Exploiting division

Although headed by a group of Salafists and supported by thousands of foreign fighters, the group also draws upon different facets of Syrian and Iraqi society. Across Iraq, IS was able to draw upon ex-members of the Ba'ath party and members of Sunni tribes, who historically had challenged Baghdad’s rule but had also long feared the violence of Shia militias.

Worshippers in Mosul attend a mosque shortly after an appearance by IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. EPA/STR

Being able to recruit from these groups, by virtue of offering them protection against Shia militias and indeed, from the perceived discrimination of the Shia led-governments, IS was able to cultivate support from a much larger base.

The road ahead

Yet after seizing land and cultivating support, the group also had to govern, which has proved far more difficult in the long run.

Initially, IS successfully deployed a “velvet glove, iron fist” approach, fusing a soft power governance strategy with draconian punishments for those who opposed it. Fear is a key component of the IS strategy, as evidenced in the increasingly brutal methods it uses to execute opponents. As its rampage went on, mass killings of enemy combatants became a central tactic: after seizing a Syrian military base in 2014, the group posted a video of mass beheadings of the soldiers who fought them.

The point of all this is to strike fear into anyone who stands in the group’s path. The treatment of prisoners, including Shi'a Muslims, non IS-supporting Sunni Muslims, people of other faiths and ethnicities, women, homosexuals and people from “the West” has been well documented, with news of this treatment travelling quicker than the group itself. Perhaps this explains the ease with which IS has been able to seize large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria. Equally, while IS does have a clearly defined power structure, it has proved that it can adapt quickly to changing circumstances.

It used military equipment seized in Syria in Iraq and was then able to seize better weapons and use them in the capture of Mosul.

On May 17 2015, IS captured the city of Ramadi in the Anbar Province of Iraq. Just three days later, it took the 2,000 year-old city of Palmyra in Syria, highlighting its ability to operate on several fronts at once.

While some suggest that the fall of Ramadi shows a lack of will in the Iraqi army to fight off IS, it is perhaps equally a testament to the group’s ability to innovate. To take the town, it used what are known as vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDS) – large and well-armoured vehicles laden with explosives that can withstand small-arms fire, allowing IS to penetrate strong defences.

Ultimately, as the start of Ramadan approaches, IS is likely to use the first anniversary since the declaration of a caliphate and the seizure of Mosul to demonstrate its continued relevance and longevity in defiance of the international coalition against it.

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