IRBIL, Iraq — The attack in Mosul wasn’t particularly surprising, according to Wameed, an Iraqi soldier who’d been assigned to the city’s main highway that night. It began June 9 with suicide bombers in cars and machine gun fire directed at checkpoints leading to the main thoroughfares of Iraq’s second largest city.
“Daash,” he said, using the derogatory Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, “and before that al-Qaida had always had a strong presence in Mosul and attacked checkpoints, or set bombs to hit patrols. They’d done these sorts of operations many times before, and we’d seen them do them in Samarra a month before and even in Abu Ghraib and Taji,” cities closer to Baghdad.
“Our commanders told us to stay in place and fight them off, that they were just trying for the prison or to make a big noise for the press,” he said.
The next day, however, the attacks continued, and Wameed and his fellow soldiers knew the commanders’ assessment had been wrong.
“All checkpoints were being attacked from all sides, and not just from Daash,” he said. “Then our commanders turned off their mobile phones. We knew this was big. … There were just 20 of us on the highway. What could we do alone? We ran.”
In the following days as much as half the Iraqi army drew the same conclusion and effectively disbanded; by some accounts less than half of the army remains combat effective. Despite its 10 to 1 numerical advantage, the army fled. Wameed, who asked not to be identified further for fear of prosecution, found refuge in the autonomous Kurdish zone, where he was interviewed recently outside Irbil.
It was one of the biggest collapses of a conventional military in modern times. It also said much about the evolution of ISIL, which until the capture of Mosul and its blitzkrieg-like advance across northern and central Iraq, had been known to the world largely as a terrorist organization that had used car bombs to fight the United States in Iraq and adopted even more brutal tactics when it moved to Syria to battle the government of President Bashar Assad.
In the conquest of Mosul, however, ISIL unveiled itself as a conventional fighting force with clear tactical and strategic goals — and the patience to execute them. Its announcement Sunday that it was establishing an Islamic caliphate has taken virtually everyone in the region by surprise — except for perhaps two men.
Those would be Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who took over the leadership of the group in 2010, and a shadowy former intelligence officer from the toppled regime of Saddam Hussein who’s known only by a pseudonym, Hajj Bakr.
Assembling a coherent picture of how ISIL executed its transformation is something U.S. intelligence officials will be striving to do in coming weeks as they examine what happened to the U.S.-trained Iraqi army.
But interviews with a wide range of people — including a former British military officer with ties to Saddam-era Iraqi officers, activists with ties to ISIL, and an intelligence officer for the Kurdish peshmerga militia — provide an imperfect but consistent picture of how ISIL became the most powerful and effective non-state military organization on the planet, with access to billions of dollars in military hardware, territory that includes millions of residents, and something few jihadist groups have ever had: a coherent strategy for establishing an Islamic state.
The story of ISIL’ transformation begins, according to these accounts, with a decision al-Baghdadi made to put Hajj Bakr in charge of reorganizing the group’s leadership.
“They were crazy jihadis before,” said the peshmerga intelligence officer, who spoke anonymously because he wasn’t authorized to discuss sensitive intelligence topics. The first leader of the group that would become ISIL, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, “was a dumb, brutal man who didn’t leave the group any real idea on how to exist after the Americans left,” the officer said. “All he could do was kill in spectacular ways.”
That changed when Hajj Bakr convinced al-Baghdadi to let him take control of the strategy for Iraq, the officer said.
Who precisely Hajj Bakr is — or was — is still unclear. Some say he escaped the U.S.-led invasion with Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the highest-ranking Saddam-era official to avoid capture by the invaders. Al-Douri is said to be a key ally of ISIL in the current uprising.
ISIL claimed that Hajj Bakr was killed in Syria in February while he led fighting with other rebel groups but there’s little consensus on whether the claim is true. The Kurdish intelligence official refused to comment on whether Hajj Bakr is alive or what his real name is.
“Releasing any information on these men would not be useful to us,” he said.
Still, a variety of disparate sources, including a history of the group released by a mysterious Twitter account using the name Wikibaghdady, produce a consistent tale: that shortly after al-Baghdadi took control of ISIL, he put the command of its military council under the authority of Hajj Bakr, who proceeded to purge much of the group’s upper ranks of non-Iraqis.
“Baghdadi and Hajj Bakr took al-Qaida and made it into Dawlah,” or the State, said one activist, who refused to be identified because he lives in the West and fears arrest for his overt ISIL sympathies.
The war in Syria became a key opportunity for ISIL as the group’s planning went beyond just terrorist attacks, the activist said. The group already was earning millions every month from extortion and other activities in Mosul and Iraq’s Anbar province.
“The jihad in Syria only opened it up more to support and men from the outside,” the activist said. “Training and combat experience were combined with the money Dawlah raised from activities in Mosul and Anbar, as well as from the oil fields in Syria. Captured equipment. It all started happening fast.”
According to all the sources, the group began its plans to take over much of Sunni Muslim Iraq with the announcement of what it called the “Breaking the Walls” campaign, which began in July 2012 with a series of suicide attacks on key government positions. At the same time, the group began assembling a conventional army in the safety of neighboring Syria’s anarchy.
“We warned the Iraqi government that these guys were building to something,” the Kurdish officer said. “We had intelligence they were in the desert on both sides of the border training the new guys they were getting in Syria.”
In the meantime, the suicide bombings in Iraq continued in Mosul, Baghdad, Anbar and Diyala province. “They were training the Iraqi army to stay on their bases and checkpoints with these attacks,” the officer said.
Under the direction of Hajj Bakr, multiple sources said, the “Breaking the Walls” campaign was designed not only to hobble the Iraqi army but also to draw responses from the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that would inflame a Sunni population already frustrated with the Shiite Muslim prime minister’s sectarian policies. Crackdowns on Sunnis led to more anger and more recruits for ISIL and its increasingly close tribal alliances with usually more mainstream Sunnis.
The operations also drew the interest of former commanders from Saddam’s Baath Party who usually are suspicious of Islamist radicals.
“You could see it coming as the Baathists joined with them at the upper levels,” according to a former British officer who’s married to an Iraqi Sunni whose family was close to the Saddam regime.
“These are the men who ran Saddam’s Iraq, and whatever you think of those old bastards, there was one thing they were very good at: controlling Iraq like nobody else ever did,” the former officer said. He spoke only on the condition that he not be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The Kurdish intelligence official and ISIL activists point to the next major step for the plan ISIL had devised: a series of spectacular prison breaks, first from the huge penitentiary at Abu Ghraib, then from a detention facility at the Iraqi military base in Taji. The prison escapes last July freed hundreds of veterans of al-Qaida and the Baathist resistance to the Americans.
“Now you’ve got a bunch of fast-moving guys who have been well trained and tested in Syria with great captured equipment and funding from their own sources and you add the institutional memory of thousands of vets of both Zarqawi and Saddam,” the former British officer said. “And nobody is paying attention because of Syria.”
“These men are very good and very ruthless at this sort of thing,” he said. “How do I know? Because I trained them. As did the Americans and everyone else for their fight against Iran in the ’80s. It’s all the same guys at the top now.”
This combination of slowly gaining strength among disaffected Sunnis was crucial to the ISIL advance.
“You don’t need many Daash guys,” said the Kurdish intelligence official. “A few gun trucks shooting at the checkpoint as a suicide bomber or two in cars smash into it, followed by the tribes taking the police station. A few people acting fast can seem like a lot more.”
Most estimates of ISIL’ strength in Iraq tend to be in the low thousands. But their easy mobility in convoys of pickups with little threat from an almost nonexistent air force gave the group an outsized presence, the sources agreed.
In each place ISIL took over after June 10, the same pattern repeated itself: Local Sunnis harassed checkpoints and police stations with gunfire and mortar rounds, pinning down the garrisons until the arrival of ISIL suicide bombers, who flattened the structure. That would be followed by a high-speed assault of fighters in pickups, who’d surround the area and destroy whatever government troops remained or couldn’t flee.
Local tribes often provided cover by planting roadside bombs to cut off reinforcements.
Pockets of stiff resistance, notably around the Shiite shrine in Samarra and at the oil refinery in Baiji, are easy enough to lay siege to with a minimum of forces so the faster attack thrusts never get bogged down in conventional warfare.
With much of central and northern Iraq already captured or surrounded, the last week saw a continuation of that strategy: a strong conventional push down the Euphrates River Valley toward Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, and Haditha, the site of a huge hydroelectric dam.
Over the weekend, Islamist insurgents were reported in the center of Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad, before moving out to confront Iraqi forces trying to maintain control of the highway to neighboring Iskandariya. For the retired British officer, the plan seems obvious.
“Watch for the fall of Ramadi and the fall of Mahmoudiya or Iskandariya,” he said. ISIL will then attack the Baghdad airport and the air base at Taji with heavy artillery. “Then they can push into Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad,” he said. “Baghdad will fall into anarchy and the government will fall and Iran will have to move in to protect the Shite heartland. Then these guys will have their Sunni state to push out further into Syria and Jordan. It’s brilliant.”
Two developments could thwart ISIL’ plans, however. One would be the arrival of significant numbers of combat aircraft. Five Russian-made SU-25 jet fighters arrived in Iraq over the weekend and more are due in a few days.
The other might well be of ISIL’ own making: its declaration Sunday of an Islamic caliphate, with Baghdadi named as the sole authority over the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims. That might alienate the Sunni tribes and Baathists who’ve played such a crucial role in ISIL’ recent success, many of whom don’t share ISIL’ fundamentalist approach to Islam.
But the departure of those forces simply might mean a greater role for foreign jihadis. They’re expected to flock to the caliphate.
“As an organization, ISIL has become the wealthiest militant group in the world, with assets in the low billions of dollars, and has developed an almost obsessive level of bureaucracy, account keeping and centrally controlled but locally implemented military-political coordination,” said Charles Lister, who tracks the group for the Brookings Institution center in Doha, Qatar.
The caliphate announcement “will pose a significant risk of provoking other Sunni-composed groups fighting the government to turn against ISIL,” he said. “On the other hand, the huge morale boost this will create within ISIL circles in Iraq could help spur on an eventual push on Baghdad.”
And that’s likely to mean more violence.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.