This image made from video posted on a militant website Saturday, July 5, 2014, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, purports to show the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq.

This image made from video posted on a militant website Saturday, July 5, 2014, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, purports to show the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq. (Militant video)

From 2009 until the end of 2011, a war-weary United States was withdrawing its forces from Iraq, moving on from an unpopular war and leaving the protection of the fragile country to Iraq’s U.S.-trained security forces.

For Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a former Muslim preacher and leader of the group now known as Islamic State, those were years spent laying the foundations that produced this summer’s battlefield offensives that stunned much of the world and cast doubt on the future of Iraq and the U.S. legacy after eight years of war.

The Islamic State’s mix of mobility, ruthlessness and battlefield surprise against unprepared foes enabled it to overrun about a third of the country and hold on to heavily populated areas including Mosul, the country’s second largest city.

Yet, with the element of surprise largely spent, the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIL and ISIS, now finds itself in a defensive struggle that plays more to its weaknesses than strengths, according to an analysis published in August by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, an academic research institution at the U.S. Military Academy.

“As a defensive force, ISIL may struggle to hold terrain if it is attacked simultaneously at multiple points or if its auxiliary allies begin to defect,” wrote the study’s author, Michael Knights, an analyst at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington, D.C., think tank that focuses on Middle East issues.

“Mobility and surprise have allowed ISIL to punch well above its weight in offensive operations, but these advantages may also be diminishing,” Knights wrote.

Knights’ study, among the first published analyses of the Islamic State since its June offensive, outlines how the Islamic State and its leader al-Baghdadi have employed bold military tactics to achieve renown aimed at winning support not only from disaffected Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Syria but from converts throughout the Islamic world.

Its military victories have enabled the Islamic State to lay claim that it represents the “true Islam” and to proclaim a new caliphate in areas of Syria and Iraq that it controls with al-Baghdadi as the “caliph,” or ruler, of all Muslims worldwide. Proclamation of the caliphate has resonance among Muslims, harkening back to the religious and political state established by the Prophet Muhammad in the 6th century and which at its height ruled from modern Pakistan to Spain.

Its self-publicized campaign of terror — including the beheading of two American journalists and hundreds of Iraqi soldiers — have enabled it to cow the population and drive out non-Sunnis who could turn against the extremist movement.

Al-Baghdadi laid the groundwork for those victories during the past four years with planning that has been “sophisticated, patient and focused,” said Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, during testimony in February before the House Foreign Affairs Committee

According to Knights report, al-Baghdadi’s own story shows his skill in long-term strategic planning rarely seen in terrorist movements.

Al-Baghdadi, whose real name is thought to be Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badry, was arrested by U.S. forces in Fallujah in 2004. After his release in 2009 from the U.S. detention center at Camp Bucca, a radicalized al-Baghdadi joined the Islamic State of Iraq, successor to the decimated al-Qaida in Iraq which battled U.S. and Iraqi forces in Sunni areas of the country.

While the U.S. was bowing out of the Iraq War, al-Baghdadi “re-booted” his organization in 2010, Knights said. The following year, he expanded operations in Syria, joining the revolt against Syrian President Bashar Assad. The Islamic State’s branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, eventually eclipsed many of the indigenous rebel groups, including the so-called moderates favored by the West.

His bid to formally merge the Islamic State and the Nusra Front in April 2013 led to a schism between al-Baghdadi and the al-Qaida command, establishing the newcomers as a rival for leadership of Islamic extremism worldwide.

With international attention focused on Syria, al-Baghdadi began a discreet campaign to undermine Iraq’s security forces, already riveted with sectarian divisions between the country’s Sunni and Shiite populations.

According to Knights, the Islamic State launched a series of assassinations and attacks on Iraqi troops and pro-government figures that led to a “shattering of Iraqi security forces.” The attacks, which the Islamic State called “Soldiers Harvest,” attracted little attention outside Iraq but more than doubled the number of deaths of soldiers and key leaders during the last half of 2013.

In the north, al-Baghdadi systematically expanded his grip on parts of Mosul, which had been among the last strongholds of the old al-Qaida in Iraq during the last years of the American war. The report cited McGurk’s congressional testimony that by June, the city appeared normal by day but the Islamic State controlled the streets by night.

When the Islamic State launched its offensive in Mosul on June 6, Iraqi forces “were brittle and comparatively easy to crumble during three days of escalating skirmishes within the city,” Knights wrote.

Facing the Iraqi forces was a fighting force al-Baghdadi had put together from the ranks of former soldiers of the Iraqi army, which the U.S. had disbanded after the 2003 invasion, Jarret Brachman, a former director of the Combating Terrorism Center, said in an August radio interview.

“He’s professionalized and formalized an infrastructure of Iraqis with hardcore military experience and intelligence experience,” he said. “He’s brokered relationships with (Iraqi Sunni) tribes. They’ve spent tons of time intimidating, assassinating. They’ve systematically laid the groundwork for all of this to happen over the past few years.”

With his “highly motivated cadre” of light infantry forces, al-Baghdadi developed a distinctive style of command, described by Knights as “centralized control but decentralized execution.” That means regional commanders have considerable discretion in planning their operations.

Islamic State commanders used surprise and mobility using Iraq’s dense, high-quality road network often culminating in “night or dawn attacks,” Knights wrote.

Large areas of the country can be traversed in a day, “giving an aggressive force strong ability to concentrate forces at a given point of attack,” Knights wrote. That allowed them to achieve “local superiority in numbers despite their smaller strength in comparison to (Iraqi) state armed forces,” he said.

Iraqi army and Kurdish forces were kept off balance by “probes and feints” that exploited their weakness in surveillance and night vision equipment, rendering them blind to enemy movements, Knights said.

The weak response of the “enfeebled” Iraqi government forces “temporarily masked” the Islamic State’s own weaknesses, which are now becoming apparent, Knights wrote.

Even without American troops playing an active ground combat role, U.S. airstrikes have already helped stymie the Islamic State’s latest surprise attacks by vehicle-mounted fighters. Its convoys tried to enter the northern city of Tuz Khurmato on Aug. 9 and 13, but Kurdish artillery turned them back with the help of U.S. military surveillance.

Holding onto territory could prove difficult over the long term, Knights wrote.

Islamic State forces trying to maintain control of conquered territory are often comprised of new recruits and Sunni tribal allies — both less tested and less reliable than hardcore fighters, Knights wrote.

“Although ISIL has momentum and these allies seem solidly behind the group, if the military tide begins to turn, particularly whilst the cement is still setting on (Islamic State) relationships, there could be a dramatic reduction in the group’s effective strength,” he wrote. Twitter: @WyattWOlson

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Wyatt Olson is based in the Honolulu bureau, where he has reported on military and security issues in the Indo-Pacific since 2014. He was Stars and Stripes’ roving Pacific reporter from 2011-2013 while based in Tokyo. He was a freelance writer and journalism teacher in China from 2006-2009.

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