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A driver spoke with a Kurdish soldier as people lined up to leave areas controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria waited to be cleared at a checkpoint.

Bryan Denton • New York Times,

A boy carried an automatic weapon during a parade for an auxiliary militia formed by Sadr City residents to defend Baghdad on Saturday.

Ayman Oghanna • New York Times,

Rebel strike planned for years

  • Article by: Tim Arango, Kareem Fahim and Ben Hubbard
  • New York Times
  • June 14, 2014 - 6:22 PM

– When Islamic militants rampaged through their city last week, robbing banks of hundreds of millions of dollars, opening the gates of prisons and burning army vehicles, some residents greeted them as if they were liberators and threw rocks at retreating Iraqi soldiers.

It took only two days, though, for the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to issue edicts laying out the harsh terms of Islamic law under which they would govern, and singling out some police officers and government workers for execution.

With just a few thousand fighters, the group’s lightning sweep into Mosul and farther south appeared to catch many Iraqi and U.S. officials by surprise. But the gains were actually the realization of a yearslong strategy of state-building that the group itself promoted publicly.

“What we see in Iraq today is in many ways a culmination of what ISI has been trying to accomplish since its founding in 2006,” said Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism researcher at the New America Foundation, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq, the precursor of ISIS.

Now that President Obama is weighing airstrikes and other military aid to block the militants’ advance in Iraq, an examination of its history through its own documents indicates the group has been far more ambitious and effective than U.S. officials judged as they were winding down the U.S. involvement in the war.

The Sunni extremist group, while renowned for the mayhem it has inflicted, has set clear goals for carving out and governing an Islamic religious state that spans Sunni-dominated sections of Iraq and Syria. It has published voluminously, even issuing annual reports, to document its progress in achieving its goals.

Under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who once spent time in a U.S. detention facility, the group has shown itself to be unrelentingly violent and purist in pursuing its religious objectives, but coldly pragmatic in forming alliances and gaining and ceding territory.

In discussing its strategy, Fishman described the militant group as “a governmental amoeba, constantly shifting its zone of control across Iraq’s western expanses” as its forces redeploy.

In 2007 the group published a pamphlet laying out its vision for Iraq, citing trends in globalization as well as the Qur’an and challenging modern notions of statehood as having absolute control over territory.

Under this vision, religion is paramount over administering services. Referring to citizens under its control, the pamphlet states, “improving their conditions is less important than the condition of their religion.”

“When you go back and read it, it’s all there,” Fishman said. “They are finally getting their act together.”

More recent annual reports, including one that was released at the end of March and ran more than 400 pages, list in detail the group’s successes, through suicide attacks, car bombs and assassinations.

The group’s recent annual report, wrote Alex Bilger, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, makes clear that “the ISIS military command in Iraq has exercised command and control over a national theater since at least early 2012,” and that the group is “functioning as a military rather than as a terrorist network.”

Although the group got its start battling the Americans in Iraq, its success after the occupation ended was largely missed — or played down — by U.S. officials. That is partly because its prospects initially appeared limited then.

But with the outbreak of civil war across the border in Syria three years ago, the group saw new opportunities for growth.

ISIS “invaded Syria from Mosul long before it invaded Mosul from Syria,” Fishman said.

© 2014 Star Tribune