The Islamic State’s rise seems sudden. It caught the U.S. by suprise this summer when it captured large portions of northern Iraq and spread its wings in neighboring Syria. But many analysts contend that the group - which grew out of al-Qaida in Iraq - has been rebuilding for years.
Even before U.S. forces left Iraq in 2011, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) was forging a professional military force, stoking Sunni unrest, mounting brutal bombing campaigns - and barbaric killings. It boasts of 50,000 fighters in Syria and 30,000 in Iraq while recruiting 6,000 more last month alone.
This is a group whose cruelty alarmed even al-Qaida, but is successfuly exploiting the Syrian civil war and sectarian rule in Iraq to assemble arms, wealth and influence at great speed, says David Kilcullen, the architect of the Iraq War troop surge in 2006.
Kilcullen currently heads CAERUS, a security and intelligence strategy firm in Washington. He says ISIS has overshadowed al-Qaida.
“It is much more capable militarily, it’s much richer, it controls territory, it controls key infrastructure and it is really a much more dramatic threat than we have seen from al-Qaida," Kilcullen said.
"They have literally made millions of dollars by kidnapping and ransom. They are now the richest terror group in the world, north of $500 billion worth of resources,” he said.
Both in Syria and Iraq, ISIS is creating embryos of governance following the path of Hezbollah, which operates as a state-like entity in Lebanon.
“We are even seeing them now in the towns and the cities that they are occupying, both in Iraq and in Syria, actually taking on a lot of the functions of the state," said Jorge Benitez, a senior fellow at the influential Washington-based Atlantic Council. "They are actually engaging in what we would call ‘hearts and minds strategies.’”
“They are levying taxes, they’re running bakeries and they are allowing people to go to school," said David Kilcullen. "They’re running a court system, and they are also running hospitals and public works.”
Many experts claim it is the military success of ISIS that draws other groups to it. But others argue that ISIS has not been truly battle-tested.
Brian Jenkins, a senior advisor at the global policy think tank, RAND Corporation, says Iraq’s predominantly Sunni area was easy prey.
“It wasn’t so much that ISIS was this formidable fighting force and defeated the Iraqi military; it’s that simply the Iraqi military folded and left a vacuum that ISIS was able to fill,” he said.
“The big news was that they were defeated and lost control over the Mosul dam," Benitez said. "That was their first serious setback. That’s a good sign. Now, if the publics in these countries can see that they are losing militarily, a lot of their support will start to wither away.”
Jenkins cautions that the sands have permanently shifted in the Middle East. He says Iraq and Syria have irreversibly ceased to exist.
“Syria now is a mosaic of government-held territory; territory held by this group, by that group, by another group," he said. "That will continue in a kaledoscopic fashion. Iraq has been de facto partitioned into Sunni areas, Shi’a areas, Kurdish areas.“
Many experts see the rise of ISIS as the most significant development in international jihadism since 9/11. Observers note that ISIS has taken over the mantle of leadership of global jihadist terrorist networks against the West. Major radical movements - from Abu Sayyaf and Jamaat Islamiyya in East Asia to Boko Haram in Africa - have switched their allegiance from al-Qaida to this new ruthless terrorist organization.