The Islamic State has been able to rebuild its cadres to 20,000 fighters or more (AFP)
The Islamic State’s (IS) ability to take and hold a swath of northern Syria since 2013 and then parts of northern Iraq in 2014 could only be accomplished through a large armed force. Recently the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimated that the organization has anywhere between 20,000-31,500 fighters in both countries. That was a big increase from some predictions, while others have pointed to even larger numbers. For example, analyst Najim al-Kasab told the Daily Beast in July 2014 that IS had just 6,000 men, and an unnamed U.S. official put it at 10,000 when talking to the Washington Post the month before that. Others however have placed the figure much higher such as the Long War Journal, which believed the group had up to 50,000 men under arms. Another, Hishim al-Hashimi told the Telegraph that there were at least 25,000 IS fighters in Iraq alone. Whatever the true figure it is far higher than most initially believed.
The CIA’s new estimate shows how far the organization has come from its nadir in 2011. At that time former CIA Director Leon Panetta told Congress that there were only 1,000 fighters left of the then Islamic State of Iraq. Many believed that the group was on its way out as much of its leadership had been jailed or killed, and the Americana and Iraqi forces and dramatically degraded its capabilities. As soon as the U.S. military departed however IS began making its comeback. In January 2012 it was able to launch multiple car bombs on the same day in both central and southern Iraq on January 9, and then carry out the first car bomb wave of the year starting on January 12. By the summer it had increased its capacity to the point where it was able to have two to three car bomb waves a month. August 16 it also posted a video of an operation it carried out in western Anbar province. It documented IS fighters wearing SWAT uniforms and driving police trucks assaulting five different locations and executing policemen in the Haditha area. It also highlighted a training camp somewhere in the Anbar desert and the planning session for the attack. The insurgents showed a level of sophistication in the operation only seen in Special Forces units. In more recent times the group has been able to regenerate its cadres through a number of means. First, it has a large amount of money to pay fighters. As early as 2005 the group was self-sufficient raising most of its money through extortion rackets and other criminal activity inside Iraq. Today it controls oil fields in both Syria and Iraq, and is involved in extensive petroleum smuggling, which could earn it up to several million dollars a day. It is also trying to regulate and charge fees in bank transactions in places like Mosul, and is running trade between Jordan, Syria and Iraq. This allows it to attract and pay new recruits. Second, the declaration of the Caliphate in June 2014 after its dramatic capture of parts of Ninewa, Salahaddin and Kirkuk has made it the premier jihadist group in the world. It was already bringing in many foreign fighters from its successes in Syria, and that number has undoubtedly swollen with its surge in Iraq. Third, IS has been gaining more followers within Iraq as well. It has relentlessly threatened and fought other insurgent groups in northern and central Iraq demanding their loyalty for months now. While some have resisted others have pledged allegiance to IS. Regular Iraqis have also joined the group swept up like others by its victories over the Iraqi Security Forces. All together this has provided a rich environment for the Islamic State to increase its numbers.
The Islamic State’s charge across central Iraq has been stopped and it is now facing the threat of wider air strikes by the Americans, but that has in no way slowed its ability to recruit new followers and carry out attacks. Ironically, the U.S. operations play into the organization’s image as the defender of Islam against the west, and provide it another recruiting opportunity. It now has a surplus of arms and supplies that it captured from the Iraqi and Syrian forces, plenty of money, and lots of new followers. That means it can make up for any losses without significantly slowing down its operations posing a huge challenge for both the U.S. and Iraqi governments.
Ardolino, Bill and Roggio, Bill, “Al Qaeda in Iraq video details deadly raid in Haditha,” Long War Journal, 8/21/12
Dilanian, Ken, “CIA: Islamic State group has up to 31,500 fighters,” Associated Press, 9/11/14
Hegghammer, Thomas, “The Foreign Policy Essay: Calculated Caliphate,” Lawfare, 7/6/14
Johnson, Keith, “The Islamic State Is the Newest Petrostate,” Foreign Policy, 7/28/14
Joumah, Khales, “Paying For The Caliphate: When Extremists Become Bad Bank Managers In Mosul,” Niqash, 9//14
Kenner, David, “Panetta: 1,000 al Qaeda terrorists still in Iraq,” The Cable, Foreign Policy, 6/9/11
Al Mada, “Daash manages the import and export operations and bartered vegetables for food,” 7/27/14
Miller, Greg, “ISIS rapidly accumulating cash, weapons, U.S. intelligence official say,” Washington Post, 6/24/14
New Sabah, “70 militants of Naqshbandi and the Islamic Army and the Mujahideen Army swear allegiance to Baghdadi,” 8/27/14
Roggio, Bill, “On the CIA estimate of number of fighters in the Islamic State,” Long War Journal Threat Matrix, 9/13/14
Sherlock, Ruth, “Inside the leadership of Islamic State: how the new ‘caliphate’ is run,” Telegraph, 7/9/14
Siegel, Jacob, “With Friends Like These, ISIS Is Doomed,” Daily Beast, 7/24/14