Picture distributed by the Islamic State, showing militants including a commander known as Abu Waheeb.
When militants from the Islamic State made their first incursion into Iraq in January, quickly capturing the western city of Fallujah, the images of triumphant radicals parading around the city under black banners left many with a sinking feeling.
Within days, the militants (formerly known as ISIS or ISIL) were staging public executions and ordering people to submit to strict Islamic codes of behavior. In the months since, the brutality of the Islamic State has brought back dark memories of an earlier time in Iraq when Abu Musab Zarqawi led radical militants to slaughter tens of thousands of people.
If anyone had any doubts about the threat posed by the Islamic State, the beheading of American journalist James Foley this week — captured in a slickly produced video — made it grimly clear that this is a group whose barbarity and ambitions rival those of its precursor, al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Indeed, there are three reasons the Islamic State now poses a bigger threat than al-Qaeda in Iraq ever did: They have more money, weapons and battle experience; they have a more sophisticated propaganda strategy; and their ever-growing ranks are filled with western recruits who, one day, may come home to Europe and the United States.
In part, the group's wealth comes from illegal oil revenues. The group captured an oil field in eastern Syria in 2012 and has reportedly sold oil back to the government of President Bashar al Assad, even though the militants are nominally at war with the Syrian regime.
The Islamic State has also looted raw materials and antiquities as well as local banks, and has earned millions through kidnapping people and extracting ransoms. In all, the Islamic State is believed to have as much as $2 billion in assets. As Eliot Higgins, a Middle East expert who blogs under the name Brown Moses, put it to in June: "That'll buy a whole lot of Jihad."
As they have cut a bloody swath through Iraq, taking strategic cities and infrastructure, the radicals have also captured large stockpiles of weapons, including guns and ammunition, as well as more advanced weapons systems and American-built Humvees.
The Islamic State publishes annual reports complete with slick illustrations and infographics, laying out its progress. The militants carried out more than 9,500 attacks last year, according to a translation of the 400-plus-page report by the Institute for the Study of War.
Though it is difficult to verify each individual attack, the document itself suggests that the militants have adopted an efficiency mindset similar to that of a modern-day, metrics-obsessed corporation. By publishing “attack metrics,” the radicals “communicate organizational efficacy to outside parties, such as donors, al-Qaeda groups, and adversaries,” according to an analysis by the Institute for the Study of War.
It is just one aspect of the group’s propaganda strategy that also includes building "the brand" of the Islamic State by disseminating pictures on social media, showing fighters riding tanks through the streets and the slaying of civilians as well as security forces.
On one hand, this online presence exposes the group to surveillance by western intelligence agencies.
But, conversely, the highly visible social media strategy aids recruitment efforts. According to The Washington Post, militants in Yemen and Africa are now abandoning al-Qaeda affiliates to join the Islamic State. There have been similar reports from Pakistan and Indonesia.
The Islamic State, which is lead by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a Sunni radical who was once detained by American troops in Iraq, now numbers as many as 50,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq. Of those, 3,000 are believed to be westerners, including 100 from the United States, according to Tom Sanderson, a terrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
On Wednesday, The Guardian reported that the jihadist who beheaded Foley is believed to be the British leader of a group of militants holding foreigners hostage in Raqqa, Syria. The paper identified him as “John” and reported that he is believed to be from London. A man who was once held by the militant told The Guardian that “John” appeared to be well-educated.
“The three UK-born militants were referred to as "the Beatles" by fellow hostages because of their nationality,” the paper reported.
The haunting video depicting the beheading of Foley ended with the image of another hostage kneeling in the desert in front of his black-clad captor. The man was identified as Steven Joel Sotloff, a freelance journalist, who has been missing since he was kidnapped near the Syrian-Turkish border on Aug. 4, 2013. The executioner then issued a threat: “The life of this American prisoner, Obama, depends on your next decision.”
In a speech on Wednesday, President Barack Obama said the killing of Foley “shocks the conscience of the entire world.
"One thing we can all agree on is a group like ISIS has no place in the 21st century," he continued, though he promised no concrete American action.
Tags: AL QAEDA, ISIL, ISIS, ISLAMIC STATE, JAMES FOLEY, MEDIA, U.S., US & World