The Islamic State may have achieved something that no terrorist group before them has managed — they may be a fully fledged combined-arms capable fighting force powered by the use of indigenous natural resources it controls.
Over the past few months, as if to defy President Barack Obama’s characterization of them as “jayvee,” ISIS spread swiftly from Syria deep into Iraq, sweeping through territory that had been controlled or at least patrolled by the Iraqi army.
That army proved to be so weak that its personnel fled their posts. ISIS scooped up American vehicles and weapons left behind by the Iraqi security forces. By July, the Islamic State had reportedly taken 52 155mm M198 Howitzer artillery guns. They have a range of up to 20 miles and can be used in conjunction with GPS for fine targeting. US airstrikes in recent weeks have focused on ISIS artillery, among other things, suggesting that US airmen are targeting some of those former US guns.
It’s also possible that in addition to picking up US vehicles and weapons, ISIS picked up some undeclared Syrian chemical weapons.
Over this past weekend, ISIS attacked and took over a Syrian air base in Raqqa. That has been widely reported. What has not been widely reported is that leading up to the assault, ISIS used drone aircraft for surveillance of the base. Whether or not ISIS captured any usable aircraft at the base (and apparently, they did), and whether they have any trained pilots to operate them or not, the Islamic State already has drone aircraft at its disposal.
The success of the mission in Syria shows that ISIS can coordinate the movements of its ground troops on foot and in vehicles, and its airborne drones. That is a combined-arms capable force. They only thing they’re missing is a navy, but they don’t need that where they are currently operating. If things continue on their current path, ISIS could steal a navy either from Iraq or Syria.
In addition to all of that, ISIS now controls an area that is larger than Britain. It is sparsely populated compared to Britain — about 4 million in ISIS territory versus about 64 million in Britain — but ISIS territory is oil-rich.
A Businessweek article compares ISIS to the “Taliban with oil fields.” The Islamic State may be raking in $2 million a day in revenue from oil sales alone, making it a self-financed and largely self-sufficient terrorist entity that happens to be armed chiefly with captured American-made weaponry. Additionally, ISIS is not as vulnerable to sanctions as previous terrorists groups have been.
“The Islamic State is probably the wealthiest terrorist group we’ve ever known,” said Matthew Levitt, a former U.S. Treasury terrorism and financial intelligence official who now is director of the counterterrorism and intelligence program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They’re not as integrated with the international financial system, and therefore not as vulnerable” to sanctions, anti-money laundering laws and banking regulations.
In contrast, the late al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was from a wealthy family and enjoyed a network of foreign patrons, and his funding sources were squeezed by financial intelligence officers. The Islamic State “makes their money primarily — if not entirely — locally,” said Patrick Johnston, a counterterrorism specialist at the Santa Monica, California-based Rand Corp.’s Pittsburgh office and co-author of a forthcoming analysis of declassified documents on the Islamic State’s finances.
In addition to all that, an unknown number of ISIS fighters are citizens of the West and carry western passports.