On September 10, 2014, a day before the 9/11 anniversary, President Obama announced that the United States will expand current military operations in Iraq to degrade and destroy Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. ISIS “is not Islamic,” the president explained while citing the massacre of innocents, the majority of whom are Muslim, in the troubled region. ISIS has taken advantage of the sectarian conflict in Syria to establish itself within Syrian and Iraqi territory. The terrorist organization’s entrance is particularly alarming because of its crimes against humanity (e.g., execution of prisoners of war, enslavement, rape, and forced marriage).
One would expect that ISIS, with the vast lands it now holds, commands forces vastly outnumbering those of the American-trained Iraqi defenders. The Iraqi army currently fields 250,000 troops. The CIA estimates that ISIS’ ranks have now surged to 30,000 from an earlier estimate of around 7,000. In the takeover of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, the Iraqi army outnumbered ISIS by 40:1. ISIS gains have mostly been located in Sunni-friendly areas. Further expansion into Shia populated regions will likely encounter stiffer resistance. The Iraqi army, however, is equipped with American and Russian equipment such as tanks and helicopters, a few of which have been seized by ISIS. One reason ISIS is gaining momentum is that they have more fighting experience. In the Syrian war, ISIS has transformed itself into a capable fighting force by acquiring weapons, money, and experience. Additionally, a flood of capable ex-Saddam era military officers, bringing formal military expertise and discipline, have joined ISIS’ ranks. In short, ISIS is unlike any terrorist organization previously encountered. Its fighters are ruthless. Its tactics are effective. And until recently, its advances have been unchecked.
Now, the coalition against ISIS on the battlefield and in cyberspace is becoming rigid. ISIS’ advances towards Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, have triggered the U.S. airstrikes against the organization. There have been more than 150 airstrikes against ISIS so far. The Peshmerga, whose name means “those who face death” in Kurdish, are Kurdish guerrilla fighters who have been fighting against ISIS. Numbering at around 190,000, the Peshmerga work in tandem with American forces by selecting ground targets for American warplanes. The Kurds have even requested more sophisticated military equipment such as mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, or MRAPS. Just last week, France, which notably denounced previous involvements in Iraq, announced that it would begin conducting airstrikes against ISIS. In cyberspace, the “Burn ISIS Flag challenge” has gone viral. Finally, in countries such as Russia, prominent Muslim scholars have condemned ISIS and discouraged others from joining the terrorist movement.