IT IS, according to United States defence secretary Chuck Hagel, “beyond anything we’ve seen” – a massively rich, impressively armed and sophisticated fighting force cutting a swathe across the Middle East.
Islamic State (IS) has created a new terrorist nightmare which Hagel has described as a “completely unprecedented” threat. The group is attempting to destabilise both Iraq and Syria to create a new caliphate.
So far, America has sought to combat the al-Qaeda offshoot by providing military support to the Iraqi government, and limited air strikes.
President Barack Obama had hoped efforts to create a new, inclusive government in Baghdad – rather than the Shiite-dominated one led by outgoing prime minister Nouri al-Maliki – could persuade the Sunni minority to leave the ranks of the insurgency. He has also sought to convince other countries in both the Middle East and Europe of the need to create a broad coalition to fight against IS.
But the beheading last week of the American journalist James Foley is seen as a turning point that could precipitate more decisive action.
US deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the murder was “an attack on our country” and IS was becoming more dangerous.
Meanwhile, Hagel said: “They’re beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded. This is beyond anything that we’ve seen.”
IS forces have boasted of seizing advanced American-made weapons including shoulder-fired ground-to air-missiles and anti-tank rockets.
Arms were handed to government forces when the coalition left in December 2011, but abandoned when the army fled the north as IS fighters streamed in from Syria.
They also have captured dozens of heavily armoured Russian-made T-55 and T-72 tanks, along with hundreds of America’s armoured but fast Humvee jeeps. Field artillery and several helicopters have also been seized.
Signs of the group’s increasing brutality include a man being stoned to death for adultery in Mosul on Thursday, in the first instance of the punishment the group has carried out in Iraq.
IS, formerly named Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis)or Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (Isil), grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq last year.
Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said IS is “not merely a terrorist group, but a hybrid revolutionary movement with nation-building aspirations”. It is estimated to have up to 17,000 fighters at its command.
Some 2,000 have joined from Europe, including the UK, France and Germany. Other estimates put the figure higher than that.
Thomas Hegghammer, director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment in Oslo, has described it as “the largest European Muslim foreign fighter contingent to any conflict in modern history”.
The organisation is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi in his 40s who joined rebels after the US invasion 11 years ago, and who previously led al-Qaeda in the country.
Now controlling 35,000 square miles of Syria and Iraq, the first major IS territorial gains included the Syrian provincial capital city of Raqqa last year.
Since then, it has taken control of a ribbon of land hundreds of miles long across the centre of the country, from the Turkish to the Iraqi borders. Then in January, IS captured Fallujah, west of Baghdad, a Sunni stronghold.
IS also holds areas to the north, such as Mosul, Iraq’s second city with a population of 1.7 million, which fell in June.
The group was initially funded by donations from Gulf states such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, who backed its struggle against president Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
However, IS control of oilfields in eastern Syria has boosted its coffers, including through reportedly selling oil back to the Syrian regime.
Further income is thought to come from selling historical artefacts looted from ancient sites. And reports in June also detailed robberies in which some $400 million (£240m) was stolen from banks in seized Mosul. IS also controls oilfields in northern Iraq, and is said to have taken hundreds of millions of dollars from the central bank in Mosul.
Prof Peter Neumann, of King’s College London, has estimated IS now has total wealth of around £1.2 billion.
Pressure is now mounting on Obama from both US Republicans and Democrats to step up action against IS.
Republican senator Marco Rubio said attacking its supply lines, command and control centres and economic assets inside Syria “is at the crux of the decision” for Obama.
He said the risk of “getting sucked into a new war” is outweighed by the risk of inaction. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed that IS would remain a danger until it could no longer count on having safe havens in Syria.
He said: “That [sanctuary] will have to be addressed on both sides of what is at this point a non-existent border.
“And that will come when we have a coalition in the region that takes on the task of defeating [IS] over time.”
But Dempsey said the group “will only truly be defeated when it’s rejected by the 20 million disenfranchised Sunni that happen to reside between Damascus and Baghdad”.
Robert Ford, a former US ambassador to Syria who resigned in February over Obama’s unwillingness to arm moderate Syrian rebels, said: “I don’t see how you can contain the Islamic State over the medium term if you don’t address their base of operations in Syria.”
But US vice-president Joe Biden has said advances made by the Iraqi government forces and Kurdish fighters against IS showed that “when its fighting strength is eroded, it can be routed by local forces without US boots on the ground”.