In June 2014, a group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant challenged the Iraqi government. Led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group (also known as ISIS) has taken control over large areas of the country in the west and the north, including several strategic towns on the border of Syria.
One of the unique factors of ISIS is that its ranks are filled with a large number of foreign jihadists. In fact, ISIS claims that it has fighters from the US, the UK, France, Germany and most of the Arab world. While the exact size of ISIS is unknown, it is large enough to have established itself as a real contender in the current struggle for control over the Iraqi government.ISIS was officially formed in April 2013, growing out of the al-Qaeda group in Iraq. It solidified its presence through military conquests in Syria before crossing over into Iraq.
ISIS works to capitalize on the existing tension between the Shia-led government and the Sunni minority. It is believed that their goal is to create an Islamic emirate that contains both Iraq and Syria.
While ISIS has been a force in Syria since 2013, and has been making inroads into Iraq since the beginning of 2014, it wasn’t until their conquest of Mosul in June 2014 that the larger world began to take notice. ISIS’s control of Iraq’s second largest city gave them great access to other key cities around Iraq as well as providing them with strong financial support. It is estimated that before the capture of Mosul, ISIS had around $900 million in cash and assets (mostly through donations from wealthy individuals). After the conquest, including taking control of the Mosul branch of the Central Bank of Iraq, it is estimated that they have around $2 billion in cash and assets.
For the most part, ISIS works independently of other rebel or jihadist groups. They are continually on the move, and over the last month, have managed to take control over large areas of Iraq. Their rising growth and strength has led to many conversations about the role of the US and the Western world in the continued shaping and support of the current government.