ISIL: Beyond Iraq and Syria?

15230927132_5fc8c7c041_nThe beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff were the two “best-known” events in the news since 2009.[1] ISIL has dominated the news in the past few months and the U.S. public and government seem to think of ISIL as a threat. But looking at a trend of how ISIL has been taking over the cities it already has, it becomes clear that there are certain places that ISIL can take over, and some places they cannot even dare to attempt to take over.

Firstly, ISIL does not just fly by the seat of their pants. They may do extremely gruesome and disgusting things that we believe any sane person could not do, but everything they do has a plan. Take their take over of Fallujah for example. How they did it was that former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki mistakenly withdrew security forces from the city on December 30th 2013 after a yearlong series of Sunni protests and insurgencies that were fed up with his sectarian rule. [2] This was a huge mistake because it was at this point where ISIL took advantage of both the fact that the city was defenseless, and that the Sunnis were mobilized. On January 3rd, ISIL’s members barged into the city and raised their flag on the cities main mosque and declared it a part of the caliphate.[3] Not only did they face barely any resistance because both the Iraqi security forces and most of the local police had left the city, but they were also able to strategically and initially gain support of the Sunnis. They gave out free food and medical aid from mosques, they engaged in pie and cantaloupe eating contests with children, and they gave cheaper-than-the-market fuel to locals.[4] After years of repression from Maliki’s pro-Shiite and sectarian government, ISIL’s idea of a Sunni Islamic state appealed to them more, especially since they tried to show themselves as a group who cares about the wellbeing of the Sunni citizens, as opposed to Maliki who many in Fallujah felt had just stranded them. Although eventually overtime many of the citizens of Fallujah would see beyond ISIL’s strategies of trying to “help” Sunnis, and secretly despise them due to their public brutalities against groups they opposed and other non-Sunni and non-Christian religious groups, the case of Fallujah shows that ISIL is not a stupid group.[5] They had a strategic plan to militarily take over the city, gain the social support of civilians, and engage in quasi-state building techniques to maintain control of the city.

A similar strategy took place in ISIL’s takeover of its first city in Syria. ISIL took advantage of the civil war and the fact that they states’ security forces were weakened and that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was less able to control all the events taking place in its territory. On July 2014, ISIL attacked three of the regime’s key division headquarters around Raqqa: the 17th Division, the 93rd Brigade garrison, and the military airfield near al-Tabqa.[6] After a series of strategic attacks, ISIL eventually defeated the regime’s forces in Raqqa and took control of the city. After its control, Assad didn’t make much of an effort to take back Raqqa. This may have been his underestimation of how ISIL would eventually take control over much of Syrian territory, but it was mostly because Assad had so many other issues and conflicts to take care of that were happening in his territory.

 14858721528_9024cb1982_nThis pattern of taking control of militarily weakened areas in Iraq and Syria became somewhat of a pattern in ISIL’s consolidation of cities. ISIL took Abu Ghraib, Nukhaib, and Tikrit easily because security forces fled when they faced ISIL.[7] ISIL essentially took control of Mosul without a fight. This is not to say that this is the only way that ISIL took over cities, but it does seem to be a dominating pattern. So what does this say about where ISIL can and cannot spread?

Firstly, it is clear that there are some countries across the Levant where ISIL cannot consolidate control over a city – no matter how much it wants to. One such place is Turkey because it is a member of NATO. ISIL member’s most likely know that NATO will crush them if they try threatening to attack Turkey and its security forces. Another is Egypt. Egypt has approximately 400,000 active military personnel and the country is absent of any conflict that weakens the military.[8] Therefore, they would crush ISIL’s approximately 30,000 members, assuming if they all attempt an invasion.[9]

Now where could ISIL potentially emerge in the near future? This past weekend, ISIL once again took advantage of a militarily weakened area and an ISIL-support group to take over Darnah in Libya. Yet, this was not something sudden and analysts had predicted this. Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute had released an article on October 10th that there was an ISIL-support group in Libya named “The Islamic Youth Shura Council” that had already claimed a part of Darnah as a part of “the caliphate”.[10] ISIL however, had made no comments on this. In fact, this mini-colony in Darnah was largely ignored by mainstream news reports. It was suddenly this past week where ISIL’s members had coordinated with the group and potentially helped them financially and physically in order to have a stronger hold on the city. Instability in Darnah in Libya had given the ISIL support group the perfect opportunity to take over the city without much resistance. In a state unlike Libya, with high monitoring, security, and minimal conflict, it is highly unlikely that the government would not be able to crush an ISIL support group who had taken over a city.

Based on this pattern, there are some other countries that become more vulnerable to an ISIL invasion than others. Jordan for example has arrested many supporters of ISIL over the past few months. In June 2014, there were several pro-ISIL demonstrations in Libya and there was a “martyr’s wedding” held for an ISIL member in the Beqa refugee camp.[11] With evidence of ISIL support in Jordan, without carefully monitoring of all the areas of instability and weak defense, ISIL may attempt a takeover. Nevertheless, the U.S. supports Jordan and is well aware of the ISIL threat there. Hopefully, this will be a strategic benefit to Jordan which will help its ability to fend off any ISIL threats.

Yet, all of this is hard to predict. In the past few days, there has been raging conflict in Libya. Conflict between the Sunni al-Qaeda group and the Shiite Houthis has been becoming more serious and due to threats from al-Qaeda, the U.S. embassy in Libya may have to evacuate its American diplomats this week.[12] However, about one week ago, the prediction may have been made that a potential ISIL emergence may have occurred in Libya because of instability and because al-Qaeda in Yemen supported them. This meant they had the means and the in-country support for a potential emergence in Yemen. However, just this week al-Qaeda in Yemen denounced its support for ISIL as it claimed its caliphate “unlegitimate”.[13] This means that ISIL’s ability to consolidate control of territory in Yemen would be much more difficult as it would now not only face resistance from the Houthis, but also from al-Qaeda.

Essentially, predictions about where ISIL will and will not emerge are changing everyday. One day, an ISIL emergence is more possible in a certain country than it is in the next. With changing attitudes from ISIL’s support groups like al-Qaeda in Yemen, and changing alliances and strategies between international and regional actors on how to tackle ISIL, the future of ISIL is still uncertain. What is certain is that for the moment, there are some places ISIL cannot emerge in, for example Turkey and Egypt. Yet, The U.S. and regional actors must take more serious measures to work together in order to prevent and to crush any more potential ISIL emergences in the Levant.


[1] Beauchamp, Zack. “American Overreaction about ISIS.” Vox. October 1, 2014. Accessed November 14, 2014.

[2] Sowell, Kirk H. “Maliki’s Anbar Blunder.” Foreign Policy. January 15, 2014. Accessed November 12, 2014.

[3] Sowell, “Maliki’s Anbar Blunder.”

[4] Lister, Charles. “Cutting off ISIS’ Cash Flow.” The Brookings Institution. October 24, 24. Accessed November 19, 2014.

[5] “ISIS’ Mass Executions of Sunni Men, Women and Children in Iraq Continues.” CBSNews. November 2, 2014. Accessed November 22, 2014.

[6] White, Jeffrey. “Military Implications of the Syrian Regime’s Defeat in Raqqa.” The Washington Institute. August 27, 2014. Accessed November 12, 2014.


[7] International Security Data. “How Much of Iraq Does ISIS Control?” Welcome to The International Security Program. Accessed November 10, 2014.

[8] 2014 Egypt Military Strength.” Egypt Military Strength. March 17, 2014. Accessed November 16, 2014.

[9] Sciutto, Jim, Jamie Crawford, Jim Sciutto, and Crawford Reported from. “ISIS Can ‘muster’ between 20,000 and 31,500 Fighters, CIA Says.” CNN. September 12, 2014. Accessed November 22, 2014.

[10] Zelin, Aaron Y. “The Islamic State’s First Colony in Libya.” The Washington Institute. October 10, 2014. Accessed November 14, 2014.

[11] Satloff, Robert, and David Schenker. “Political Instability in Jordan.” Council on Foreign Relations. May 2013. Accessed November 19, 2014.

[12] “Al Qaeda Group Threatening U.S. Embassy.” CNN. November 21, 2014. Accessed November 22, 2014.

[13] Alfred, Charlotte. “Al Qaeda In Yemen Denounces ISIS.” The Huffington Post. November 21, 2014. Accessed November 22, 2014.