One of the deadliest and most violent Islamic terrorist organizations is growing exponentially in Syria and Iraq, taking over large swaths of territory and turning the region into a de facto state controlled by extremists whose ultimate goal is a pro-emirate Middle East, U.S. officials told TheBlaze.
Officials with knowledge of the situation charged that the failure by the Obama administration and its European allies to establish a policy that addresses the danger presented by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant puts the security of the West at risk and is a destabilizing force in the region. The Sunni Islamist organization is responsible for beheadings, crucifixions and other various forms of torture.
“ISIL is at its strongest point since 2006 and is a threat to regional stability,” a U.S. counterterrorism official familiar with the organization’s workings told TheBlaze, using its common abbreviation.
Leaders with ISIL have recruited and established an army over the past two years that numbers at least 5,000, the official said. Those militant members operate in both Iraq and Syria and is strongest in northeast Syria, where the group is using Raqqa province as a base for its operations.
The organization, which was once closely linked to Al Qaeda, is so brutal in nature that even the main Al Qaeda operation led by Ayman al-Zawahri has questioned its tactics. In February, Al Qaeda’s general command disavowed links to the group and said in a statement posted on jihadist websites that ISIL “is not a branch of Al Qaeda, has no links to it, and the [Al Qaeda] group is not responsible for its acts…We affirm our disavowal from the sedition that is occurring in Syria between factions of jihadists, and from the blood that was shed by any party,” Al Jazeera reported.
As Syria enters its fourth year of civil war with more than 162,000 casualties, there is growing concern that failure to properly address the issue has given ISIL time to establish itself, including capabilities to recruit Americans and Europeans far from its home base in the Middle East. President Barack Obama announced last month that the administration will be sending more trainers and equipment to members of the Free Syrian Army that have disavowed extremist groups.
Obama’s former ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, has been highly critical of the policy. In an interview with PBS on Tuesday, Ford said Obama’s hesitancy to aid moderate rebel fighters in the beginning of the conflict has resulted in increased threats to the United States and a loss of allies, so much so that he can “no longer defend the policy.”
Ford, a veteran diplomat who served as ambassador for more than three years until he retired in April, said that had the U.S. given aid “a couple of years ago, had we ramped it up, frankly the Al Qaeda groups that have been winning adherents would have been unable to compete with the moderates who frankly we have much in common with.”
But controlling who receives the supplies in an environment where ISIL has taken power is a difficult challenge, a U.S. official with knowledge of the region told TheBlaze. Last year, TheBlaze exclusively reported on a photo showing an ISIL leader who had intercepted supplies intended for moderate fighters.
“There was an opening in the beginning but now it is a war on three fronts involving almost the whole of the Middle East,” the official said. “How do we know where this will go or who or where these weapons, equipment will end up?”
Jim Phillips, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank and an expert on Al Qaeda, told TheBlaze the Obama administration “has made a major mistake by minimizing the potential threat posed by [ISIL] and failing to take stronger action against it in Iraq and Syria.” He said the U.S. has failed to act decisively on the group, which has been able to dissolve the border between Iraq and Syria not only symbolically but also through its own political strongholds in the communities.
Phillips said the group constitutes a growing threat on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border and a potential threat to the U.S. mainland as it continues to recruit Western Islamist militants. ISIL has carried out terrorist operations outside of Iraq, including one in Jordan.
The current crisis in Syria, which started under the Obama administration, is far from over. The president’s failure to act militarily on his “red line” policy after evidence that President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons on his people left many foreign policy experts and analysts wondering how his idle threats would be perceived by extremists and enemy states.
White House national security spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden referred all questions regarding ISIL in Syria to the U.S. intelligence community.
U.S. counterterrorism officials who spoke with TheBlaze said ISIL’s leaders have publicly stated that the group’s regional strategy is to lead Sunnis against governments in Syria and Iraq.
In July 2012, ISIL leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi warned Americans that “you will soon witness how attacks will resound in the heart of your land, because our war with you has now started.”
In Iraq, the group controls Fallujah and parts of Ramadi. Their networks have grown and the organization has used the political stalemate and Sunni protests in Iraq “to improve its operating conditions in Sunni-majority parts” of the nation and its “growing strength and ability to move fighters and weapons across Iraq’s border with Syria pose a challenge to Iraq Security Forces throughout Iraq,” one counterterrorism official added.
These groups are in a position to plan attacks against Iraqi government targets in Baghdad and Shia communities in central and southern Iraq.
Another issue is ISIL’s growing reach in Europe and the United States: There are approximately 100 Americans now fighting with the terrorist faction in Syria, the counterterrorism official said. The State Department’s revelation that American Al Qaeda recruit Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, who grew up in Vero Beach, Florida, killed himself in a suicide bombing in Syria this year is just one example of ISIL’s capabilities.
In Iraq alone, the group already has approximately 2,000 to 3,000 fighters, the U.S. counterterrorism official said, and its “networks in Iraq have increased its signature car bomb and suicide attacks to levels not seen since 2007.”
The group’s “approach in establishing an Islamic state inside Syria is violent and uncompromising,” the official added.
Because of its heavy-handed battlefield tactics and implementation of its harsh interpretation of Shariah law, it has alienated the Syrian population and become so dangerous that its army of extremist fighters are “capably fighting other opposition forces and attacking regime targets throughout northern and eastern parts of Syria,” the counterterrorism official said.
Follow Sara A. Carter (@SaraCarterDC) on Twitter