The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Islamic State ‘now controls resources and territory unmatched in history of extremist organizations’

A fighter of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) stands guard at checkpoint near the city of Baiji, north of Baghdad, on June 19, 2014. (REUTERS/Stringer)

It’s a pattern of territorial expansion that has now become familiar. After the Islamic State captured Sinjar on Sunday, came the executions. Then arrived the orders to convert or die, the flash of the movement’s black flag, the fleeing of thousands — and, finally, the jubilant and chilling images on social media.

One showed a destroyed Shiite shrine, which had long sat in the ancient city of Sinjar in northwestern Iraq. Another depicted the executions of several blindfolded men. There was an image of two masked men who had climbed a tall building, enshrouded its edifice in a black Islamic State flag, and blasted a pistol into the air. Then there was a picture showing a masked jihadist hoisting a gun at the desk of the town’s mayor — a portrait of a famed Kurdish guerrilla leader looming behind.

The armed movement, which has surged in wealth, manpower and resources in recent weeks, also just took the town of  Wana on Sunday, according to The Washingon Post‘s Loveday Morris. The Islamic State routed a once-proud Kurdish army and forced an exodus of residents the United Nations said numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Calling the situation a “humanitarian tragedy,” a top U.N. envoy to Iraq said in a statement that their expulsion was “dire.”

“People were terrified,” Ilias al-Hussani, 27, told The Post. “They are savages. We’ve seen what they’ve done to people of their own faith. Imagine what they would do to us non-Muslims.”

Equally worrisome is what the Islamic State, led by the enigmatic and mysterious Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, will do with the Mosul Dam, which it may soon seize — if it hasn’t already. There were conflicting reports on Sunday as to who controlled Iraq’s largest dam. “The terrorist gangs of the Islamic State have taken control of Mosul Dam after the withdrawal of Kurdish forces without a fight,” Reuters quoted Iraqi state television as saying, though one Kurdish official disputed that account.

Either way, that Kurdish official said, “the situation has taken a turn for the worse over the weekend.”

It’s just the latest step in the Islamic State’s regional expansion. What was recently a ragtag cadre of former al-Qaeda operatives has now morphed into a transnational, fully militarized and very rich operation said to control more than one-third of Syria’s territory. It makes al-Qaeda look like a bunch of wannabe jihadists.

It’s “worse than al-Qaeda,” Brett McGurk, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran, told lawmakers last month. It “is no longer simply a terrorist organization. It is now a full-blown army seeking to establish a self-governing state through the Tigris and Euphrates valley in what is now Syria and Iraq.”

Some accounts say it’s no longer seeking to do this — but has already done it.

In the Syrian town of Raqqah, called the Islamic State’s capital, the movement governs with an austere, barbaric but orderly hand. According to this telling New York Times piece, for which a reporter spent six days interviewing residents, crime is rare, traffic cops keep the streets moving and tax collectors are organized. Those accused of theft have also lost hands. It’s a glimpse of what may be coming to the rest of the captured territory, a nation-sized swath of terrain spilling across borders.

But it’s not just the land itself. It’s what the land holds that suggests the true extent of the Islamic State’s power. It “now controls a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organizations,” wrote defense expert Janine Davidson of the Council of Foreign Relations. She added: “Should [the Islamic State] continue this pattern of consolidation and expansion, this terrorist ‘army’ will eventually be able to exert a destabilizing influence far beyond the immediate area.”

The group has a keen eye for resources and cash, which some suspect is the the fulcrum of its continued growth. In addition to stealing and selling ancient relics worth tens of millions and looting hundreds of millions from banks, it has also recently captured a Syrian gas field east of Homs along with other oilfields, killing 23, Reuters reported.

Experts estimate the group is pocketing as much as $3 million per day in oil revenue by selling off resources on black markets in the greater Levant.

“They are trying to establish a state, and these types of revenue are important for the state’s formation because it makes up a significant chunk of revenue,” Theodore Karasik, research director of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, explained to Syria Deeply. “Seizing these types of fields are part of an ongoing plan to develop their own economic system.”

It’s unclear how the potential seizure of the Mosul Dam will factor into those plans. The largest dam in Iraq, it’s also one of the most vulnerable. Generating millions of kilowatts annually, the potential economic impact of owning such asset could be huge — but it could also be deadly. Observers have long feared what a burst in the dam may mean. It “could lead to tremendous loss of lives and assets,” according to a 2009 report by Mosul University experts. “When a dam is breached, catastrophic flash flooding occurs.”

Another report authored by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction concurred with that assessment, saying a dam breach could result in a 65-foot wave washing across northern Iraq. “The worst-case scenario would be a significant loss of life and property,” the report stated.

Worse, the militants have a record of using water as a means of terrorism. It could open the flood gates and deluge major Iraqi cities or withhold water from farms. Earlier this year, after it captured the Fallujah Dam, it closed eight of the dam’s 10 gates, wreaking havoc on local communities. “Using water as a weapon in a fight to make people thirsty is a heinous crime,” one Water Ministry adviser told Reuters. “Closing the dam and messing with the Euphrates water will have dire consequences.”