Using its own version of “soft” and “hard” power, the Islamic State is crushing resistance across northern Iraq so successfully that its promise to march on Baghdad may no longer be unrealistic bravado.
While conventional states try to win hearts and minds abroad before necessarily resorting to military force, the jihadist terrorist group is also achieving its aims by psychological means — backed up by a reputation for extreme violence.
The Islamic State, which in June captured a vast stretch of territory in the north, including the largest city, Mosul, used this strategy when its fighters met armed resistance from the town of al-Alam for 13 days running.
They kidnapped 30 local families and rang up the town’s most influential citizens with a simple message about the hostages: “You know their destiny if you don’t let us take over the town.”
Within hours, tribesmen and local leaders caved in to save the families. The black flag of the Sunni terrorists, who are bent on overthrowing the Shiite-led Iraqi government, was soon flying over government buildings and police stations in al-Alam.
Weeks later, only a few masked gunmen guard checkpoints surrounding al-Alam at night, so comfortable is the Islamic State in its control through fear.
“One hundred percent of people are angry that the Islamic State is here but there is nothing we can do,” said a scared resident who spoke by telephone on condition of anonymity.
Similar accounts of victories by the Islamic State, which has also seized territory in neighboring Syria during the civil war there, are repeated across other towns and villages in Salahuddin province north of Baghdad.
Hostility to the jihadis in some of the majority Sunni areas — where from 2006 to 2008 local people fought al-Qaida in Iraq, the Islamic State’s predecessor — has not stopped them from taking and holding territory.
Breaking the will of local populations has allowed the relatively small force to surge south, focusing their fight most recently on battlefields just 45 miles from Baghdad.
The fighters have boosted their arms and equipment along the way, making the seizure of weapons and vehicles a condition of deals struck with communities they have coerced into submission.
U.S. military and Iraqi security officials estimate the Islamic State has at least 3,000 fighters in Iraq, rising towards 20,000 when new recruits since last month’s blitzkrieg are included.
Some Sunni communities still refuse to make common cause with the Islamist hardliners. But anger with Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government has encouraged some Sunni-armed groups to stick with the Islamic State since they seized Mosul on June 10, according to officials and tribal leaders.
“(The Islamic State) has become the face to this uprising or insurgency,” said Masrour Barzani, head of the Kurdish region’s National Security Council.
Other groups opposed to Baghdad have joined the Islamic State, attracted by its recent successes. “They believed in the concept of the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Barzani said.
Some allied Sunni-armed groups have taken control of communities initially beaten into submission by the Islamic State, said Sunni Sheikh Wissam Hardan, a veteran anti-Qaida fighter. “(The Islamic State) is depending on sleeper cells they have to hold the areas, and the Islamic Army, Mujahideen Army and the Naqshbandi are now waving the same flag and cooperating,” he said.
Sunni fighters with extensive experience fighting first American forces and then al- Qaida appear to be putting aside ideological differences with the Islamic State, at least for now, to pursue a common goal.
The terrorists remain far outnumbered by government forces, which have been bolstered by as many as tens of thousands of Shiite militia members plus ordinary volunteers who responded to a call to arms from Iraq’s most influential cleric.
But the presence of militias has helped the Islamic State as armed Sunni factions close ranks against the hardline Shiite groups, whom they accuse of carrying out sectarian killings.
The battered state of the Iraqi military and the growing Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide have also benefited the Islamic State as it challenges Baghdad’s control of towns such as Dhuluiya, only a couple of hours’ drive from the capital.