Source: The New York Times
By the time the United States withdrew from its long bloody encounter with Iraq in 2011, it thought it had declawed a once fearsome enemy: the Islamic State, which had many names and incarnations but at the time was neither fearsome nor a state.
Beaten back by the American troop surge and Sunni tribal fighters, it was considered such a diminished threat that the bounty the United States put on one of its leaders had dropped from $5 million to $100,000. The group’s new chief was just 38 years old, a nearsighted cleric, not even a fighter, with little of the muscle of his predecessor, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the godfather of Iraq’s insurgency, killed by the American military four years earlier after a relentless hunt.
“Where is the Islamic State of Iraq you are talking about?” the Yemeni wife of one leader demanded, according to Iraqi police testimony. “We’re living in the desert!”
Yet now, five years later, the Islamic State is on a very different trajectory. It has wiped clean a 100-year-old colonial border in the Middle East, controlling millions of people in Iraq and Syria. It has overcome its former partner and eventual rival, Al Qaeda, first in battle, then as the world’s pre-eminent jihadist group in reach and recruitment.
It traces its origins both to the terrorist training grounds of Osama bin Laden’s Afghanistan and to America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, and it achieved its resurgence through two single-minded means: control of territory and, by design, unspeakable cruelty.
Its emblems are the black flag and the severed head.