12 June – Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), in their southward offensive, have captured the Iraqi cities of Bayji, which has Iraq’s largest oil refinery, and Tikrit, the provincial capital of Salahaddin. It is reported the militants met with little resistance. Overnight, ISIS units travelling in a convoy of more than 60 vehicles advanced into Bayji, torching several government buildings, court houses, and police headquarters. The fighters surrounded the oil refinery and sent in a delegation to security forces that were holding out in the complex. Reportedly, the 250 security personnel agreed to withdraw from the refinery complex.
Shortly after seizing Bayji, ISIS fighters took control of Tikrit, famously the home town of former dictator Saddam Hussein. According to Samarra Al-Gharbiyah News, the government centre was overrun by ISIS fighters and provincial governor Ahmad Abdallah is reported to have been captured.
Overnight, television footage also showed ISIL fighters patrolling streets in Duluiyah, only 60 miles north of Baghdad. There currently appears to be few Iraqi forces between ISIL and Baghdad. Considering ISIL’s speed of advancement, it is possible that some militants are already in the capital.
On 11 June, an Iraqi interior ministry official announced that the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, “is outside the control of the state and at the mercy of the militants.” The announcement comes after five days of clashes between ISIL militants and government forces. A brigadier general stated that military units eventually withdrew to the western part of Mosul and began to leave the city, essentially giving control to the militants, who seized the provincial government buildings, banks and airport. The group has raised the black flag of jihad and announced they had ‘come to liberate Mosul and would fight only those who attack them.’ The group also freed as many as 2,500 militant prisoners from three prisons in the region. It is estimated that at least 500,000 residents have fled the city.
The capture of Mosul, according to some analysts, indicates that Iraq has re-entered civil war. ISIL has developed an effective organisation and has essentially fragmented the country.
The advance from Mosul to Tikrit covered nearly 250 miles over a few days. Reports consistent with the Iraqi brigadier general indicate that Iraqi security forces along ISIL’s path either fled after initial skirmishes, or abandoned their posts prior to ISIL’s arrival, leaving behind vehicles, weapons and uniforms. Several army commanders also reportedly fled to Kurdish-controlled areas. The speed and scope of the operation indicates that thousands of ISIS fighters have participated in the recent engagements.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has declared a state of high alert in Iraq and asked parliament to declare a national state of emergency. He has called on “all international organizations to support Iraq and its stance in fighting terrorism.” Maliki calls the collapse of army units a “conspiracy” by Shiite co-religionists; some analysts believe that Maliki bears the brunt of responsibility to the sectarian makeup of the military, and a lack of discipline and solid military doctrine. In a televised address, Maliki said he will form an army of “volunteers” to support the regular government forces in areas seized by ISIS.
ISIL now controls Fallujah and Mosul, which are two major cities in the Sunni region of Iraq, and effectively have control of nearly one third of the country. It has been suggested that Sunni Arab tribal leaders of Nineveh and Anbar Governorates have been cooperating with ISIL, in part because of the discriminatory treatment of Sunni Muslims by the al Malaki government. However ISIL may meet difficulty should they attempt to gain control of Shiite dominated sectors of Iraq. If ISIL attempts to capture government buildings in Baghdad, it is possible that the heaviest of fighting will ensue, with a probability of high casualties.
ISIL, once an affiliate of the al Qaeda network, has a goal of creating an Islamic emirate that unites Iraq and Syria. However in February, al Qaeda “disowned the group” after ISIL’s refusal to stop fighting with AQ affiliated al Nusrah Front in Syria.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of the Sahel-based terrorist group Khaled Abu al-Abbas Brigade (aka: Masked Brigade, aka: Signatories in Blood), has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. Belmokhtar was believed to have been killed in fighting in Mali in 2013. However in late April, intelligence sources revealed that he had moved from Mali to a base in southern Libya.
Belmokhtar’s statement, released on Islamist websites, said, “We declare our faith in the policies of our emir, Cheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri… because we are convinced of the fairness of his approach,” Mokhtar Belmokhtar said in a statement posted Wednesday on Islamist websites.
Belmokhtar was key member of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) until political infighting lead to a fallout with AQIM leader Abou Zeid. Belmokhtar split from the group and formed his own organization. In 2013, Belmokhtar was known to be working with Islamist group MUJAO to drive the Taureg separatist group, out of Gao in Mali and to expand his land base and increase the numbers in his brigade.
In the statement, Belmokhtar specifically mentions al-Zawahiri’s latest comments on in-fighting between rebels in Syria that has killed hundreds since January.
In related news, Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, has also issued a statement saying it will comply with Ayman al Zawahiri’s orders with respect to the jihadist infighting in Syria. Al Nusrah has been in combat with Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS, also known as ISIL), which has been disowned by al Qaeda’s general command.
In recently released audio messages, Zawahiri addressed Abu Muhammad al Julani, the emir of Al Nusrah, and demanded that Julani and Al Nusrah “immediately stop any fighting” as it is an act of aggression against “their jihadist brothers.” Zawahiri reiterated his call for the establishment of an independent sharia (Islamic law) court capable of settle the ongoing dispute. He also said the jihadists should stop criticizing each other in the media.
In reply to the message, Al Nusrah announced its “commitment” to comply with Zawahiri’s orders to stop attacking Isis, but added that they are prepared to respond defensively to any act of aggression. The group also says it is willing to submit to a sharia court, and will stop insulting its rivals on social media.
Al Nusrah blames ISIS for the death of Abu Khalid al Suri, Zawahiri’s chief representative in Syria until he was killed in February. Al Suri was a founding member and senior leader in Ahrar al Sham, which is allied with Al Nusrah and is a prominent part of the Islamic Front, a coalition of several rebel groups. Al Nusrah also blames ISIS for the death of Abu Muhammad al Fateh, a leader in the group who was killed along with other members of his family in Syria’s Idlib province.
The pledged to Zawahiri show a renewed unity among various branches of Al Qaeda, and a willingness to work more closely AQ main office. This may signal strengthening ties, and unity of messages and actions coming from AQ affiliates throughout the Middle East.