Militant Group In Iraq Proves It's Learned From Al Qaida's Mistakes

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This week ISIS changed its name to the Islamic State and says its territory is now a caliphate. The move is just one of the things that distinguishes the group from its predecessor, al Qaida in Iraq.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene. Good morning. The terrorist group now controlling parts of Syria and Iraq changed its name over the weekend. Now it wants to be called simply the Islamic State. The aim is to be seen as the custodian of some sort of Islamic homeland. This is one thing that makes this group different from its predecessor, al-Qaida in Iraq. Beyond that, analysts and officials say the way the group is managing its battles shows it learned from mistakes of the past. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: One of the most notorious men during the Iraq war was the leader of al-Qaida's arm in Iraq, his name - Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

BRUCE HOFFMAN: Zarqawi saw himself as a terrorist impresario. I mean, he was a showboater.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Bruce Hoffman is the head of the security studies department at Georgetown University.

HOFFMAN: He would have all sorts of video clips of himself firing automatic weapons and even grabbing the barrels when they were hot. His quest and his thirst for publicity was such that he would do stupid things.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Zarqawi was also known for his brutality, for indiscriminate killing. His group, al-Qaida in Iraq, murdered thousands of civilians. Zarqawi sent suicide bombers into mosques and marketplaces. And while those killed were mostly Shia, many innocent Sunnis died too, which is why Sunnis in Iraq eventually turned on him. His successor in this reconstituted group now called the Islamic State, is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. And Hoffman says that while al-Baghdadi is also brutal, he's been more careful about his targets.

HOFFMAN: His killing is basically of combatants. He's, you know, very much focusing his violence in a way that he believes will continue to reap his movement benefits and support, not alienate, anyone.

TEMPLE-RASTON: When al-Baghdadi's group took control of the Iraqi city of Mosul last month, it imposed order and provided services. It published a 16-point communique outlining strict rules of behavior. You tried secular forms of government, the communique said, now it's our turn. It said women had to dress decently and only go outside if needed. Muslims had to go to prayer on time. And thieves - they should expect to have their hands cut off. But at the same time, the group offered subsidized cooking oil and put a less strict Muslim in charge of the city. Juan Zarate is a former White House and treasury official who's now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says that al-Baghdadi's extreme but comparatively measured rhetoric is an indication that the group has learned from the past.


JUAN ZARATE: Those of us who've been watching the landscape in Syria have been so worried because it's not just the fact that these are terrorist groups who can train operatives and can launch attacks, but these are groups that are learning. They're learning how to bake bread and mend wounds while also, you know, launching militant attacks.

TEMPLE-RASTON: There's something else that distinguishes al-Baghdadi's group. It knows how to run a military operation. Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations says the military brains at the Islamic State are former members of Iraq's military intelligence services.


STEVEN COOK: These were not officers who necessarily stood 10 feet tall, but certainly had military training. And that's why we see ISIS acting more like a military, rather than a terrorist organization.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Cook says some Iraqis believe that al-Baghdadi is working alongside a man named Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the senior military adviser and former vice president to Saddam Hussein. He was the king of clubs in America's famous deck of cards.


COOK: In a region of some very bad people, he's up there among the worst.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The question is whether the lessons al-Baghdadi has learned will continue to help his group now that he's declared himself the leader of an Islamic state. So far, the announcement has been just that - an announcement. If the group moves to change things more on the ground, setting up a caliphate by demanding residents conform more strictly to Islamic law, he could encounter the opposition that, so far, he's been working to avoid. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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