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Opinion

How Did ISIS Become So Powerful So Quickly?

The speed with which the Islamic militant group ISIS has rapidly gained power across Syria and Iraq has surprised many Mideast pundits. Journalist and political commentator Phyllis Bennis, author of "Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer" explains how the group gained so much support and appeal across the region.

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"We're talking about a situation now where ISIS controls somewhere between five and six million people, it's governing a big piece of territory."

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TRANSCRIPT This transcript was generated by AudioBurst technologies

For a lot of people, you look at this, what appeared to be a relatively small, very extremist terrorist organization carrying out terrible acts of brutality, how is it that they're suddenly able to just move in to say Iraq and take over huge swaths of territory, occupy it and control the entire city of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, it's a huge city. We're talking about a situation now where ISIS controls somewhere between five and six million people, it's governing a big piece of territory and that was kind of hard to sort out so I was trying to look at how is it that they manage to have such power, they don't have magical power because they're so, so strong, such strong believers in Islam or anything else, they have such power because they don't fight alone. And what I found in this research is that there were really sort of, particularly in Iraq, three arenas where they were getting massive support that made it possible for them to take over territory and govern cities and huge numbers of people. One was, where do they get their military strategy and their military training, you know they're getting people who maybe they had some training as, quote, terrorists, they knew how to rig bombs or something, they didn't really know how to occupy territory and fight a conventional war, which is partly what they did. Well, they got that training and they got that strategy from a bunch of Iranian generals, mainly Sunni who had been, as you said, who had lost their jobs, who had been kicked out. When the US first invaded and occupied Iraq the first thing it did is dismantle the military. - Just to interrupt for a second, I think you said Iranian generals and I think you meant Iraqi generals. - I'm sorry you're exactly right, Iraqi generals who had been powerful during the years of Saddam Hussein's rule, they had a lot of money to support their families, they had a lot of influence, they had a lot of credibility and suddenly they're thrown out of their positions and they've got nothing right? They've got no job, they have no way to support their family, nothing. So in that context you have a scenario where they have been very angry and they're looking for somebody that they can ally with to fight back against this new sectarian government that has suppressed them and that is carrying out horrific attacks against the Sunni community, you know mass arrests of young Sunni men, torture in prison, extra judicial killings of large numbers of Sunni activists, the bombing of a non-violent Sunni protest camp, it's been really terrible. So they ally themselves with ISIS, not because of the violence of ISIS and the extremism, these guys are mostly pretty secular, let's be clear, they drink, they smoke, but they were willing to ally themselves with these guys because they saw that as a way to go against the government. Then there were the Sunni militias, the tribal leaders who have militias at their control, and they joined with ISIS, again not because they support the extremism, but despite that because the sectarianism of the government was so terrible that it just seemed like the lesser evil. And then third, a large number, certainly not all or even a majority necessarily, but a large number of ordinary Sunnis threw in their lot with ISIS because they saw it as the only option for protecting their rights, protecting Sunni rights against the depredations of the government. So this whole question of how are they winning? How are they keeping territory in the face of these global and regional attacks, has to do with who they fight with.