The threat from Daish, the Arabic acronym for the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has gone from a side issue to a central imperative, judging by discussions with Kurdish leaders on my four fact-finding trips to the Kurdistan region in the last year.
Last November, I was told how Daish operatives were assiduously measuring building sites in Mosul in an extortion racket. In February, I learned of their external funding and their continuing growth. In June, they captured Mosul with a small force that immediately acquired thousands of adherents, and established a 650-mile border with the Iraqi Kurds.
The major shock, though, was how quickly the Iraqi Army had ‘disappeared in a puff’, as the governor of Kirkuk put it to me in his office in the city. Kurdish leaders knew that Daish would turn its guns on them, but were taken by surprise in early August.
Daish forces outgunned the Kurdish Peshmerga, who had to retreat in some places. Daish came within artillery range of the capital, Erbil, and sparked panic through deliberate and inadvertent confusion on social media. It is not surprising that roughly one-third the population of Erbil fled. Some Syrian refugees in the region even returned to Syria.
The threat to Erbil was so serious that the Americans finally undertook airstrikes that stemmed Daish. The threat has now abated but no one is complacent. A senior Kurdish figure explained to me the seriousness of the military and political strategy of Daish. They used game theory to provoke war, and turned themselves from a local into a global force with volunteers from 81 countries. Their branding of beheadings and brutality made them instantly recognisable above their would-be jihadi competitors.
Their tactics are novel and devastating, using explosive-laden vehicles to soften defences and then a charge of fighters.