Following the rapid string of successes that the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham enjoyed in June and into July, ISIS has come to be perceived as an Islamist juggernaut, far more powerful and militarily sophisticated than any jihadist force seen yet in the 13 years that the US and its allies have been engaged with Salafist militants.

As with most popular perceptions, there is some truth to this, but it has far more to do with ISIS’ operational flexibility, strategic use of terror and maneuver warfare, and information operations (more simply called propaganda). Wrapped around the truth is a great deal of myth, emotional reaction to their propaganda, and wishful thinking.

When Mosul fell, it seemed like a sweeping victory. Only within a couple of days, it was becoming evident that the city hadn’t so much been “taken” as it had been “turned over.” Fifty-two thousand Iraqi Army troops simply faded away in the face of an estimated one thousand, five hundred ISIS fighters. No matter how fierce the smaller force might be, those numbers don’t add up, especially when the smaller force is attacking; a smaller defending force has an advantage, but a smaller attacking force can generally expect to be wiped out if the defenders make a fight of it. So, a major Sunni town in northern Iraq simply goes over without firing a shot. The shock of the loss counted for a lot, and ISIS proceeded to capitalize on it by filming the mass executions of prisoners, and driving on Tikrit, Samarrah, and Kirkuk.

The legend grew. Mosul Dam fell. The Peshmerga were getting slaughtered. ISIS was using American military hardware captured from the Iraqi Army and advancing on Erbil. More mass killings went up on the Internet. Yezidi refugees were stranded on Sinjar Mountain, slowly dying of hunger and thirst. Finally, US airstrikes began, and the ISIS offensive in the north dried up.