Assessing the Threat of the Islamic State in Iraq
Appeared in European Eye on Radicalization - 05/05/2022
The Islamic State (IS) in Iraq continues to operate in much of the central and northern areas of the country, conducting numerous operations of different types. There were 1,079 attacks conducted in 2021 and over 200 from January to April 2022. The Wilayah Iraq can count on about twenty-six active and operational cells for a total of about 4,000 to 5,000 thousand fighters and about 4,000 militants belonging to dormant cells, facilitators, and supporters.
Operations and Objectives
Taking advantage of the knowledge of the territory, remote areas, desert space, mountains, mobile groups, facilitators, numerous cells, and supporters, IS in Iraq is able to operate and conduct different types of attacks in numerous areas, such as Anbar, North Baghdad, Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, Ninewa, Diyala, Tigris/Dayla, Babil Jazeera, Badiya Furat, Falluja, and a large area in the south of the country called South Sector.
IS in Iraq conducts three types of operations:
“War of attrition”: this type of strategy involves operations that include the installation of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the use of suicide car bombs or SVBIEDs, ambushes, sniper assassinations on social and political leaders, kidnappings, attacks on pro-government Sunni tribal forces and Shia paramilitary forces, local officials, and tribal leaders considered apostates because they collaborate with the Baghdad government, civilians accused of being spies, military operations in rural areas and villages and on the outskirts of cities (including the Baghdad belt and the outskirts of Tikrit, Samarra, Mosul and Kirkuk) to approach and target the country’s main cities, checkpoints and small barracks;
“Economic warfare”: This type of strategy includes attacks on houses and farms, destruction of crops, attacks on public and private infrastructure, such as petrol stations, oil wells, oil and gas pipelines, wells, water supply facilities, electricity towers and telecommunication towers. Over 400 attacks were conducted in Iraq in 2021, 80% of IS’s global economic warfare operations
Preventing the normalization, stabilization and reconstruction of areas previously under IS territorial control (sectarian violence is the central objective).
In the different areas in which it operates, IS has reconnected with residents and tribes to reconstitute methods of self-financing, engaging in illegal economic activities, with new emerging actors involved in smuggling goods and illicit trade in cigarettes, medicines, weapons, oil, narcotics, relics, scrap metal, copper, cement, food, and electronics. The revenue that IS generates provides the group with funds to carry out its terrorist attacks and obtain weapons, food, medicine, vehicles, and everything else needed to survive and continue its insurgent activities, as well as for recruitment.
Islamic State is also seeking to increase its influence in Iraqi Sunni religious civil society to create a religious incubator in tune with IS beliefs. Its networks aim to improve relations with religious leaders and imams in rural western Iraq, supporting the efforts of local mosques to resolve conflicts between key tribes and IS families.
The area most at risk, to date, is the country’s northern and eastern sub-provinces which close into a triangle near the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, which has become an epicenter of terrorist operations and money-raising and could see the return of sectarian clashes. This triangle is home to nearly 1,200 active militants, who operate largely as agile cells, striking civilian targets, setting up fake checkpoints, using ambush-style tactics and moving on isolated military outposts, causing significant casualties in the process.
Islamic State propaganda is still very strong and involves Wilayah Iraq to a high degree. Monitoring of the different platforms and sites takes place daily as official, semi-official, and supporter media have a high capacity for publication and dissemination. In addition to websites, propaganda is spread on numerous social media platforms and messaging apps. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were once widely used social media platforms to disseminate propaganda, but their use has been significantly reduced in the past two years. Now the terrorists are increasingly using Telegram, Element, Rocket Chat, Hoop Messenger, BIP, and Tam Tam to publish their claims, magazines, audio messages, videos, photographs, and recruitment material.
The media arm of IS continues to draw on a wide range of technological resources, with a significant increase in the quantity and quality of media products (particularly those of the Furqan Foundation, Amaq News, and the weekly Al-Naba newsletter). Its main target audience seems to be the displaced population in Iraq, but its message still has a universal appeal consistent with its goals and ideology, reflecting its transformation from a declared state to a clandestine terrorist group. In recent months, IS has released numerous video clips in its so-called Wilayat Iraq, focusing on operational divisions in Kirkuk, Diyala, and Salah al-Din.
The messages disseminated aim to attack and intimidate PMFs, local tribal forces, state security forces and Kurdish Peshmerga stationed in rural areas and to intimidate civilians accused of being “spies” and collaborating with Iraqi forces against IS. Videos and photos released show raids and assassinations against Sunni tribes accused of collaborating in the defeat and expulsion of IS from those areas, attacks against Iraqi security forces and attacks against the country’s economic infrastructure.
In late June 2021, Al-Furqan Media Foundation, IS’s most prominent and prestigious media production house, which is primarily responsible for releasing the central leadership’s messages and videos, released an audio statement by the then-official spokesman, Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, entitled “You Will Be At The Top If You Are Believers”(Q. 3:139), which ran to about thirty-eight minutes, consisting mostly of encouragement and support to the various “provinces”, celebration of “victories”, and issuing directions and commands from the then-Caliph Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi.
In part of the audio message, Abu Hamza addressed IS fighters in Iraq and praised their “good operations”, referring to the attacks in Iraq n and those of the “economic war”, as well as attacks against government soldiers and Shias. Finally, he addressed the Iraqi government, stating that: “The control of IS over the territories in Iraq is only a matter of time”. Abu Hamza then addressed the Iraqi Sunni tribal militias loyal to the Baghdad government.
Between 11 and 17 March 2022, Wilayah Iraq propaganda focused on disseminating more than 80 photos and a seven-minutes-long video of the loyalty oaths of all Iraqi cells to the new leader, Abu Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi.
Specific Countermeasures Needed
It has been evident for some time that the Islamic State has not been defeated and remains a threat to the security and stability of Iraq, and the entire region, in which it primarily operates and where its entire central leadership is based. An end to the threat posed by IS in the country is unlikely (if not impossible) in the short to medium term — whatever military and political strategy is decided.
An attempt to combat the jihadist threat in the long term, from the point of view of recruitment and operational and financial support for the organization, can be achieved with a political solution that:
reintegrates Sunni Arabs into the political process;
finds a way to defuse religious sectarianism;
guarantees equal treatment for regional and tribal mobilization forces;
achieves a fair distribution of power and wealth according to the population proportions of Sunni Arabs;
focuses on the reconstruction of the cities destroyed by the war against IS;
allows the return of migrants and forcibly displaced persons to the governorates of western and northwestern Iraq;
revokes or significantly reduces powers granted to the Iranian-supported paramilitary Hashd al-Shabi militias, integrating them into the Iraqi security forces where possible and disbanding them otherwise;
helps to socially reintegrate families of IS members who are still displaced or in prison camps;
boosts security patrols by the Iraqi army and security forces in the border and desert areas, particularly along the Iraq-Syria border.
In the absence of an integrated package of political, economic, and security solutions, the areas described above could, in the short to medium term, see increased IS recruitment and activities. The attacks and operations carried out by IS in 2021 show how the group can easily exploit mistakes and gaps in even the strictest security measures in Baghdad.
In the medium term, attempts could be made to counter IS by setting up checkpoints in all the mentioned areas, conducting intensive surveillance on all entry points into Baghdad and other provinces, and increasing raids to destroy sleeper cells. The protection of villages and towns in the border and desert areas should include twenty-four-hour professional patrols every five to ten kilometers, new fortified checkpoints and watch towers, rapid response security stations, video surveillance with cameras and drones and consolidated communication networks, strengthening coordination between border posts, creating a special command exclusively responsible for the border with Syria, improving trust between security forces and residents of border towns and villages, and combating corruption among law enforcement agencies.
Finally, the stability gained in Iraq in the “post-IS” period has been systematically undermined by the ubiquitous and endemic corruption of the ruling political elites, a problem present since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 and reinvigorated since 2018. Ministries and state institutions have become fiefdoms of parties and families, which have tarnished the legitimacy of the post-Saddam political order and infuriated and radicalized a desperate and frustrated population, fostering sectarianism, infighting, violence, protests, and the expansion of jihadist terrorism. IS in Iraq has the capacity to conduct a prolonged insurgency and the appeal of IS ideology could last for a long time without the right countermeasures.