Daesh in Iraq: A New Rise in “Soft” Areas

EPC | 28 Jun 2021

The terrorist organisation Daesh (Islamic State, ISIS) has resumed its field presence through activities in the regions of western and northern Iraq since the beginning of 2021, exploiting cases of socio-political conflict in villages and cities disputed on sectarian and national grounds, which prolongs the security tension in those areas despite the passage of four years since being freed from the organisation.

This paper sheds light on the activity of the extremist organisation and the reasons for its recent recovery.

The activity of Daesh in Kirkuk

Military operations have gained momentum in Kirkuk Governorate (250 km north of the capital Baghdad), as it is the tensest governorate in terms of its political and security aspects. The political rivalry in the nationally contested city (between the Kurds on the one hand, and the Arabs and Turkmen on the other) is always reflected in its unstable security situation.

Kirkuk is one of the last cities whose liberation from the control of Daesh was announced by the Iraqi government during the liberation operations that ended in December 2017, due to the city's demographic complexities, and the diversity of its political references that negatively affect the different sectarian and national social awareness.

Four years after the defeat of Daesh in Iraq, the security situation in Kirkuk governorate deteriorated again as a result of the geopolitical contradiction between the Baghdad and Erbil governments (a contradiction that is attributable to the fact that the federal forces have regained their full control over the governorate, as part of the law enforcement plan in October 2017, which came as a reaction to the Kurdish authorities’ holding of a referendum on Kurdistan’s independence from the country). Despite the positive interaction between Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and his allies in the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG), this political positivity was not reflected in the effectiveness of the joint security coordination between the federal forces and the Peshmerga forces in the areas under joint security administration in Kirkuk, including:

  • The city of Kirkuk, in the centre of the governorate.
  • The Maktab Khaled crossing and area, south of the governorate.
  • The Altun Kupri sub-district, northwest of the governorate, nearly 50 km from Erbil (the capital of the Kurdistan region).
  • The Al-Zab sub-district, which comprises 28 villages and belongs to the Hawija District, the stronghold of the Sunni majority and Daesh cells southwest of Kirkuk.

From the depth of the areas controlled by the federal forces in the south and west of Kirkuk, the terrorist organisation's operations against the joint areas above have been launched. The federal forces suffer from a weakness in their intelligence and administrative coordination among their various types consisting of the ministries of interior and defence. Therefore, Daesh has manoeuvrability in the areas where its sleeper cells are concentrated, located specifically in the Hawija District, the Riyadh sub-district and the Rashad sub-district, especially that the majority of the population of those areas are Sunni Arabs who are nationally against the Kurdish presence in the governorate, and from the sectarian perspective against the federal administration that is Shiite in character.

The success of the Daesh operations during the past months in Kirkuk governorate is attributed to the existing conflict within the joint security administration in the governorate and the organisation’s ability to utilise it by carrying out several operations targeting government headquarters (such as the bombing of the National Security Office at the end of April 2021) and oil wells (such as the bombing of two oil wells in Bay Hassan field on 17 April 2021), as well as planting explosive devices that targeted the military convoys of the joint operations room.

The federal forces carried out several preemptive operations in search of sleeper cells in Kirkuk, but those operations did not achieve significant results, and were limited to the arrest of several members of the organisation, together with the seizure of hideouts and weapons belonging to it in the rugged valleys of Kirkuk.

Soft areas in Salah al-Din

The geographical overlap between the governorates of Kirkuk and Salah al-Din allows terrorist groups to move from one town to another, especially in light of the weak security performance of the forces stationed in the overlapping areas between the two governorates, even as Daesh seeks to expand its influence and incubators and establish its presence again in the soft areas, including:

  • Tuz Khurmatu District: a city with four sub-districts: Amerli, Bastamli, Sulaiman Bek and Qadir Karam. The district is inhabited by a majority of Shiite Turkmen and a minority shared by Sunni Arabs and Kurds.
  • Al-Tharthar Island: a vast desert area located northwest of Salah al-Din, bordering Anbar Governorate to the north, and separating it from Nineveh Governorate to the west. This triangle overlooking the three governorates is considered one of the most prominent strategic strongholds of Daesh, and is difficult to control from the security perspective because of its complex geography. This allowed terrorist groups to build dens and tunnels therein. Tharthar Island is also a semi-permanent site for the organisation's operations and the meeting of its leaders to distribute tasks within the so-called "wilayat" (provinces) administration in the six Sunni governorates.

The Tuz Khurmatu district is subjected to continuous terrorist attacks due to the multiple routes that could be used by the organisation to reach it from Kirkuk Governorate and Tharthar Island. The security forces often fail to eliminate the organisation’s strongholds on that island due to their lack of effective security techniques around the clock, while Daesh has drones, two of which were shot down by the Salah al-Din Operations Command during a raid in late May 2021.

In Salah al-Din Governorate, the organisation adopts the same plan that it applies in Kirkuk Governorate, in terms of targeting government headquarters and economic facilities through security detachments and surprise ambushes, as well as targeting remote villages in order to sustain its armed movement.

Daesh operatives usually fail to penetrate the areas held by the Turkmen Shiite factions affiliated with the Popular Mobilisation Committee (PMC) because these factions follow the strategy of tightening security over their areas and are always from one population spectrum, a security advantage that protects them from the formation of sleeper cells and being penetrated through those cells.

It is worth remembering that the PMC factions carry out permanent combing operations in the areas under their control, and their casualties are often in the areas jointly administered with other security services, as happened in the Al-Aith area in the Al-Daur District, east of Salah al-Din, which was subjected to a sudden Daesh attack that resulted in the killing of 11 PMC members, including a prominent leader (commander of the 22nd PMC Brigade), in late December 2020.

Rugged valleys obstacle

The valleys, mountains and hills extending from Diyala Governorate to Salah al-Din and Kirkuk and up to Nineveh Governorate are considered to be the main bases of Daesh. In those mountains, hills and desert areas, the organisation intensifies the creation of pockets that enable it to directly overlook the three governorates, and it reinforces its presence in those rugged places due to the difficulty of the security pursuit of the organisation by the Iraqi forces.

On the other hand, Iraq witnesses a noticeable influx of terrorists through the border infiltration areas with the governorates of Nineveh and Anbar, even as the organisation’s operatives infiltrate the urban areas of western and northern cities from the al-Shamiyah desert in the Al-Qaim District of Anbar Governorate. Furthermore, Nineveh Governorate witnesses continuous infiltration through a Syrian corridor bordering the governorate from the western side. On 31 May 2021, an Iraqi intelligence force managed to arrest 6 Syrian infiltrators into Iraqi territory after monitoring them with thermal cameras in Mosul’s Rabia sub-district.

To hunt down members of the organisation in those valleys, the intelligence and military frameworks of the international coalition are used, and the last Iraqi-US coordination was in mid-May 2021, when the international coalition planes carried out nine air strikes that hit five Daesh hideouts in the Hamrin mountain range.

Diyala: the most prominent hot spot

The security forces face difficulty in clearing Diyala Governorate (100 km northeast of Baghdad) of terrorist incubators and dealing with the infiltration caused by Daesh in this Sunni-dominated governorate (the percentage of Sunni Arabs is estimated at 70 percent, while the rest is divided between Shiites and Kurds).

In recent months, the governorate has witnessed the growth of Daesh operations in parallel with the organisation's operations in the neighbouring governorates of Salah al-Din and Kirkuk. Among the most prominent areas witnessing terrorist attacks in Diyala are the following:

  • Baquba District, the centre of the governorate, which is constantly witnessing suicide attacks.
  • Al-Muqdadiya District, northeast of the governorate.
  • Khanaqin District, northeast of the governorate. The district is inhabited by Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, and is exposed to sudden armed attacks by Daesh which are responded to by the Shiite factions.
  • Al-Khalis District, located in the north of the governorate. Travelers are always targeted by Daesh on public roads.

It has been proved that areas affected by armed violence or terrorist attacks are mostly attacked from the north and northeastern sides of the governorate, due to their diverse sectarian and national demographics and the multiplicity of political loyalties therein, which have produced both anti-state and pro-state armed groups. Besides, the proximity of Diyala Governorate to Kirkuk benefits Daesh, as the organisation targets the Fatha area linking the two governorates in order to cut off supplies to the security forces holding its borders.

Among the most prominent military formations responsible for the security of the Diyala Governorate are the following:

  • Iraqi army and federal police units.
  • PMC forces that are organisationally and politically linked to the Badr Organisation, led by Hadi al-Amiri, who is close to Iran.
  • The Peshmerga forces, which are responsible for the security of the Kurdish areas in Khanaqin and Jalawla.

The Diyala Governorate suffers from the same problem suffered by Kirkuk in managing its security file in terms of conflicting orders between the Kurdish forces and the federal forces. However, in Diyala, the conflicting orders are between the PMC factions and the federal forces. This is due to the multiplicity of references of the security decision, given that the PMC only obeys the orders of its chief of staff Abdul Aziz al-Muhammadawi, known as Abu Fadak. This inconsistency eventually leads to a state of incompatibility between the various types of joint forces in Diyala, and positively affects Daesh, which seeks to manipulate the balance of security and religious sectarian forces in the governorate.

The organisation relies on the strategy of direct armed attacks by its operatives on the targets concerned in Diyala. This strategy appears clearer than the strategy of the "security detachments" adopted in Kirkuk Governorate, which reveals the strength and entrenchment of the organisation in this governorate.

For Daesh, Diyala Governorate is characterised by being a large governorate that allows the organisation manoeuvrability  and ease of movement due to its many orchards, as well as caves, valleys and mountains extending to Kirkuk Governorate.

Conclusions and expectations

The security tension in the areas of Salah al-Din, Kirkuk, Diyala and Nineveh is expected to continue with the escalation of the Daesh activity in those areas and the weakening of government efforts to besiege the extremist organisation due to the decline in support by the international coalition forces for the Iraqi forces, the dispersion of security efforts resulting from the sharing of areas between the political actors, the difficulty of arranging military plans and repositioning the PMC forces away from the areas of sectarian contact as in Diyala Governorate, and the weak effectiveness of the Sunni tribal Mobilisation factions in terms of their association with the PMC and the failure to solve their administrative and financial problems.

In order to restore stability in the liberated areas and eliminate Daesh, the following must be done:

1. Neutralising the nationally and politically discordant forces in the areas of tense security through understandings between the political decision authorities in Erbil and Baghdad, so that the administration of the purely Shiite areas would be entrusted to the PMC, leaving the common areas to the federal forces, while actual coordination would take place between the army and the Peshmerga in the disputed areas, and coordination would take place with the Sunni mobilisation forces in their areas that host the active and sleeper cells of Daesh.

2. Establishing a true national reconciliation in the cities of sectarian and tribal overlap, and issuing an amnesty for those deceived by terrorist organisations. These two steps would greatly contribute to restricting the activity of Daesh.

3. Reconsidering the file of the reconstruction of Mosul, and proceeding to activate it in order to restore the city's vitality, eliminate unemployment therein, and prevent its people from falling into the trap of Daesh, which is regaining its activity in the liberated city through the money lever.

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