ISIS Strategy in Iraq

EPC | 05 Jan 2021

Iraq continues to face the challenges of Daesh (Islamic State, ISIS) inside the liberated area in the west and north of the country, even as the organisation seeks to intensify its terrorist operations in those areas in an effort to regain the lands recovered from it. Under its new leadership, Daesh seeks to prove its presence on the Iraqi front in the light of a fierce confrontation by the Iraqi authorities, with all sorts of their combat forces.

This paper sheds light on the new strategy of the Daesh organisation in Iraq. It also discusses the ways the Iraqi government would confront the extremist organisation.

Al-Qurashi’s strategy and its challenges

The new leader of Daesh organisation Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurashi (whose name is Amir Mohammed Abdul Rahman al-Mawla), who took over the leadership of the organisation after the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on 27 October 2019, seeks to revive the organisation that was shattered as a result of its lost war against the Iraqi forces in December 2017, after the organisation used to control a quarter of the area of ​​Iraq in the regions with Sunni majority. To achieve this goal, al-Qurashi’s strategy is based on the following pillars:

1. Draining the official Iraqi forces and their allied factions by following the "hit-and-run" tactic.

2. Benefiting from the sectarian tension in mixed Sunni and Shiite governorates, such as Diyala, Salah al-Din and Kirkuk, by carrying out sectarian killings or bombings in Sunni or Shiite areas that lead to the outbreak of sectarian conflicts.

3. Keeping the western and northern regions in a state of security turmoil, which would weaken the Iraqi government's position in front of local public opinion.

4. Intimidating the members of the Sunni component working in the state and with the security services, and physically liquidating them or blowing up their homes, as happened in the governorates of Kirkuk, Salah al-Din and Nineveh, where in recent months, Daesh managed to assassinate a number of village chiefs (mukhtars), tribal sheikhs, officials and officers in those areas.

To achieve that strategy, al-Qurashi did the following:

1. Restructuring the organisation in all its legal, military, security, organisational, financial and media divisions.

2. Strengthening the organisation’s decentralisation policy in order to disperse the efforts of the Iraqi forces and the factions that Daesh seeks to drain in the rugged areas in western and northern Iraq.

3. Depending on sleeper cells inside Iraq, given that al-Qurashi faces a crisis in organisational recruitment from outside Iraq, as the case used to be in the past, due to the tightening by countries of their control over the movement of operatives suspected of extremism or terrorism. Besides, a large portion of the geographical area in which Daesh seeks to move between Iraq and Syria has become under the surveillance of the international coalition on the one hand, and the allies of the Syrian regime on the other hand, making it difficult for the organisation to move smoothly as it used to in the past.

 Strong resurgence in Iraq

Since March 2020, Daesh has been trying to produce offensive activities that destabilise the relative security in the western and northern regions of Iraq, especially since those areas constituted its official influence in the days of the so-called "caliphate". The organisation acts on the ground within the following areas:

1. The desert region separating the provinces of Diyala and Salah al-Din.

2. The Lake Tharthar, Zoya and Tarabsha areas, north of Anbar Governorate.

3. The western and southern regions of Kirkuk Governorate.

4. Qanus Island and Zanquba in the south of Nineveh Governorate.

5. The geographical triangle linking the north of the capital Baghdad and the governorates of Kirkuk, Diyala and Salah al-Din.

Over the past seven months, the organisation has succeeded in carrying out nearly 23 terrorist attacks, with nearly 493 civilian and security victims, either dead or injured, according to Iraqi official media. Those attacks are concentrated in the governorates of Salah al-Din and Anbar, which constitute the epicentre of Operation Iraqi Heroes launched by the Iraqi authorities in its four phases. The first phase began on 12 February 2020, to complete its fourth phase, which was launched in July 2020 until now.

One of the reasons for the smooth moves of the Daesh organisation in those areas is the growing pockets of the organisation therein because they have not been fully liberated. Rather, security analyses indicate that the organisation has maintained sleeper cells for three years. The number of the organisation’s members in the western regions of Iraq is estimated to be around three thousand operatives, given that the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) estimated that there are ten thousand Daesh operatives in Iraq and Syria. The organisation finds in those areas fertile ground for it in its military moves against the government forces. It always benefits from the geographical factor there, given that there are many hills, streams and agricultural areas which enable the factor of surprise, in addition to benefiting from the deteriorating economic situation and the large number of unemployed youth therein. This allows Daesh to persuade many young people to join its ranks under the ideological denomination wrapped in financial benefits.

Daesh has succeeded in developing its tools to confront the joint security forces in Iraq. It has diversified its combat methods, and has once again been able to use drone technology, which made its military movement truly advanced. Among the benefits of this weapon for Daesh is monitoring the vast areas in which it always hides (it has recently benefited from this in the regions of northern Diyala and southern Salah al-Din), and supporting its intelligence effort by exploring the military campaigns waged against it.

The organisation always seeks to create pockets for itself in the desert areas (most Daesh leaders hide in the valleys extending between the governorates of Kirkuk and Salah al-Din, including Umm al-Khanajer, Shay, and Zughetoun) in order to exhaust the Iraqi security forces that embark on military campaigns, which exhausts them geographically and militarily. Its drones help it reveal the size of the attacking Iraqi forces, which gives it the ability to change its areas of presence and its tactics, given that the organisation is in constant movement.

Iraqi capabilities to confront the threat of Daesh

The government of Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi seeks to re-unite the ranks of the joint Iraqi forces (consisting of the Iraqi army, the Counter-Terrorism Service, and the Popular and Tribal Mobilisation (Hashd) Forces) in the face of the security challenges they face in cities that Daesh is trying to destabilise. The Iraqi armed forces relied on the intelligence factor as a prelude to attack the organisation. This has led to the participation of the National Intelligence Service in various operations. The intense security confrontation that thwarted Daesh's movements began since August 2020, specifically in the Kirkuk and Salah al-Din governorates. On 15 November 2020, the Iraqi forces managed to dismantle a Daesh sleeper cell consisting of 15 members of the organisation in Nineveh Governorate. On 19 November 2020, they managed to dismantle a Daesh cell in Kirkuk, consisting of five members.

In November 2020 rapid exchanges took place between the Iraqi forces and Daesh operatives, especially that prior to the dismantling of its cells, the organisation had launched an attack on a military site in the Radwaniyah area, southwest of the capital Baghdad, which resulted in the killing and wounding of 11 security personnel. The Daesh attack on Baghdad is the first of its kind since 2014. In September 2020, the joint security forces from the army and the Saraya al-Salam (Peace Companies), which are affiliated with the Sadrist Movement, killed 4 prominent Daesh leaders who were trying to attack the Samarra district in Salah al-Din Governorate.

So far, the organisation’s attempts to revive its former existence have failed as a result of its exposure to severe strikes. The four operations of the armed forces called Iraqi Heroes have achieved good results, most notably:

1. The arrest of all members of the Daesh cell in the Al-Alam sub-district in Salah al-Din Governorate, which is a cell that finances various terrorist operations inside the governorate.

2. The killing of fifteen armed men from the organisation, with air support from the Global Coalition, in Hawija district, south of Kirkuk, while a Daesh cell was arrested in the same district. That cell was responsible for providing weapons to the members of the organisation in the governorate.

3. Targeting Daesh locations in the Hamrin and Makhoul Mountains, north of Salah al-Din Governorate, with the support of the international coalition air forces. On 9 November 2020, the official media of the joint operations confirmed the killing of a number of Daesh field commanders during the operations.

4. Control of the geographical line linking the governorates of Diyala, Kirkuk and Salah al-Din, a line that Daesh used to utilise a lot in attacking the centres of those governorates.

5. The arrest of prominent leaders in the Daesh organisation, such as the "military official" of Nineveh Governorate Abu Musab, the "logistical official" Abu Sufyan, and the "Inghimasi (plunger) legislator" Abu Khattab, as well as the arrest of the "administrative emir" of the Jazirah and Badia state in Zummar, the head of Daesh’s Delegated Committee Abdul Nasser Qardash, and the organisation’s administrative official Abu Nabaa, who was arrested at Baghdad International Airport. Those arrests have greatly embarrassed Daesh, driving it to promptly appoint surrogate leaders without sufficient experience, given that all those arrests took place at varying and close times, the most recent of which being on 23 November 2020.

6. The elimination of 21 suicide bombers, who are an Inghimasi group that had been prepared to carry out attacks as part of Daesh’s new plans.

7. The Iraqi forces were able to demolish the Daesh hideouts at the borders of Diyala and Salah al-Din Governorates, specifically the hideout of what is known as Khar al-Wahsh, which used to house foreign Daesh militants, to prevent them from mixing with the city and getting recognised by the citizens.

Based on those facts, Daesh suffered heavy losses under the leadership of its new leader Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi who failed in his first leadership test. Daesh also lost many of its field intelligence operatives from whom it used to benefit in its areas of existence, especially in Anbar Governorate and the areas north of Baghdad. This exposed it to great defeats by the Iraqi security side, which led it to act with a retaliatory response, given that it deliberately killed a number of clerics, clan sheikhs, and officers, as follows:

  • The assassination by Daesh of a tribal sheikh and his family in the Taji area, north of Baghdad, in mid-September 2020.
  • The assassination of two clerics in the Ramadi district of Anbar Governorate at the beginning of October 2020.
  • The assassination of a military officer, accompanied by 13 people, in the village of Al-Mashak, north of Salah El-Din, on 27 November 2020.
  • An armed attack was launched on the village of Al-Mazari'i in the district of Yathrib, south of Salah al-Din, which killed an officer and 3 of his relatives, on 5 November 2020.
  • The assassination of a local official, along with a number of his guards, in the village of Al-Kasra, north of Al-Rutba district, Anbar Governorate, on 28 November 2020.
  • The organisation claimed responsibility for a missile attack on the Al-Siniya Refinery in Baiji District in Salah al-Din Governorate, on 3 December 2020. On the same day, a number of soldiers were assassinated in a surprise Daesh attack in Anbar Governorate.

Daesh takes advantage of the problem of the “loyalist” Mobilisation in Sunni areas

The al-Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Committee, PMC) is considered an integral and effective participant since the government of former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in the operations to liberate Iraqi cities from the extremist organisation, and subsequently in the military operations carried out by the Iraqi forces against the remnants of Daesh and its cells. However, what distinguishes the PMC, particularly the [pro-Iran] “loyalist” factions thereof, from other Iraqi security forces is its security control over a number of Sunni areas, and its dominance over the life, service and economic facilities in the areas that fall within the sectors of its control, mainly in Nineveh and Salah al-Din Governorates where the loyalist PMC is densely located as a result of their sectarian mixture of Shiites and Sunnis, and nationalist mixture of Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds.

Since the beginning of its formation in October 2018, the government of former Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi allowed the return of the displaced from their areas of residence that were liberated from Daesh in the governorates of Anbar, Salah al-Din, Diyala and Nineveh. However, some areas have not witnessed the return of the displaced yet, including the regions of Salah al-Din and Nineveh where loyalist PMC factions have seized the homes of the displaced, benefited from their properties and managed the agricultural crops and fish farms therein, a process that generates a lot of money for the factions controlling those areas. In addition, the people and tribes of the province refuse to confront the PMC to regain their rights for fear of the deterioration of the security situation and the outbreak of a civil war within the governorate, given that Daesh often utilises those disputes in its favour by recruiting young people from those areas or carrying out armed attacks that undermine the presence of the PMC in those areas, in the hope of winning the hearts and minds of the families and clans who are disgruntled with the PMC behavior, or to drive the PMC to take revenge on the Sunni population, thus reinforcing the rage of the Sunnis against the PMC and the government, as happened in the Farhatia massacre in Salah al-Din governorate on 17 October 2020, when the town’s residents found eight bodies out of 12 people who had been kidnapped by an armed entity, said to be the Asaib Ahl al-Haq (Leagues of the Righteous) militia. This massacre seems to have come about in response to an attack launched by Daesh operatives on Sayed Gharib, near the Dujail district, north of Baghdad, which resulted in the death of a Shiite militia member.

The escalation of tension in Salah al-Din Governorate between the PMC factions and some Sunni tribes in the governorate has driven Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to send a security envoy on his behalf, namely the National Security Adviser Qassem Al-Araji, on 27 November 2020, to ease the tension and reach solutions to disputes, given that Salah al-Din Governorate witnessed the displacement of nearly 300,000 families, some of them in the Kurdistan region and others in the neighboring provinces. The complaints of the clans disgruntled with the loyalist PMC were met with government promises to solve the crisis quickly and "rectify the situation in the governorate", but no real measures have been taken so far.

Expectations

Despite the failure of Daesh to regain its previous strength and to permanently and publicly recover control over any Iraqi region, the organisation continues to be active on Iraqi territories and has not yet completely disintegrated, especially in the areas where the security situation is fragile in western and northern Iraq.

Success in completely eliminating the terrorist organisation requires the following:

1. Continued support and coordination between the Iraqi government and the US-led Global Coalition Against Daesh in terms of air support and the delivery of intelligence information about the organisation's locations and hideouts inside Iraq.

2. Solving the outstanding problems regarding the liberated areas, in terms of both reconstruction and the return of the displaced, with what this requires in terms of solving the problem of the presence of the loyalist factions in those areas, and seeking to withdraw them from within the Sunni cities and replace them with forces from the army or federal police, given that Daesh benefits from the state of anger in the Sunni areas due to the failure of reconstruction efforts, impeding the return of the displaced, and the hegemony of the PMC factions over the economic resources there, as well as security control by the PMC factions over those areas.

3. Maintaining the actual participation of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, considering that this would lead to specific results that would greatly weaken Daesh, as was the case in the targeted operation of the Service that led to the arrest of the organisation's administrative official at Baghdad International Airport.

4. Enhancing coordination and operational coordination between the Iraqi forces participating in the operations against the organisation, especially that the PMC maintains hold of large areas in those regions, and that its lack of military interaction with the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces creates gaps in security coordination in those areas, which allows Daesh to move freely in those areas.

5. Reinforcing support for Sunni tribal mobilisation factions, by committing to pay their salaries and providing them with weapons and military equipment, which would strengthen their hold of the areas under their control.

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