John Drake is the head of Global Intake at the British risk mitigation firm AKE. It publishes weekly reports on violence in Iraq, which are used by companies, NGOs, and media outlets that operate in the country. Below is an interview with Drake reviewing the security situation in Iraq last year.
1. How does AKE collect its information on attacks and casualties in Iraq?
We use a combination of open and closed sources to work out what is happening in the country. We cross reference a range of publicly available news reports with statements from contacts, official sources, and employees on the ground to verify as much as possible. Unfortunately this will never be as accurate as a full, comprehensive survey, but for now it provides us with a good indication of the main trends, issues and risks affecting the country.
2. Many groups will point to central Iraq as the most dangerous part of the country, and name provinces like Baghdad and Ninewa, but can you break down what are the most dangerous cities, because there’s a wide variation between the urban areas within each governorate.
The most dangerous cities in Iraq are Mosul, Fallujah, Baquba, Kirkuk and Baghdad, which regularly see the majority of the country’s attacks. However, clusters and spikes occur in numerous other urban areas.
In 2012 the most hostile province was Ninewa in the north, which saw an average of 1-2 attacks per day. Most of the incidents were concentrated in the city of Mosul. Otherwise however, it was the central region which experienced the bulk of the violence.
Baghdad experienced an average of 1 attack per day, although conditions appear to have eased towards the latter part of the year. Security measures have gradually increased in the city while militants appear to have directed their focus to other parts of the central region. Anbar, Diyala and Salahaddin province all saw an average of 1 attack per day as well, slightly more than Tamim province, which saw around 6 attacks per week, and significantly more than Basra province, which saw an average of 3 attacks per month.
3. Today, Basra and Maysan provinces are getting lots of investment due to the oil fields there. What’s security like in those two areas?
Basra and Maysan provinces see comparatively few incidents of violence. Maysan province saw around 2-3 attacks per quarter last year, making it even quieter than Basra. Security measures are often more relaxed than the central region, because the pace of attacks is far lower, but community vigilance is often higher, and terrorist groups find it harder to operate in the area, particularly if they are aligned with radical Islamist organizations affiliated with al-Qaeda. Such groups have little in the way of support in the south. Shiite militant organizations, including those affiliated with Iran have traditionally had greater influence, but they are not currently engaged in violence. This could change in the future, but for now incidents are relatively low level.
4. In Iraq, there is not always a direct correlation between the number of deaths and the number of attacks per month. In January 2011 and 2012 for example, there was an increase in casualties compared to December. Was there a jump in security incidents in January for those two years or were there just more deadly mass casualty attacks?
The religious event of Arbaeen took place in January in 2011, 2012 and 2013. This event sees large numbers of Shiite worshippers gathering at holy shrines around the country, presenting terrorist organizations seeking to stir up sectarian strife with a large target. Crowds are difficult to protect, and the impact of mass-casualty attacks can be highly emotive. It only takes one suicide bomber to cause potentially dozens of casualties in such an environment, and as such, the last few Januarys have seen a rise in casualty figures, even though the number of attacks hasn’t necessarily increased.
5. In the last two years, there was also an increase in deaths during the middle of the year. Again, was that due to more security incidents during that period or just some large bombings?
Since 2003 Iraq has traditionally seen an increase in violence over the course of the summer. Over the last two years it has mainly been a rise in the overall number of attacks rather than specific mass casualty bombings, but these have continued with relative frequency nonetheless.
6. Many people predicted that the withdrawal of the American military at the end of 2011, would lead to an increase in violence in Iraq. Was there any difference between 2011 when U.S. troops were in the country and 2012 when they were gone in terms of attacks and deaths?
Conditions could still deteriorate in the country. The U.S. withdrawal wasn’t necessarily going to prompt a mass increase in violence, but it has removed a layer of security in the event that the number of attacks escalate. Overall, the number of attacks hasn’t significantly altered since the middle of 2009, regardless of whether or not U.S. troops have been stationed in the country.
7. Do you think 2013 will maintain the current status quo or do you see some events on the horizon that could change things?
Current levels of violence could rumble on throughout the year, with occasional escalations, spikes and mass-casualty bombings. However, in 2013, as in any year since 2009, the situation will remain both fragile and tense. A single incident such as the destruction of a significantly emotive site such as a religious shrine or a breakdown in relations between Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government for example could provoke a deterioration in security conditions, but there is no certainty that such a development will take place this year.
9. What do you see as the future for the insurgency in Iraq? Do you think they still have a lot of staying power or can you see a time when they begin to fall off?
Insurgents are likely looking very closely at Syria, and many may have already crossed the border to fight the Assad regime. Their aim is to create a para-state and they will have more chance of doing so in parts of Syria for the time being, and if successful they could potentially use the country as a base for re-invigorating their Iraqi campaign. For now, they will likely continue to pressure the Iraqi authorities in majority-Sunni areas such as Ninewa, Tamim, and the central provinces. It would take a lot to dislodge them completely.
10. Finally, there is a lot of criminal activity in Iraq. Do you have any observations on the crime rate or gangs that operate in the country?
The security forces are stretched with ongoing political violence, constraining their ability to deal with crime. Many of the current criminals are former insurgents, likely with some experience at evading the authorities. Many could even be desensitized and therefore more willing to engage in violent crime. Organized criminality will likely remain a big concern for the authorities until they are able to build their capacity. One potential positive sign, which could be taken from the country’s crime rate is that criminality is often seen as the final stage of an insurgency. Ongoing organized criminality could therefore be the last stage in Iraq’s nationwide security crisis, although the timeline for eradicating it will remain uncertain, and as mentioned above, conditions could always worsen again depending on the country’s fractious domestic political and inter-communal relations.