When the United States withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was considered at its nadir. Much of its leadership was dead or in prison. The number of attacks it was able to carry out was way down, and many believed that the group would devolve into a criminal gang. Instead in 2012 the organization started rebuilding. One sign of its revival was the number of car bombs that it was able to launch. An analysis of these attacks showed that ISI was able to steadily restore its networks and capabilities as the year progressed eventually leading it to become the largest and most powerful insurgent group in Iraq.
2011 was a low point for the Islamic State. It was still able to carry out headline grabbing attacks like a March siege upon the provincial council building in Tikrit. The pace of these operations however was greatly reduced to just one every 4-6 weeks. That was because U.S. and Iraqi forces had killed 34 of the group’s 43 top leaders. Throughout 2011 its operatives were still being rounded up. (1) In June outgoing CIA Director Leon Panetta estimated that there were only around 1,000 ISI fighters left in Iraq. This all led to talk that the organization was becoming a criminal gang. In Mosul for example, it was already acting like a mafia with various extortion, smuggling and kidnapping rackets. At the same time, ISI asked how it might raise more money because it couldn’t meet all of its obligations, and the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction noted that foreign fighters and funds to the group had declined. All of these factors pointed to the Islamic State heading for the dustbin of history. Unfortunately the U.S. withdrawal opened up the opportunity for the organization to rebuild itself as it lessoned the military pressure on it. The fighting in Syria also offered new sources of recruiting and money, which ISI effectively exploited. As a result, it steadily rebuilt itself in 2012.
Car bombs (VBIEDs) were one way to track the rebirth of ISI in 2012. VBIEDs showed that its networks were not only still active, but were growing as the year progressed. Car Bombs require obtaining and storing explosives, workshops to construct them, intelligence gathering to locate targets and how to get around security measures, and infiltration of cities to deliver the devices. At the beginning of the year there were huge multiple VBIED attacks about once a month. These were obviously for propaganda purposes to show that the group was still active after the U.S. had pulled out its forces. By the middle of the year ISI was able to carry out at least one to two VBIED waves per month as part of a summer offensive. Finally, at the end of the year it increased the pace of these operations showing that its abilities to conduct large-scale operations had been completely rebuilt.
In January and February 2012 the Islamic State wanted to show that it was still around after its cadres had been devastated over the previous years. On January 9 it detonated 6 VBIEDs in Baghdad, Karbala, and Maysan leaving 33 dead and 171 wounded. The main targets were Shiite pilgrims. Hitting Karbala and Maysan were also significant because it marked ISI’s ability to penetrate the heavy security in southern Iraq set up during pilgrimages. The Islamic State then set off the first car bomb wave of the year from January 12-16 with nine in Anbar, Babil, Kirkuk, Ninewa, and Salahaddin against pilgrims, government offices, Shabaks, and the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). The next big attack occurred on January 24 with 5 VBIEDs in Baghdad and Ninewa causing 17 fatalities and 72 injuries. February was very similar with 14 car bombs on February 23 in Babil, Baghdad, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninewa and Salahaddin. Another four followed that on February 29 in Baghdad, Ninewa and Salahaddin. The next few months were mostly characterized by car bomb waves. The first came from March 19-21, which was noted for 2 VBIEDs in Karbala on a restaurant and Iranian pilgrims on March 20 that killed 13 and wounded 45. In April there were no series, but April 19 ten car bombs were detonated costing the lives of 24 people in Anbar, Baghdad, Diyala, Kirkuk and Salahaddin. In May there were two short waves with one from May 13-15 and the next one from May 21-22, and then two more in June from 12-14 and then 16-17. June 13 was the deadliest of the year up to that point with 23 in Anbar, Babil, Baghdad, Diyala, Karbala, Kirkuk, Ninewa, Salahaddin and Wasit with 77 killed and 191 wounded. July was the same with one wave from July 3-6 and then another from July 22-25. July 23 surpassed June 13 with 26 VBIEDs in Baghdad, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninewa, Qadisiyah and Salahaddin causing 104 fatalities. That month also had the most car bombs seen so far in the year with 53. ISI upped its operations once again in August with 3 waves from August 8-12, 14-16 and then 27-29 marking the peak of its summer offensive. This showed that the insurgents had fully revived their car bomb networks and were consistently hitting southern Iraq at least once a month. This was part of its new Breaking the Walls campaign announced in July one goal of which was restarting the sectarian civil war. In September there were four waves with the longest of the year occurring from September 7-13. September 9 was the worst with 25 VBIEDs and 103 dead. That month was also victimized by the most car bombs of the 2012 with 63. From October to December there were two to three waves per month usually with one day of multiple bombings across several provinces interspersed in between. The steady increase in VBIEDs paralleled the rebuilding of the Islamic State throughout the year. It went from its lowest point in 2011 to having a fully realized network capable of hitting almost every province in the country with the exception of Kurdistan. It also varied its targets from soft ones such as pilgrims or Shiite neighborhoods aimed at stoking sectarian tensions with the hope of restarting the civil war to going after hardened targets like provincial council buildings, municipal offices, police stations, and army bases. That too marked the return of the organization as it moved from terrorizing the population to weakening the government and security forces.
By the end of 2012 the Islamic State was a fully reformed militant group. One year after its Breaking Wall campaign started it began its Soldiers’ Harvest offensive, which was aimed at undermining the security forces and regaining territory it had lost during the Surge. 2013 would see a steady increase in violence as a result. The reconstruction of the organization could have been foreseen with its car bomb attacks throughout 2012.
Car bombs are one way to track the rebirth of what was then known as the Islamic State of Iraq. They highlight the organization’s capabilities and changing strategy. At the beginning of 2012 for example, it just wanted to make its presence known after most of the group had been rounded up and killed. By the middle of the year it was able to carry out several VBIED waves per month and moved to hitting government as well as civilian targets. The number of these types of attacks declined at the end of the year, but the pace of its operations was maintained showing that ISI was back. By then the Islamic State had become the largest and deadliest insurgent group in the country. It was the only one capable of striking southern Iraq and launching so many VBIEDs across multiple targets at the same time and over several days. It would only increase the pace and deadliness of these operations in 2013 expanding from terrorism, to guerrilla attacks, to finally conventional warfare first in Syria and then in Iraq by 2014.
1. Al-Sabah, “Diala security source: detention of general supervisor of the al-Qaeda kidnap cell,” 7/13/11
This article is based upon thousands of articles of research too long to list as a bibliography. The main sources were AIN, Associated Press, Aswat al-Iraq, CNN, Iraq Body Count, Al-Mada, Al-Masalah, McClatchy Newspapers, the New York Times, NINA, Niqash, Reuters, Al-Sabah, and the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction