If and when the Islamic State is dislodged from the territory it holds in Iraq it will likely return to more traditional insurgent methods. That will require counterinsurgency tactics by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) something that it has not proven adept at in the last few years. Taking on the Iraqi insurgency in general requires not just military operations, but breaking up the complex social networks that militants rely upon, and providing an alternative vision for the country to win over passive supporters and those sitting on the fence. In 2005 military intelligence officer Colonel Derek Harvey made a presentation detailing how the insurgency recruited and maintained its fighting forces. He pointed out that the insurgency was driven by a desire by Sunnis to return to power, and relied upon multiple identities and personal relationships to sustain and organize itself.
Many of the misconceptions people had of the Iraqi insurgency in 2005 still persist to this day. One was that the insurgents were a small group. Another was that foreigners and Iraqi Islamists dominated it. Third, it could be defeated militarily by killing and capturing its leadership. These ideas ignored important aspects of the insurgency. That included how the militants were able to spread their message and appeal throughout the Sunni community via political parties, mosques, and social and religious organizations.
The first important element of the insurgency was its motivation. Many Sunnis believed that their world was turned upside down after 2003. They thought that foreign powers like the United States and Iran were taking over their country and putting into office people they had fought against during the Iran-Iraq War such as the Badr Brigade and the Shiite religious parties. That along with the vast corruption that emerged within the government was why so many came to believe that the new Iraqi politics were illegitimate and did not represent them. Another driving force was the belief that Sunnis were a majority if Sunni Kurds were included. U.S. policies such as disbanding the military and deBaathification were perceived as denying Sunnis their rightful place in society. There was also a shared belief that their standard of living declined after the American invasion, and that the Shiite led government was denying them services like electricity. Finally, U.S. military tactics such as raids and mass arrests were deeply resented. Altogether this created a new Sunni communal and sectarian identity in Iraq. Before they had no real sense of a group identity because they were in power and simply thought of themselves and their norms as Iraqi. Now that new narratives were emerging out of the Kurdish and Shiite communities and those groups were being empowered by the Americans, the Sunnis came up with their own new story of being victims of outsiders. These grievances and fears of the new Iraqi were then exploited by the Sunni oligarchy, the old leadership from the Saddam era, clerics, and tribal leaders to form the basis of the insurgency. What brought all these different groups together was a desire to regain power in the country, which they felt was rightfully theirs. They turned to violence to create the political conditions for their eventual return.
Once the insurgency got going it showed great ability to sustain violence, retain resources, and regenerate their losses. From January 2004 to July 2005 for example, a general claimed that the U.S. had killed, captured or wounded 50,000 insurgents. Despite that there was no decrease in attacks or operations by Sunnis. Instead, the militants adapted to American tactics and proved amazingly resilient. The diffuse nature of armed groups meant that there was no unified leadership, which could be taken out to end the fighting. Even today as the Islamic State (IS) has emerged as the dominant organization within the insurgency there are still many other groups and tribes fighting against the government maintaining this tradition.
What sustained the insurgency was the ability of its members to draw upon multiple identities to organize. Early on many believed that the Baathists were the driving force, and then later on Al Qaeda in Iraq and its Islamist ideology were thought to be the strength of the militants. Neither was quite right. What the insurgents used was personal relationships forged through their professions, businesses, tribes, family, mosques, and history. Derek Harvey provided a hypothetical example of this with a cleric that came from a traditional religious family, was a member of an important tribe, had a family member in Iraqi intelligence under Saddam, was himself a former Baathist, and maintained his friendship with ex-party members. It wasn’t always the Baath Party that was organizing fighters then, but rather former Baathists who were using the connections and techniques they had learned under the former regime as well as others to recruit. There are a plethora of examples of how this worked. For one, Saddam Hussein had an outreach program to foreign Islamists in the 1990s to build up international support for his regime. He recruited many to come to Iraq for training by Iraqi intelligence and the Republican Special Forces. Those relationships between former intelligence and security officers and foreign Islamists continued after 2003, and were used to bring them back to Iraq to fight the Americans and new Iraqi government. Islam had also grown within Iraq itself especially under Saddam’s Faith Campaign in the 1990s, even amongst Baath Party members who were supposed to be secular. This overlap between Baathists and religious groups was also due to Saddam’s fear of the growth of Islamism domestically. He had the security and intelligence forces infiltrate religious groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its Iraqi Islamic Party, mosques and organizations such as Society of Islamic Scholars. After 2003 those former security members maintained these relationship and used them to organized armed groups. This also gave militants a way to operate within Iraqi politics as the Islamic Party joined the post-Saddam governments. Another example was the vast array of Iraqis who worked for state security and put that experience to work for the insurgency. Thousands served in the Special Republican Guard, the military bureau, presidential security, the Saddam Fedayeen, the Baath Party Militias, the Special Security Forces, the directorate of General Security, and the Iraqi Intelligence Service. Many of them were banned from participating in the new Iraq by the Americans, which led them to armed struggle. The Baath Party Militia and the Saddam Fedayeen had battalions in every province. They were in charge of storing weapons, putting down rebellions, running safe houses, using mosques, forging documents, etc. in compartmentalized cells, all of which were put to work by the militants. Another former connection that played out with the insurgency was Saddam’s reliance upon criminal and government run smuggling rings to break sanctions, which were imposed after the Gulf War. These organizations were used to bring in products from Europe via Syria and Jordan. After 2003 these same networks were used to appropriate cars for car bombs, as well as bring in funds, foreign fighters, and weapons. Finally, Saddam relied upon six tribes and 18 clans to help him control the provinces, and many of these would later join the opposition as well. Insurgents relied upon all of these different experiences to build and organize their networks. They also explain why there was overlap of seemingly opposing groups such as secular Baathists and religious organizations. For instance, Saddam’s number two Izzat al-Duri spread the Sufi Naqshibandi movement within the Iraqi military and Baath Party pre-2003, and later used it as the basis for his own insurgent group in 2005. The head of the Islamic Army Jassim Mohammed Mashadani was probably a member of the Iraqi Security Service and was also extremely religious. He used his connections both with former regime members and through his mosque to form the first cells of his group in 2003. The man who was said to have promoted Abu Bakr-al-Baghdadi to be the head of the Islamic State (IS) was an ex-colonel in Saddam’s army Samir Abed Hamad al-Obeidi al-Dulaimi who had been brought into IS not because of his religious beliefs, but his organizational and military skills. One of Baghdadi’s current number twos, Abu Muslim al-Turkmani who is charge of IS operations in Iraq was a senior Special Forces officer and in military intelligence under the former regime. It was not just the Baathists, or the Islamists, or the foreigners as separate entities that created the insurgency, but rather a combination of all of them, which led to its birth. This reliance upon multiple identities and experiences was also why it was so hard to break up the militants.
It took years for the United States to figure out how to counter the insurgency something the current Iraqi government may not be capable of. In 2005 Colonel Harvey advocated for driving a wedge between the different insurgent groups and their supporters and playing divide and conquer with them, but that wasn’t put into policy until 2007 during the Surge. It was then that General Petraeus began advocating for dividing the militants into those that could be reconciled with and co-opted, and those that could not and had to be eliminated. In 2008 the general wrote, “We cannot kill our way out of this endeavor. We and our Iraqi partners must identify and separate the ‘reconcilables’ from the ‘irreconcilables,’” and that the U.S. had to “defeat the network, not just the attack.” That same issue is facing Iraq today as the government discusses whether to arm tribes or not. While Prime Minister Haider Abadi has supported the idea and ordered talks to be held with them in Jordan and Irbil, others within his coalition are opposed fearing that the sheikhs will use any weapons provided them against the government because many were once with the insurgents. That’s also the reason why legislation to form a new locally organized National Guard has been held up in parliament. Abadi has also only given lip service to Sunni complaints such as shelling civilian areas, federalism, and people arrested without charges. Finally, Baghdad’s heavy reliance upon militias and Iranian military support fuels Sunni fears of foreign domination. All together that may mean that Iraq is not adept enough to deal with counterinsurgency as it is proving with conventional military tactics. Without a combined strategy that includes a political, economic, and information campaign along with a military one to deal with the Sunni community the explosion of militants from the territory they currently hold won’t lead to their defeat. It will just usher in another phase of the war, one that Baghdad is not well prepared for.
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Hubbard, Ben, “Iraq and U.S. Find Some Potential Sunni Allies Have Already Been Lost,” New York Times, 11/15/14
Knights, Michael, “The JRTN Movement and Iraq’s Next Insurgency,” CTC Sentinel, July 2011
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