1. The Islamic State is regrouping in the rural areas of Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninewa and Salahaddin. It has virtually no presence in any urban areas however. This is despite the fact that post-conflict zones of the country have very bad conditions such as destroyed housing, a lack of services and jobs, persecution of IS families, fears of the security forces and tribal conflicts, and a lack of reconciliation. What is IS doing in the rural areas, and why hasn’t it been able to move back into the cities? What will it mean for the group long term if it can’t overcome this issue?
In my view, a purely rural Islamic State insurgency will become a strategic irrelevance. Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and later Daesh only achieved real momentum and scale when they destabilized urban environments such as Mosul, Ramadi, Fallujah, Baqubah, Bayji and the string of closely-clustered Euphrates towns in Al-Qaim district. Contesting government control of cities – whether through mafia activity, mass casualty bombings or actual takeover of parts of cities – is what gives Sunni insurgent movements the profile, recruitment base and resources to “surge”. It’s conceivable that ISIS will merely sustain itself as a rural diehard movement but my guess is that they will attempt, in some fashion, to return to the cities. Their most likely first step will be mafia-type intimidation and extortion, followed by large-scale provincial government contracting. Initially, therefore, they present an organized crime-type threat in the urban environment, alongside a gradually returning capacity to mount urban mass casualty attacks
2. What do you think are the major differences between the situation the organization was facing when it was trying to rebuild after the Surge and its current attempt at regrouping?
Well, from the summer of 2010 onwards it was the same guy as now running their recovery – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. So this is his second reboot of ISI/ISIS. He did pretty good last time – and he seems to recognize that his best immediate course of action is to re-run that formula. All of his ideas – rural redoubts, intimidating Sunni collaborators, using hit and run quality attacks, sowing sectarian discord – remain relevant.
What is different, for the first time, is that the “upside” risk of a Sunni insurgency now looks different to Sunni locals and the popular base for Sunni insurgency has never been smaller. In 2013, say, a local Sunni might say: “I’m afraid of both Iraqi government and ISIS, but I know life sucks under the government and I have not tried life under ISIS yet.” Others might have thought: “If they win, I’ll have these ISIS guys doing my bidding before long”, as so many deluded Fallujan, Tikriti and Moslawi Baathists seemed to have calculated. Well, now those guys are dead or they know better. ISIS defeated the Iraqi government in what many Sunni insurgents would have viewed as a dream scenario, but they were brutal to their own people and they couldn’t defend the caliphate. The Iraqi government and its militias will have to mess up really badly to make Sunnis forget what they learned in 2014-2018 – that resistance really is pretty futile.
3. The Iraqi forces are constantly carrying out security operations in the rural and desert regions of the country. They are pretty consistent in their results finding lots of arms caches, explosives, tunnels, etc., but rarely do they ever find that many IS members. What are the successes and failures of these sweeps, and what could be done differently to make them more effective?
Iraqi “clearance operations” are more akin to U.S. “presence patrols”, meaning a temporary show of force that reassures locals, offers an opportunity for locals to provide intelligence, demonstrates that the area has not been surrendered to the insurgents, and disrupts fixed infrastructure set up by insurgents (such as caches, bed-down sites, ambush sites, fortifications, and observation posts). Most Iraqi clearance operations have zero chance of detaining valuable personnel because they are easily detected, occur only during daylight, slow-moving, and are undertaken by outsider troops not familiar with local areas and people. High-value target and medium-value target detentions are coming from intelligence-driven helicopter raids or nocturnal ground raids launched by Coalition and Iraqi special operations forces.
4. Intelligence is crucial in counterinsurgency to find militant leaders, their camps, sleeper cells, etc. The U.S. has issued a number of reports that the intelligence situation in Iraq is very poor. How do you assess this part of the fight against IS?
The loss of situational awareness by local Iraqi security forces, including Popular Mobilization Forces, is largely a function of the ineffectiveness of local commanders. Good commanders tend to get results from their staff and utilize good officers, and their relationship with local communities is better, and as a result they have a better understanding of local conditions. Overlaying the brigades is the national intelligence architecture, which is also defined by the quality of its local leaders. National Security Service (NSS), Military Intelligence Directorate (MID or M2), the Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INIS), the MoI intel people and the Falcons can each contribute a lot, but mostly in urban environments. The U.S.-led coalition fills huge gaps in Iraqi signals intelligence and aerial surveillance, which are essential tools in modern counter-terrorism, especially in “wide area surveillance” of rural areas. To me, the best-secured areas are those where multi-agency coordination is the best: Baghdad and Anbar and Mosul city. Unsurprisingly, these are the areas where the U.S.-led coalition is most tightly tied into the local operations commands.