Violence in Iraq is at the lowest level since the 2003 invasion. This is despite the Islamic State announcing its annual spring-summer offensive Revenge of the Levant. That raises the question of whether IS can make a comeback again like it did after the Surge. To help delve into this question is Alex Mello a security analyst at Horizon. He can be followed on Twitter @AlexMello2.
1. Even before the Islamic State lost its last bits of territory in Iraq its leadership said that it was returning to an insurgency and would endure and return just like it did before. What are the major differences between its first rebuild and this time around?
In my view there are three key differences between the insurgency’s first rebuild during 2009-2013 and its current iteration. The first is that the insurgency’s operating space has contracted further into Sunni northern Iraq and attacks have become even more concentrated in a few rural areas. In particular, ISIS seems to have permanently abandoned some areas around Baghdad, Diyala and southern Salah ad-Din that were previously key insurgent operational terrain during the insurgency’s first and second iterations in 2003-2009 and 2010-2014. These include areas like the old “triangle of death” around Mahmudiyah south of Baghdad, as well Jurf al-Sakhr in northern Babil and the Mada’in and Salman Pak areas down to Suwayrah in Baghdad’s southeastern “belts”. Anbar is also much quieter than before, particularly around Fallujah and Ramadi. The volume of insurgent activity in these areas is very low and attacks are highly sporadic. The insurgency is only operating at an elevated level with regular daily attacks in some of the places that were really hard-core rural Sunni insurgent country before 2014. These include the Jurn corridor south of Mosul, rural areas around Hawijah and northern Diyala, as well as Tarmiyah north of Baghdad. In general, the core operating area of the insurgency has shifted north and eastward from Baghdad and Anbar to a triangle formed by the northern Tigris River Valley, the Diyala River Valley, the Hamrin mountains and areas along the internal border with the Kurdistan Region.
The second major difference is that the current insurgency is far more rural and less urban compared to its previous iterations. Even at the insurgency’s previous low point in 2010-2011, AQI was still capable of undertaking sophisticated, mass-casualty attacks in urban areas. Remember attacks like the June 2010 car bombing and suicide raid on the Central Bank in Baghdad, or the Baghdad church massacre in October 2010, or any number of other urban car bombings during 2010 or 2011. ISIS currently has far less reach inside urban centers. Insurgents currently don’t seem capable of undertaking this type of attack even in mid-sized Sunni provincial towns, let alone in Baghdad where insurgent activity has dropped off almost entirely. The group’s current urban attack capability doesn’t extend much beyond undertaking coordinated IED bombings using hastily-emplaced, low-yield devices – for example most recently in Kirkuk city at the end of Ramadan. The “commuter insurgency” phenomenon of previous iterations of the insurgency, where insurgents operating out of the semi-rural “belts” surrounding major urban centers would filter into the cities to conduct attacks on a daily basis doesn’t really apply anymore. There are very few terrorist cells operating in urban areas and the volume of kinetic insurgent activity in the cities is very low, even compared to 2010-2011 (it’s not clear how much non-kinetic insurgent activity like clandestine, mafia-type intimidation and extortion is going on inside the cities, since this sort of thing is inherently harder to detect and track). The insurgency has been here before during their “retreat to the desert” after 2008, but their fallback to rural areas and the drop-off in insurgent attacks in the cities has been much more marked this time around. It’s pretty striking how the current insurgency operates removed from population, concentrated in the most remote, thinly-populated rural or desert areas.
The third related point is that some of the insurgency’s higher-end capabilities, particularly their ability to stage mass-casualty car bombings or suicide vest attacks has been heavily degraded, and doesn’t appear to be recovering. The decline of ISIS’ signature VBIED attack capability is particularly noteworthy. Insurgents seemed to have been building up to a pattern of regular monthly car bombings beginning in the third quarter of 2018 but these attacks have largely tapered off since then. Even during the insurgency’s previous low point in 2010-2011, AQI was still able to maintain a reasonably consistent pattern of urban car bombings that generated heavy damage and dozens of casualties with each attack. The sporadic VBIED attacks we’ve seen since 2018 are an entirely different beast from the coordinated, multi-vehicle car bomb waves insurgents launched during 2009-2013. The current insurgency doesn’t seem to capable of resourcing and sustaining these large multi-car bomb waves or coordinating synchronized bombings across several provinces. The individual car bombs also seem to be qualitatively inferior in terms of explosive yield and construction. You can see by the absence of things like heavy cratering on road surfaces or the lower number of casualties following recent VBIED explosions. All of the recent car bombings have produced casualties in single digits compared to the dozens of fatalities in individual bombings during 2009-2013. It’s not entirely clear if this is due to the low quality of the explosives, poor assembly resulting from a shortage of experienced car bomb engineers, poor emplacing at the targets or a mix of all of these. ISIS also doesn’t seem to be suffering from a shortage of suicide vests, but there have been very few effective suicide bombings recently, and none against the sort of hardened, high-value targets that were frequently struck during 2009-2013.
It’s still unclear to me to what extent this reflects a deliberate decision by the ISIS leadership to de-prioritize mass-casualty VBIED and suicide bombings versus a failure to regenerate these capabilities due to pressure from the security forces and Coalition. In either case it’s an interesting contrast to their first rebuild during 2009-2013, when high-profile, mass-casualty attacks made up an increasing percentage of insurgent attacks. AQI historically used mass-casualty urban car bombings and suicide attacks in an attempt to provoke communal and sectarian violence and bring about civil war-type conditions. One possibility is that the ISIS leadership learned the lesson from 2005-2008 and 2014-2017, namely that they successfully provoked massive Shiite sectarian mobilization and were badly defeated both times. ISIS may calculate that leaving Shiite Iraqis in the cities alone leading the government underestimate the larger security threat while they quietly rebuild in Sunni rural areas may be a more promising strategy this time around.
2. IS is concentrated in the rural areas of Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninewa, and Salahadin. There are reports of them forcing people out of villages, collecting taxes, intimidating local officials and the security forces. They have little to no presence in Iraq’s urban areas however. This is despite the fact that many of the big cities in post-conflict areas like Fallujah and Mosul have massive unemployment, a lack of services, major rebuilding still needs to be done, and families accused of links to the insurgency are being persecuted. What does it mean for the group that it can’t exploit that situation, and what if it remains largely concentrated in the countryside?
Urban environments remain un-permissive for the insurgents, despite the slow pace of reconstruction, lack of public services and in many cases quite weak government authority in urban areas. ISIS may be working to rebuild its mafia-style urban extortion networks and front businesses, but so far there’s been little sign of meaningful return to the cities showing up in the attack metrics. This seems to be primarily due the high degree of post-conflict exhaustion and trauma in the Sunni community, particularly in urban areas, which is much greater compared to after the 2006-2008 civil war. The degree of urban destruction and population displacement that most Sunni urban centers experienced during 2014-2017 is on an entirely different level compared to the insurgency’s previous iterations. Only Fallujah really experienced the sort of sustained, high-intensity urban combat and resulting damage that Mosul, Bayji, Ramadi and other smaller Sunni cities have gone through during the past few years. Even in Fallujah in 2004 didn’t suffer as badly as some parts of Mosul or Bayji in terms of buildings destroyed and percentage of the population displaced. The result is that war exhaustion along with the traumatic experience of living under ISIS control for a period of several years is a very real force in dampening down the prospects of a renewed insurgency as well as restricting ISIS’ ability to operate in urban areas.
In the longer term, ISIS ultimately depends on the funding generated from urban extortion networks and front businesses to stay relevant and remain a viable insurgent movement that presents a national-level threat to the Iraqi state. A purely rural insurgency would be a long-term irritant to the security forces and could disrupt the stabilization and reconstruction of those areas, but it would be relatively minor local threat that could safely be ignored by most Iraqis, even in Sunni areas. This sort of insurgency would probably fade away into a purely organized crime-type organization that would have to focus mostly on surviving through rural banditry, kidnappings and the like.
One notable caveat here that’s worth noting is that while the insurgency’s current iteration is weaker in cities, the government footprint in rural areas is also more limited compared to 2009-2013. A lot of the physical infrastructure of Iraqi government control of rural areas – fortified combat outposts dating back to the U.S. occupation, permanent road checkpoints, district and sub-district police stations, etc. – was destroyed by ISIS when they overran those areas in 2014 and hasn’t been fully rebuilt. As a result of this the higher level of rural insecurity doesn’t get the same attention it did before 2014. So for example the massacre of several Syrian truckers on a highway out in western Anbar in 2013 was considered a major indicator that security was deteriorating. During 2018 ISIS undertook several similar kidnap and execution jobs along the highway between Baghdad and Mosul that received much less attention. This is partly because most of the remaining insurgent activity is happening in thinly-populated rural areas, and partly because the fighting during 2014-2017 was so intense that people have become de-sensitized to the lower level of violence generated by a routine insurgency.
3. A Washington D.C. think tank recently released a report that said the Islamic State will be even more effective after their rebuilding then they were in 2014, and that they were capable of seizing another major city in Iraq. What did you think of those claims?
ISIS’ ability to seize major urban centers always depended on two things: the brittle, highly weakened state of the security forces in 2013-2014 and its ability to mass forces out in the open and project those forces across wide distances. This was in evidence during both the insurgent surge into Fallujah and Ramadi in the first quarter of 2014 and the collapse in Mosul. Prior to the surge into Mosul in June 2014 U.S. drones tracked ISIS vehicle columns made up of hundreds of armed technicals forming up in northeast Syria and western Ninewa, then driving over a hundred kilometers into the western outskirts of Mosul. Even earlier in the spring of 2014, insurgents were already moving around between Fallujah and the western Baghdad outskirts in convoys of dozens of technicals and captured Iraqi armored vehicles. The current picture of very different: although the Coalition air campaign has been winding down for over a year, the U.S. is still striking targets across Iraq on a daily basis and rural areas are being blanketed by airborne ISR platforms. These factors have capped the insurgents’ ability to mass for attacks at the squad to platoon-size – usually no more than one or two dozen ISIS fighters riding in two or three vehicles. This isn’t a force large enough to overrun a fortified combat outpost, especially one that’s defended by airstrikes, let alone a major urban center. More generally, the larger trends that could set the conditions of an insurgent comeback are all pointing in the other direction. The atmosphere in Sunni Iraq is completely different from December 2012-January 2014, when there were large, insurgent-friendly anti-government demonstrations taking place in most Sunni cities and AQI and JRTN sympathizers were operating semi-openly within the protest movement. Something like that happening now would be unthinkable, at least in the short term.
4. The Iraqi forces are conducting a mix of large sweeps and more targeted raids to counter the insurgency. How effective have these operations been and what else could they be doing?
The majority of the Iraqi security forces activity involves large clearance sweeps or reactive security operations. These range from day-long company or battalion-sized sweeps to large, multi-brigade or even multi-division operations covering hundreds of square kilometers. Security forces will typically move into an area, establish a cordon then conduct a deliberate sweep of any structures, roads, farmland, etc. These operations are intended primarily to demonstrate to locals that the government retains a presence in their areas and prevent insurgents from establishing “no go” areas protected by defensive IED belts. These operations usually turn up some insurgent caches, hides or bed-down sites but rarely nab more than a one or two insurgents, since they’re slow, cumbersome and usually move along predictable approach routes. This allows insurgents to easily evade them and then filter back into the notionally-cleared area. The security forces also frequently undertake reactive operations such as searches or detention sweeps in nearby villages following roadside bombings or similar insurgent attacks.
An additional problem is that most of the time the units conducting these operations are brought in from elsewhere and are unfamiliar with the area and the local population. For example, several Federal Police brigades from southern Iraq have been struggling to “clear” a relatively small patch of rural terrain near Daquq in Kirkuk province for over a year now with little effect. In rural Sunni areas the security forces also usually hunker down in their outposts after nightfall and rarely venture out except in strength. The result is that for at least a ten-hour period between dusk and dawn (and considerably longer during the winter months) insurgents own the local operating area and can move about relatively freely emplacing IEDs, raiding villages and setting up mortar or rocket attacks. So you have insurgents and security forces occupying the same operational space at alternating periods of the 24-hour day and coming into contact only infrequently. Finally, many thinly-populated rural areas lack a permanent ISF presence, since most of the security forces are tied up in static checkpoints strung out along the major roads or based out of larger outposts in the towns.
All that said, there have been significant improvements in the ISF’s operational performance, particularly during the last six months or so. Since early in the second quarter of this year we’ve seen the security forces, particularly the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) and provincial SWAT units ramping-up their tempo of intelligence-driven helicopter and ground raids. Some of these operations have been directly enabled by the Coalition, which airlifts the raiding forces to their targets, supplies the targeting intel and in some cases directly accompanies the Iraqi forces. These operations seem to be yielding significantly more take-downs of operationally-active ISIS cells as well as high-value arrests and have had a noticeable disruptive effect on the insurgent op tempo. There’s also been a joint Iraqi and U.S. effort to build-out additional counterinsurgency-focused units, including a three-battalion army special operations brigade (the Quwat Khasah) and additional SWAT-type provincial Special Tactics Regiments (STR) and Emergency Response units. These forces are intended to take some of the counterinsurgency burden off the CTS, leaving the ISOF to focus on high-end counterterrorism missions. Ultimately it’s these forces, structured specifically for counterinsurgency and counterterrorism work that are going to be the key to grinding down the remaining insurgency and not the big unit operations conducted by army or Federal Police forces.
5. What do you see as the future trajectory of the insurgency?
In my view ISIS is still a dynamic, resilient, and tactically-proficient insurgency, but one that’s capped at a quite a low level. Contrary to the perception that there’s been an ISIS comeback, the overall volume of insurgent activity in Iraq has measurably and consistently declined since ISIS transitioned back to an insurgency in the first quarter of 2018. A deliberate shift in focus to targeted, high-payoff “quality” attacks and the insurgent’s concentration on a few key operating areas probably accounts for part of this trend. My impression is that the ISIS leadership has deliberately prioritized laying the groundwork for long-term survival over keeping up a high volume of attacks, but this is still basically an insurgency that’s stuck on life-support. What’s especially striking to me is how static the overall security picture feels right now: levels of insurgent activity are roughly at or below what they were last summer and ISF clearance operations are rolling through the same patches of rural terrain. In my view the most worrying aspect of the security environment in Iraq aren’t the short to medium-term trends in insurgent activity but the longer-term outlook. ISIS has the potential to survive and eventually outlast the state of post-war exhaustion in the Sunni community as well as the residual CJTF-OIR presence. Combine that with the Iraqi government’s failure to meaningfully extend its footprint into Sunni rural areas and the fragmentation and “militiaization” the Iraqi security sector and there’s the potential for a Sunni insurgency that could resurge very energetically in three or five years if conditions are right.