Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Categorizing The Iraq Insurgency

Today, the Islamic State (IS) dominates the Iraqi insurgency. It has swallowed up opposing factions and forced others off the battlefield. Up to 2014 however there was a range of militant groups operating in the country. In 2005, Nicholas Haussler attempted to categorize the insurgency into three broad groups. Those were local level actors that were usually based upon kinship. The next were larger enterprises that had access to weapons, independent funding, and connections to international groups and markets. The last was the transnational Al Qaeda in Iraq that networked with Iraqis and others across the region. These groups all interacted and competed with each other at the local to international levels to create the country’s insurgency. Today these different levels still exist, they just operating under the auspices of the Islamic State.

The core of the insurgency was the local chapters. These were usually organized along kinships, clans, occupations, mosques, etc. For example, a person might be a former member of the secret police, be part of a clan and tribe, and go to a specific mosque and draw upon all of those connections to find like minded people who were willing to fight the U.S. and Iraqi government. Ansar al-Islam for example was an Islamist group in Kurdistan that was formed before the 2003 invasion. Most of its core was said to come from one Kurdish clan. These groups were intimately connected to their communities who provided them the space to operate in, recruits, intelligence, and a means of communication. They were responsible for the majority of killings, information gathering, and security for networks. These groups were small and often competed with each other as much as cooperated. They posed a serious challenge to the state with its large bureaucratic structures that made it hard and slow to respond to this threat.

The next type of group was the enterprise. They were usually based upon extended families and clans. Many became criminal rings during the sanctions period. In the 1990s, the government encouraged certain officials and preferred tribes to smuggle goods to get around the international sanctions imposed on the country after its invasion of Kuwait. This allowed them to build up networks into Syria, Turkey and Jordan. These groups were able to expand with the power vacuum after the 2003 invasion. Their activities gave them access to communications, supplies, resources, and accesses to global markets. They also had links to institutions such as political parties, the Iraqi Security Forces, the judiciary, and the bureaucracy through infiltration, intimidation, and bribery. That meant these enterprises could tap into government wages, equipment, weapons, etc. Many of these groups later joined the insurgency providing supply networks and independent financing. They would contract out work to the local level actors to carry out operations.

The last type of organization was the transnational, which was represented by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Tawhid wal Jihad, which later became Al Qaeda in Iraq. It was made up mostly of foreign fighters, and had networks across the Middle East. The group was organized into cells, many of which acted autonomously. Zarqawi would bring the smaller groups together for large operations. He would also cooperate with local Iraqi groups and enterprises out of their shared interests in overthrowing the government and expelling the Americans. The local groups could cooperate on attacks, while enterprises could launder money or procure weapons. At the same time there was plenty of competition and rivalry, which would often break out into open fighting between them. Eventually Tawhid wal Jihad’s successor the Islamic State would subsume almost all of the other Iraqi groups from the local level to the enterprises after the summer of 2014.

Today the situation in Iraq has changed as the diversity of insurgent groups has largely disappeared due to the power of the Islamic State. Up to the summer of 2014 there was a plethora of organizations active in Iraq, but they have mostly left the battlefield or been integrated within IS. Still elements of these different types of organizations exist, but largely under the umbrella of IS. There are still local Iraqi groups that provide foot soldiers for the Islamic State. Members of certain tribes for example have sided with IS and are likely organized along kinship lines. IS has appropriated many of the crime rings of central and northern Iraq that were once run by independent enterprises. Where the group was strong such as in Mosul, this happened years ago. IS has now expanded these activities after its seizure of so much territory in Syria and Iraq to sustain itself. It has exploited its connections across the region to smuggle oil and antiquities amongst other illegal activities. Finally, IS still acts as the transnational actor coordinating these smaller groups and providing leadership. Haussler’s categories are helpful in understanding how the insurgency was organized as it was never one monolithic group, but rather a conglomeration of like minded people united in their opposition to the new Iraq. It still proves useful today to breakdown the components of the Islamic State.


Haussler, Nicholas, “Third Generation Gangs Revisited: The Iraq Insurgency,” Naval Postgraduate School Thesis, September 2005

McGrath, John, “An Army at War: Change in the Midst of Conflict,” Combat Studies Institute Press, 8/2-4/05

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