Tuesday, September 27, 2016

With Mosul Threatened And The Caliphate Collapsing In Iraq What’s Next For The Islamic State?

In the August 2016 edition of Perspectives On Terrorism, Naval War College, Monterey Professor Crag Whiteside tried to give an overarching framework for the Islamic State’s history. Whiteside argued that IS can best be understood as a revolutionary group following the general principles of Chairman Mao Zedong’s people’s war of building, expanding, and then directly challenging the state.

Chairman Mao outlined his ideas about revolutionary warfare based upon his overthrow of the Chinese government. Mao wrote that a people’s war is a protracted political-military struggle based upon irregular units attempting to take over the state. This goes through three broad phases. The first is the building and preserving stage, then the expansion, and finally the decisive phase when the state is directly challenged and overthrown. These three steps are not set and based upon local conditions and the strength of the government. It is also a long and drawn out war based upon recruiting and indoctrinating cadre, gaining support of the population, and carrying out synchronized political, economic, social, and psychological moves, not just military ones. Terrorism was considered an integral part of the people’s struggle as it was used to undermine society and the authority of the state, not to defeat the enemy or acts of desperation.

The Islamic State adopted Mao’s ideas via the Syrian Abu Musab al-Suri. Suri was a leader amongst Syrian jihadists and went to Afghanistan to fight in the war there. His book, Global Call for Islamic Resistance which documented previous jihads including the one against Hafez al-Assad was widely read in Islamic circles including by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. Suri talked about a revolutionary jihad and recited Mao although not explicitly. Many of Suri’s ideas of creating a centralized and compartmentalized political-military covert organization were incorporated by Zarqawi into his Tawhid wal Jihad that would later become Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State.

From 2002-2005 Zarqawi entered into Mao’s first phase of building his group. Zarqawi started off with a very small group of foreign fighters. His first goal was to expand and take over the Iraqi insurgency, which consisted of Baathists, nationalists, and rival Islamists. Zarqawi came up with 5 tactics: weaken the Iraqi government, recruit rival groups, play and expand upon Sunni alienation with the new Iraq, provoke Shiite militias, and convince the United States to withdraw. He also incorporated Mao’s ideas of terrorism focusing upon headline grabbing bombings in 2003 rather than small skirmishes and improvised explosive devices as other groups were doing. His first actions occurred in August 2003 when Tawhid wal Jihad bombed the Jordanian embassy and the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, and the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf. As Mao argued these attacks were not meant to overthrow the U.S. occupation, but they undermined the victory narrative Washington was pushing after the overthrow of Saddam, and made the U.N. and other international groups and foreign countries weary of operating in Iraq. By 2004 Zarqawi moved to targeted assassinations with specific units carrying them out against militiamen, Iraqi Islamic Party members, politicians, judges, and senior members of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). At the end of the year, Zarqawi aligned with bin Laden and changed the name of his organization to Al Qaeda in Iraq adding the prestige of that group to his own, and opening up new revenue sources from international donors. Mao also spoke of using contradictions in society to mobilize the populace. Zarqawi used sectarianism to rally Sunnis to his cause. He attacked Shiites to provoke their retaliation so that he could portray his organization as the protectors of Sunnis, and helped lead to the Sunnis boycott of the 2005 elections that further alienated the community form the new political order. Finally, Zarqawi recruited Iraqi Salafis that had grown up under Saddam. Under this first phase Zarqawi was widely successful. He became the brand name behind the opposition to the U.S. occupation even though he was not an Iraqi and his group was very small. He completely undermined the Americans initial plans for Iraq by spreading violence and creating a non-inclusive government, while forcing the U.N. and other organizations to withdraw from Iraq at least temporarily. In the next step he and his successor were not as successful.

From 2005-2007 Zarqawi and his successor Abu Omar al-Baghdadi expanded Al Qaeda in Iraq, but faced a massive pushback from the country’s Sunnis. In 2006, Al Qaeda in Iraq created the Mujahadeen Shura Council to bring in other insurgent groups. Later that year the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was announced. At the same time Zarqawi was killed in an American bombing. He was replaced by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi whose plan was to appeal to Iraqis, increase the military campaign, build the group’s organization, and become self-sufficient financially. Zarqawi and Bahgdadi however, emphasized the military effort more than politics, which created a backlash. While the group was expanding its operations across the country, it was forcing its ideas upon the populace rather than winning them over. The result was the Anbar Awakening and the Sahwa that started in 2006 and quickly spread across central Iraq in 2007 thanks to the support of the Americans. Those two incorporated not only Sunni tribes, but other insurgent groups that had grown tired of ISI’s violence, attempts to change Iraqi culture, and heavy handedness. Together the Awakening, Sahwa, and U.S. were able to push ISI out of most of its strongholds, and the group had to retreat.

2008-11 ISI returned to rebuilding under the leadership of Omar al-Baghdadi. At the time, many thought that ISI was down and out, and the insurgency was in its death knell. Instead, Omar al-Baghdadi came up with a detailed and effective plan to get rid of rivals and co-opt others to gain back its base. The main target was the Sahwa and tribes that had cost it so much. Its “Strategic Plan for Reinforcing the Political Position of the Islamic State” said that the organization’s problems were due to the Awakening and Sahwa, and the Americans turning the tribes against them. To rebound, ISI would mimic the U.S. tactics and win back these groups by playing divide and conquer. Sahwa leaders and sheikhs would be offered rewards for their cooperation, and those that refused would be assassinated. At the same time, ISI planned to take advantage of the U.S. withdrawal in 2011. It would work to recruit other insurgents groups, would target the ISF hoping to drive it from areas to open space for the militants to operate in, and launch a new wave of terrorism to put it back in the media hoping to gain new recruits and backing. In the summer of 2009-10 for example, it carried out a series of massive bombings in Baghdad aimed at Iraqi ministries. The Americans unwittingly helped as well by releasing 20,000 prisoners that included much of the group’s current leadership. Finally, it worked at proselytizing amongst Iraqis rather than forcing its ideas upon the population like it had before. Omar al-Baghdadi would be killed in 2010, but what he set in motion would succeed in bringing ISI back from the dead.

ISI’s new leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi guided the group through its next phase the second expansion from 2011-2013. Baghdadi stepped up the campaign against the Sahwa and ISF. Many histories of the Islamic State argue that the group rebuilt itself in Syria and then expanded back into Iraq. In fact, ISI was already in the rebound in Iraq and took advantage of Syria to expand and recruit. The boldness of the group was marked by the 2012 Breaking Walls campaign that carried out prison breaks to release members, stepped up its terrorist bombings, and retook areas it had lost. These events marked Iraq’s return to a full-fledged insurgency.

That allowed Baghdadi to move into phase three decisive action for the first time starting in 2013. That year Baghdadi claimed that he had formed Al Nusra Front in Syria and then moved more directly into that war leading to the new name the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Soldiers’ Harvest campaign was launched in Iraq aimed at attacking the ISF and seizing territory. ISIS then took over Fallujah in early 2014 after tribes and other insurgent groups rose up against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki when he shut down the Ramadi demonstration site. That culminated with its summer offensive, which swept through Mosul, Tikrit, Hawija and western Anbar. Baghdadi then announced the establishment of the caliphate, which brought it support from around the world. While it hadn’t overthrown the Iraqi government, it had created one of its own stretching across western and northern Iraq into neighboring Syria. At the same time, the Islamic State as it then became known expanded far past its capacity.

IS seemed to be riding high with its caliphate, but it was actually heading for a fall that would return it to the first stage of rebuilding once again. As soon as Baghdad recovered from its collapse in northern Iraq and received the assistance of first Iran, and then more importantly the United States and its coalition the tide against IS would slowly turn to near collapse in Iraq. While IS would have one final victory when it took Ramadi in the middle of 2015, after that the group would face defeat after defeat in Salahaddin, Anbar, and Ninewa. Today, Mosul is on Baghdad’s hit list and could be attacked this year. Many of the group’s main leaders such as spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani have been killed in air strikes. The group has seen the writing on the wall, and is preparing to return to an insurgency once again. Before his death, Adnani issued a statement in May 2016 saying that IS might lose the land and cities it controlled and return to the desert, but it would not be defeated. What that foretold was that IS was ready to withdraw and fight another day just as it had after facing its previous greatest setback at the hands of the Awakening, the U.S. Surge and Sahwa. The outlines of that strategy are already apparent with its terrorist campaign in Baghdad. Again, this is part of a political, military and propaganda effort to show that the group is still capable of operations despite its territorial losses, and to challenge the authority of the government. The effectiveness of these attacks was shown in the summer of 2016 with the Karrada bombing that left over 500 casualties. There was wide condemnation of the authorities and Iraqi forces afterwards for letting such a catastrophe occur, highlighted by another car bomb in that same neighborhood a few weeks later. At the same time, IS is rebuilding in the rural areas and attempting to win back the tribes that they have once again lost the support of. That can be seen in IS attacks upon the Ramadi, Fallujah and Tikrit districts, which have all been freed over the last year or so, but the militants have been able to re-infiltrate. IS also has bases in Diyala and the rural towns in Baghdad to build upon. The reprisals the Hashd and Peshmerga have carried out on Sunni civilians and towns, the lack of money to rebuild, and the political battles for control of the freed areas provide other avenues for IS to exploit.

Throughout its history, the Islamic State has shown great adaptability, which is why it has survived for so long. Mao wrote that when the enemy is strong the guerrillas retreat, and look for weak points to exploit. That is what IS is doing now as it attempts its third rebuilding effort in Iraq. It is quickly giving up territory hoping to fight another day, while increasing its terrorist operations. It may never have another caliphate, but that wont stop it from being a deadly insurgent force hoping to re-emerge and expand once more when the opportunity presents itself. As Mao noted, a popular war is a protracted one with ebbs and flows, and the Islamic State is in it for the long haul.


Brock, Maj Gar, “Zarqawi’s Sfumato: Operational Art In Irregular Warfare,” School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 2013

Gordon, Michael and Trainor, General Bernard, The Endgame, The Inside Story Of The Struggle For Iraq, From George W. Bush To Barack Obama, New York, Pantheon, 2012

Lewis, Jessica, “AQI’s “Soldiers’ Harvest” Campaign,” Institute for the Study of War, 10/9/13

McCants, William, “Inside the ISIS Blueprint for Winning,” Daily Beast, 9/29/15

Moubayed, Sami, Under The Black Flag, London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2015

Ryan, Michael, “ISIS: The Terrorist Group That Would Be a State,” U.S. Naval War College, 10/14/15

Stern, Jessica Berger, J.M., ISIS: The State of Terror, New York: Harper Collins, 2015

Weiss, Michael, “The ISIS Attack Dog Reported Dead,” Daily Beast, 8/30/16

Whiteside, Craig, “ISIL’s Small Ball Warfare: An Effective Way to Get Back into a Ballgame,” War On The Rocks, 4/29/15
- “New Masters of Revolutionary Warfare: The Islamic State Movement (2002-2016),” Perspectives On Terrorism, August 2016

Wyer, Sam, “The Islamic State of Iraq And The “Destroying The Walls” Campaign,” Institute For The Study Of War, 9/21/12

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