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Situation, Facts and Events
20.01.2023

The Current Strategy of the Islamic state in Iraq

Islamic State terrorist organization (also IS or ISIS, banned in Russia) resumed its activities in Iraq in 2020 and strengthened its position in 2021-2022. After the fall of ISIS as a territorial unit and the death of its previous leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group reorganized the Iraqi provinces under its control into a single Wilayat Iraq, broken down into several sectors. This was the outcome of a broader reorganization aimed at the development of mobile militant groups and the use of sleeper cells to carry out terrorist attacks.


The IS tactics in Iraq is, on the one hand, envisages keeping the enemy in a state of constant tension, and on the other hand, creating a false sense of security to encourage them to ease their pressure and vigilance. Wilayat Iraq has reformulated its combat strategies in accordance with the new context on the ground and stepped up its activities in areas that are still vulnerable to internal Iraqi problems and demonstrate the weakness of local security forces.

 

The most striking example is Diyala, an important road junction 60 km northeast of Baghdad, situated between three Iraqi governorates, including Sulaymaniyah, Wasit and Salah al-Din. This makes Diyala an important logistical node with access to Kirkuk, Anbar and Mosul. However, all these areas have rugged mountainous terrain, poor roads, and a mixed Sunni and Shia population that has suffered in violent sectarian clashes in the past. The situation in 2020-2022 was exacerbated by weak oversight by security forces and a general lack of a coordinated counter-terrorism policy.


To date, about 8,000 fighters are still part of Wilayat Iraq, with about 4,000 of them active. The rest of them belong to sleeper cells or represent supporters integrated into local communities in Sunni-majority provinces. This may lead to an increase in the military potential of IS in Iraq and the subsequent expansion of the group's influence in areas where it used to be active before.

 

Wilayat Iraq and parts of the IS central leadership rely on bases in remote, desert and mountainous areas where the group's cells use tunnels and caves, shelter fighters, set up checkpoints, secure supply routes and provide communications. The areas where IS operates, including Anbar, northern Baghdad, Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, Ninewa, Diyala, Babil and a large area in the south of the country called the Southern Sector, testified how the militants swore allegiance to IS leader Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qureishi in March 2022.

 

The areas of Salah al-Din, Kirkuk and Diyala, consisting of valleys, mountain ranges and agricultural areas with rich orchards, are the most important geographical areas and centers of IS activity in Iraq. Although the group stepped up its activities in the country in 2020, having carried out 1,211 terrorist attacks, Wilayat Iraq carried out fewer attacks in 2021; the number of  attacks carried out in all Iraqi territories that it controls was 1,079. Between January 1 and April 8, 2022, there were a total of 120 attacks in Iraq.

 

When working to expand its influence, Wilayat Iraq resorts to two main types of operations, called “war of attrition” and “economic warfare”, which do not require the use of a large number of fighters.


The first strategy includes various types of attacks using improvised explosive devices, as well as ambushes, shooting by snipers and assassinations of public and political leaders. Besides, IS has carried out kidnappings and attacks on checkpoints of Iraqi security forces, Shia militias, pro-government forces, and local officials and tribal leaders collaborating with the Baghdad government. Wilayat Iraq also seeks to prevent the normalization, stabilization and rehabilitation of territories previously under the control of IS, and to increase sectarian strife.

 

The economic warfare strategy, in turn, includes burning of crops, houses and farms, as well as attacking public and private infrastructure, including gas stations, oil wells, gas companies, oil and gas pipelines, water wells and water facilities, power lines and telecommunications towers.  In 2021, such attacks mainly targeted power infrastructure facilities in the districts of Diyala, Kirkuk and Salah al-Din. These types of attacks cause havoc and push the security forces to protect economic targets while leaving other vulnerable areas unprotected, making it easier for IS to target those. In 2021, more than 400 terrorist attacks were carried out in Iraq, which accounted for 80% of IS global economic warfare operations.


Information about the activities of Wilayat Iraq is published daily in the extremist media. The organization's advocacy uses a wide range of technological resources, the quantity and quality of which have increased significantly in recent years, including those of the Furqan Foundation, Amak News, and the weekly Al-Naba newsletter. In addition to websites, Wilayat Iraq propaganda is also broadcasted through numerous social platforms and messaging applications on internet-enabled portable devices.


Since 2021, IS has been actively publishing a series of photos and statements produced in Iraq. One of the most striking pieces was a short video published in March 2022 in which Vilayat Iraq militants swear allegiance to the new IS caliph. Other videos and accompanying photographs published by Amaq News or Al-Naba show attacks on the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), state security personnel, local tribal forces based in the countryside, and civilians accused of  “espionage” and cooperation with Iraqi forces against IS.


IS undoubtedly remains one of the main threats to the security and stability of Iraq. The elimination of the group in Iraq in the short and medium term is unlikely, regardless of the military and political strategy that is being implemented. However, any attempt to reduce the threat in the long term through recruitment, special operations and financial support can only be implemented through political mechanisms aimed at integrating Sunni Arabs into the political process. Such a measure is supposed to put an end to religious extremism, contribute to a fair distribution of power and material wealth among a diverse population and restore the destroyed state and military infrastructure.

 

The national authorities also need to address the issue of forced migrants and displaced persons who will need to be allowed to return to governorates in the west and northwest of Iraq. The social reintegration and adaptation of the families of former IS members who are still in camps for displaced persons or prisoners of war is also very important.

Another issue is the need to control paramilitary activities. They should be stopped or significantly reduced, perhaps through their reintegration into the Iraqi security forces. Previously, these militias were often accused of exacerbating sectarian conflicts, failing to follow instructions from state security forces, threatening the Iraqi government, and attacking US military bases and contingents.


It is likely that the Iraqi Armed Forces in 2023 will also have to strengthen their military operations and control in the border and desert areas, especially along the border with Syria. The first step taken by the Iraqi government was the construction of a 3.5-meter wall in the Jabal Sinjar area in the province of Ninewa and the increase in the number of troops in the area.

 

However, Iraq's stability appears to ultimately depend on combating widespread corruption among the ruling political elite. Pervasive corruption contributes to the growth of extremism, internal conflicts, violence, protests and, ultimately, the gradual spread of jihadist terrorism. IS in Iraq, despite the overall reduction in its activities at the very beginning of 2022, is still capable of conducting sustained subversive activities and using its ideology in the interests of recruiting the Sunni population of Iraq. As a result, countering IS in the past was an intermediate and, rather, a preparatory stage for conducting large-scale operations and collateral damage.

Source: Институт Ближнего Востока