ISIS militants. Photo Credit: AP
While the territorial caliphate in Iraq has collapsed, ongoing issues within the country and recent protests provide opportunities that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) could exploit to re-gain some power. Continuing instability and insecurity in Iraq has allowed the group to target local leaders and intimidate civilians. The political turmoil in Iraq has also presented opportunities for ISIS to inflame sectarian tensions and attempt to force US troops from the country.
Iraqi forces, backed up by coalition support, were able to re-take territory from ISIS and eliminate ISIS presence in most of Iraq. The group has remained though, occupying mountains, caves and deserts on Iraq’s periphery. ISIS has also moved into abandoned and destroyed villages. Most of the current crop of ISIS fighters are native Iraqis, who are not only able to blend in better but also have no choice but to continue fighting with the group. Living in these austere conditions is highly preferable to the almost assured execution that awaits them if they are captured by the security services.[i] The group has not simply been hiding out but also carrying out targeted assassinations that could help create a foundation for larger attacks and a possible resurgence.
Many ordinary Iraqis, frustrated with continued predation by the Shia government in Baghdad, initially supported ISIS. This not only included those that joined as fighters but also civilians that provided sanctuary for members and refused to cooperate with the security services. The group’s brutality eventually alienated many of these earlier supporters, and the security services worked on reducing their excesses, thus allowing the government to foster more trust with local citizens. This cooperation from the local community aided the efforts to re-take territory from the group and has helped prevent it from re-gaining a foothold in urban centers. Local villagers on the ground have been serving as the eyes and ears of the security services, reporting alleged ISIS members. The most important link between local villagers and the government are the muktars (local village heads). These leaders liaise with government forces and keep them apprised of security conditions on the ground. Cognizant of the power held by the leaders, ISIS has been focusing on eliminating the mukhtars in rural areas of Iraq. Assassinations serve the dual purpose of denying the state crucial intelligence and terrorizing citizens to keep them from cooperating with the authorities.[II] Iraqi forces have pushed ISIS out from all major urban centers, but they still struggle to maintain total control over the harsh terrain that ISIS inhabits. Locals know that the security service will not always be there to protect them, and ISIS has widely publicized this by distributing videos of night raids where they break into mukhtar’s homes and execute them. It is within this context that mass protests have broken out.
The war to take back territory from ISIS is over, but the country has still yet to recover from the devastation it wrought. Many cities are still destroyed and lack infrastructure, unemployment is high, and the government is accused of corruption and mismanagement.[III] Security forces have fired live ammunition at demonstrators, killing over 100 protestors. As protestors continue to flock to the streets, the government has proven itself incapable of controlling the chaos. Prominent politicians like Moqtada al-Sadr have lost faith in the government of Adil Abdul-Mahdi and have called for its dissolution.[IV] These calls are significant as al-Sadr is one of the most popular politicians in Iraq. His Sadrist movement has massive support in Iraq’s Shia south, where the protests are occurring. His party is also a part of the Saairun coalition, which controls the largest number of seats in Iraq’s parliament.[V] These protests have also presented opportunities for ISIS to re-ignite sectarian tensions and potentially force out U.S. troops.
Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the precursor to ISIS, was able to fuel its rise to power by widening the sectarian divide in Iraq. Beginning with its founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, AQI deliberately targeted Shiite civilians and holy sites. Such attacks infuriated Shiites and led to a wave of reprisals against Sunni civilians. In one notable attack, AQI members bombed a historic mosque in Samarra, severely damaging its interior. The following day outraged Shia killed up to 1,000 Sunnis in response. These sectarian attacks carried out by AQI also led to the formation of Shiite militias known for their brutal executions of Sunni civilians. Fearing for their lives, many Sunnis looked to AQI for protection, giving the group new members and increased legitimacy.[VI] Since the destruction of the Caliphate, sectarian tensions have markedly decreased. Iraqi politicians have refrained from utilizing sectarian rhetoric for political gain, and Sunni-Shia relations have improved. The protests have mostly focused on government failures and ineptitude, but they have also begun to adopt an anti-Iranian stance. Many Iraqis are frustrated with the level of influence that Iran has in their country through their affiliated militias and political parties.[VII] The protestors have also accused Iranian-backed militias like Kata’ib Hezbollah of attacking protestors inside hospitals and ransacking the offices of several news channels.[VIII] These militias are suspected of being responsible for some of the killings of protestors and have allegedly deployed snipers on rooftops in Baghdad during the protests.[IX] ISIS could attempt to harness this anti-Iran sentiment and turn it into anti-Shia sentiment. It may also, as it did during its initial rise, target Shia communities to initiate a sectarian conflict that could ultimately benefit them. Such an attack was foiled recently during the annual Arbaeen pilgrimage. Iraqi counterterrorism units reported discovering 750 kilograms of explosives that ISIS intended to use against the millions of Shiites travelling to Karbala for the religious holiday.[X] This plot underscores the difficulty Iraqi security forces face as they try to contend with the protests and disrupt ISIS attacks.
ISIS may take advantage of the government’s focus on the protests to step up operations intended to strengthen the group. ISIS’s initial rise was heavily aided by a series of prison breaks that provided propaganda value and added hundreds of fighters to its ranks. The group has already mentioned this as a possible strategy, and in September of this year, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released a propaganda video calling on supporters to free imprisoned members. [XI] Worried about prison breaks in Syria, Iraq has agreed to take back some ISIS members from Syrian prisons, and ISIS may aim to target these transports.[XII] Another weak point that ISIS could seek to exploit is Iraq’s continued reliance on coalition forces.
While coalition troops play more of a background role in Iraq, they are still crucial in training and supporting Iraqi forces. Coalition air support is also critical in the continued efforts to disrupt ISIS movement and attacks. A senior Iraqi military official explained the importance of this air support, stating, “We cannot defeat ISIS without air support from Coalition forces.”[XIII] President Trump has repeatedly mentioned that he wants to pull US troops out of endless wars in the Middle East, and despite criticizing President Obama’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq, he recently withdrew troops from northern Syria against the advice of US military leaders.[XIV] Some Iraqi parliamentarians have criticized the continued US presence, previously proposing legislation to force the withdrawal of coalition troops.[XV] To help bring about a US withdrawal, ISIS could also exploit Iranian-US tensions.
Tensions between US troops and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq remain high, and an escalation could benefit ISIS. Some of these Shia militias conducted attacks against US troops during the Iraq War and in the last few weeks have threatened to do so once again.[XVI] If ISIS were able to carry out an attack against US personnel in Iraq and pin the blame on Iranian linked groups, Iranian-US tensions could escalate and result in the withdrawal of coalition troops. The ensuing political fallout from such an attack could lead Iranian-linked parliament members to renew calls for US withdrawal. President Trump might also take the initiative and cite the loss of American lives and continued hostility from Iranian backed groups as a motivation for a US pullout from Iraq. If this were to happen, coalition troops from other nations would likely withdraw, as they rely on US logistics to operate in Iraq. It is possible that heightened Iranian-US tensions could have the opposite effect and lead to increased US involvement in Iraq, but under this current administration, this seems unlikely. In mid-January, after the declaration that ISIS had been defeated, ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack in Manjib, Syria that killed four US soldiers. At the time of the attack, the Trump administration vowed that ISIS would not be able to make a comeback while at the same time reaffirming its decision to pull US troops out of Syria.[XVII]
All of these issues and potential opportunities underlie the continuing fragility of Iraq. A weak economy and dissatisfaction with the political system will continue to comprise the factors that can draw individuals into militant movements. The underdeveloped Iraqi security apparatus will likely continue to struggle to react to large-scale security threats without outside help. The fragile state of Syria also raises the risk of foreign conflicts exacerbating domestic security issues. Even if ISIS does not capitalize on these opportunities, these issues can provide the fuel that militant groups need to set the Iraqi state on fire once again.
[i] “Averting an ISIS Resurgence in Iraq and Syria,” Crisis Group, October 22, 2019, https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/eastern-mediterranean/syria/207-averting-isis-resurgence-iraq-and-syria.
[III] “Iraqi Pilgrims Protest Corruption During Arbaeen March,” France 24, October 19, 2019, https://www.france24.com/en/20191019-iraqi-pilgrims-protest-corruption-during-arbaeen-march.
[IV] Haider Kadhin, “Powerful Cleric Urges Iraq Government to Quit as Protests Rage,” Reuters, October 4, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-protests/powerful-cleric-urges-iraq-government-to-quit-as-protests-rage-idUSKBN1WJ0NW.
[V] Krishnadev Calamur, “The Man Who Could Shape Iraq’s Future,” The Atlantic, May 16, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/05/iraq-elections-sadr/560456/.
[VI] Daniel Byman, Road Warriors: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 123.
[VII] “Averting an ISIS Resurgence.”
[VIII] Patrick Cockburn, “Death Toll in Iraq Soars to More than 100 as pro-Iran Gunmen Accused of Shooting Protesters,” The Independent, October 7, 2019, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iraq-protests-baghdad-death-toll-shooting-a9145716.html.
[IX] “Exclusive: Iran-Backed Militias Deployed Snipers in Iraq Protests – Sources,” Reuters, October 17, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-protests-iran-snipers-exclusive/exclusive-iran-backed-militias-deployed-snipers-in-iraq-protests-sources-idUSKBN1WW0B1.
[X] “Iraqi Forces Foil Suspected ISIS Attack on Shia Pilgrims South of Baghdad,” Kurdistan24, October 1, 2019, https://www.kurdistan24.net/en/news/32aaba29-6824-49c4-bff2-13dc2bdf7021.
[XI] “Islamic State’s Reclusive Leader Issues New Call for Action,” Voice of America, accessed October 21, 2019, https://www.voanews.com/middle-east/islamic-states-reclusive-leader-issues-new-call-action.
[XII]Qassim Abdul-zahra, “FM: Iraq Will Only Repatriate IS Fighters Who Are Iraqis.” Associated Press, October 17, 2019, https://www.apnews.com/0d98945c4f0f4776a6c6dbb5e91bd791.
[XIII] “Averting an ISIS Resurgence.”
[XIV] Missy Ryan, “’They Are Livid’: Trump’s Withdrawal from Syria Prompts Rare Public Criticism from Current, Former Military Officials.” The Washington Post, October 19, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/they-are-livid-trumps-withdrawal-from-syria-prompts-rare-public-criticism-from-current-former-military-officials/2019/10/19/d9455f08-f1ba-11e9-8693-f487e46784aa_story.html.
[XV] “Averting an ISIS Resurgence.”
[XVI] Giglio, Mike Giglio, “The Flash Point Between America and Iran Could Be Iraq’s Militias.” The Atlantic, May 8, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/05/iraq-militias-flash-point-between-united-states-and-iran/589003/.
[XVII] Zachary Cohen, Veronica Stracqualursi, and Kevin Liptak, “4 Americans Killed in Syria Attack. ISIS Claims Responsibility,” CNN, January 17, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/01/16/politics/syria-attack-us-patrolled-city/index.html.