Thursday, 4th June 2020

Iraq needs more help to tackle revived, if fractured, Islamic State

Even since the battle to defeat the Sunni extremists of Islamic State (IS or Daesh) began to make progress, there have been voices warning that Iraq’s fractured political environment and weak economy would remain fertile ground either for a resurgence of the group or the rise of another set of extremists in its place. Now those past warnings are turning into reality, as evidence grows that IS has begun to step up its activities this year.

Data on attacks carried out in 2020, collated by United States-based academic Joel Wing, show a sharp spike upwards since April, rising to 66 incidents across eight provinces in the third week of May – their highest level in two years – before dipping again around Eid Al-Fitr. It is too soon to know if that downturn marks an early end to the reinvigorated IS campaign or merely represents a momentary lull.

The risk is that gains made in recent years are going into reverse. The US-led Combined Joint Task Force launched Operation Inherent Resolve in October 2014 to destroy IS in Syria and Iraq. By November 2017, it was largely defeated in Iraq; prime minister Haider Al-Abadi announced victory over the group the following month, although it was another 15 months before IS was driven out of its last bolthole in Syria, Baghouz.

The reasons for the resurgence are familiar, from the schisms in domestic politics which have occupied Iraqi politicians’ minds, to the lack of effective reconstruction and persistent economic crisis. The long-running standoff between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the federal government in Baghdad has been exacerbated this year by the collapse in oil revenues and Covid-19 pandemic. Coronavirus has undermined the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF)’s ability to tackle IS, giving it room to expand.

Meanwhile, international partners have pulled their forces back from Iraq (GSN 1,100/8). In addition, as a result of Iranian-backed pressure on its forces in Iraq, the US has transferred control of a series of military bases to the ISF on an accelerated timetable (GSN 1,103/14). The result of all this has been a reduction in the amount of surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence and planning support available to the ISF, diluting the Iraqi forces’ options to proactively chase and harry militants in areas like the Makhmour mountains.

Former PM Abadi has acknowledged the dangers of a resurgent IS. “We are facing with a new challenge of Daesh, who are trying to utilise what happened to their own benefit,” he told an online event organised by London thinktank Chatham House on 22 May. “It is of paramount importance to bring back the self-confidence of our security forces and the self-confidence of their relationship with the people… We have a very good success story… That success story can be lost if we’re not careful.”

Daesh today is not the same as the group that gained notoriety from 2014-17, when IS set up a ‘caliphate’ in Syria and Iraq that at its height had a population of some 8m people. IS no longer holds and controls large swathes of territory. Instead the new-look Daesh is becoming akin to a more typical insurgent network, returning to guerrilla tactics of the sort that Iraqi jihadists and former Saddam Hussein regime renegades used before the shock June 2014 offensive, when IS captured Tikrit and Mosul.

Indeed, it is easy to exaggerate the level of threat IS currently poses. London-based Royal United Services Institute research fellow Jack Watling points out that attacks are now “probably at 2011/2012 levels. We are nowhere near mid-2013 to 2014 level of attacks”.

Contemporary IS is operating through a loose collection of largely autonomous sleeper cells. According to Watling it is “not really an organisation anymore”. There is still an element of central command, but it doesn’t appear to have the ability to launch extensive, co-ordinated attacks involving hundreds of fighters of the sort IS once carried out. Instead, local groups are able to make their own decisions on their attacks, kidnappings and assassinations. In some cases, these cells may share little in terms of ideology with Daesh, but see a benefit in launching attacks under the IS flag, either to strike fear into their opponents or to enable easier access into criminal supply networks. 
Cells have concentrated their activities in rural and mountainous regions of provinces including Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Nineva and Salahaddin. However, tactics have been evolving and IS has been able to move out of the more remote areas as international forces have retreated this year. With less pressure on it cells, IS has been able to expand its activities, while also starting to rebuild connections in local communities. This process has been aided by the sectarian behaviour of some Hashd Al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces) groups.

One key arena has been the territory claimed by both the federal government in Baghdad and the KRG, where the competition for control has meant there is little effective governance. In a report on Operation Inherent Resolve in the first quarter of 2020, published by the US Department of Defence, State Department and US Agency for International Development, Washington said efforts to persuade Baghdad and the KRG to take part in joint security mechanisms against IS in disputed areas “have met with limited success”. In February, US and other international troops began to work more closely with Peshmerga forces in the Makhmour Mountains and other areas claimed by the KRG and Baghdad. In particular they are working with Peshmerga Regional Guard Brigades (RGBs) which, unlike other Kurdish forces, are less closely aligned with the two main parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan; the RGBs instead report to the KRG Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs.

The new administration in Baghdad of Mustafa Al-Kadhimi should be able to forge a workable relationship with the US, given the prime minister’s close links to Washington. Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service head Abdul Wahab Al-Saadi has also worked closely with the US. But even with greater international support, few expect them to be able to entirely extinguish IS – a more realistic target might be to manage and contain the threat. For that to happen, a revival of international assistance will be needed to improve the ISF’s ability to strike effectively at the right targets.

The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) says that for now Iraqi forces, although rebuilt with assistance from the US and others, remain “insufficiently equipped for counter-insurgency tasks” that are needed against IS. In its Armed Conflict Survey published in May, IISS said: “Without an adequate counter-insurgency strategy, sufficient resources and proper cohesion and coordination, Iraqi security forces will struggle to defeat the remaining militants.”

IISS estimates that IS today has between 14,000 and 18,000 members and fighters. Since Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was killed in October 2019, IS has been led by Amir Mohammed Abdul Rahman Al-Mawli Al-Salbi (sometimes known as Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Qurayshi). While it doesn’t present the same level of risk for the international community as it has in the past, it is nevertheless a serious and deadly threat for many Iraqis.

The only sure way to defeat IS or its successors in the longer-term is for the authorities to properly address the long-held grievances which have provided fertile soil for Daesh – and before it, Al-Qaeda – to flourish, which is the poor infrastructure and services, corruption and a political system based on patronage that has been unresponsive to locals’ needs.

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