Terror and Murder — Islamic State Switches to an Insurgency in Iraq
It's delusional to call this war over
Iraq’s military has essentially destroyed the physical Islamic “State” which once militarily occupied one-third of the country. The effort to root out the Islamic State insurgency could take years. Iraq is now faced with the difficult task of implementing effective counter-insurgency methods as the group reverts to its origins as a stateless terrorist organization.
Despite official pronouncements that Islamic State is “defeated,” the group is still mounting a campaign of assassinations, bombings and platoon-sized ambushes.
The notion that the group is defeated is “delusional,” said Michael Knights, a Middle East analyst at the Washington Institute. The group is still mounting a “mature 36-month insurgency in Diyala,” and a “maturing 20+ month insurgency in Salah al-Din, and [the] beginning of a nasty ISIS bounce-back in rural Nineveh.”
The U.S.-led Combined Joint Task Force, or CJTF, which has been bombing Islamic State since 2014, is taking steps in preparation to combat this looming threat, Knights told War Is Boring.
“CJTF is clearly focused on training and equipping more CTS [Counter Terrorism Service] and Iraqi Army units to give them the mobility, communications and basic equipment to allow ongoing operations, which will now increasingly be counter-insurgency operations,” he explained.
The coalition “is also focused on helping the Iraqi Army to operate in the deserts and ungoverned spaces, in Anbar and Nineveh, and in the Hamrin Mountains,” Knights added. “This means not only the new desert training syllabus but also the air mobility and logistics to patrol and set up desert FOBs [forward operating bases].”
“What is needed after is a counter-insurgency center of excellence to allow Iraqi soldiers to adapt best practice counter-insurgency tactics to local conditions,” he concluded.
Above — Iraqi Special Forces disembark from an Mi-17 helicopter. U.S. Army photo. At top — Iraqi commandos. U.S. military photos
The fact that Islamic State sought to actively defend physical territory meant the group fought in a highly conventional manner – a tactic which proved to be a resounding failure versus the Iraqi military backed by extensive air support. Since the start of the air campaign, the U.S.-led coalition has conducted some 14,100 air strikes, dropping or firing more than 100,000 bombs and missiles, according to monitoring group Airwars.
As one U.S. coalition official pointed out in February 2016, before the Mosul operation, “Daesh cannot just fight in an unconventional manner all the time and expect to successfully defend their territory so they have to come out and fight, and we weed them out through air strikes, we weed them out through successful ground operations by the [Kurdish] Peshmerga and then we strike them. We’ve had a lot of success.”
In late 2014, two Kurdistan Workers Party fighters in the ruined city of Sinjar discussed the tactics of their adversaries, particularly their reluctance to fight at night. “They [Islamic State] do not know the guerrilla method, they are too afraid of the night,” one of them pointed out to his comrade. “At night, they only do short and fast attacks and they return to their base. It’s like a regular army.”
A contributing factor to the terror group’s battlefields defeats was its “fratricidal” version of jihadist ideology that considered nearly everyone – even potential sympathizers – as enemies, according to a November article by Mohammed Hafez in CTC Sentinel, the monthly newsletter of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.
Islamic State’s manichaeism found it few allies, and its brutality made many enemies in a similar manner to the failed Armed Islamic Group of Algeria in the 1990s.
“Their sense of ideological superiority rationalizes extreme violence against friends and foe alike,” Mohammed wrote. “Their outrageous tactics inspire fear, but not admiration. When communities have an opportunity to turn their back on these fratricidal extremists, they seize it with a vengeance.”
No change in tactics would have solved this underlying problem for the organization — their problems are ideological and political. However, had Islamic State not had a “state” to defend, then it could have relied on more elusive guerrilla tactics and spared many of its fighters.
Now that the group has no “state” to speak of, its reversion to past tactics focused on terrorism and hit-and-run attacks could present a dangerous threat if not properly confronted.
“The Islamic State is retreating and regrouping and not able to carry out sustained operations right now,” Iraq analyst Joel Wing, who chronicles Iraqi developments on his blog Musings on Iraq, told War Is Boring. “I would suspect that would last for the next several months.”
To be sure, Wing notes that Islamic State is not experiencing significant successes in its initial stages of reversion to a non-state terrorist group.
“Even in the most violence provinces there are only an average of around two incidents per day, and the rest are averaging only around one per day,” Wing said. “ISIS was trying to regroup in Diyala and Salah al-Din, but were not able to sustain those efforts, and faced more setbacks when Shirqat and Hawija were liberated.”
Therefore, Wing anticipates that “the real issue is not the immediate security situation, but whether in a year or more the insurgents are able to make a comeback.”
The group very well could reach that goal in the absence of sustained pressure – and if the Iraqi military, police and paramilitary forces fail to maintain a presence in the rural and desert areas of Iraq where Islamic State has camps. This, perhaps, is where the Iraqi state is weakest.
“The fact that Baghdad has not rebuilt the local police forces in central Iraq, and that it has no reconstruction plans nor money to carry them out if they had them,” may give Islamic State the breathing space in which to mount such a campaign, Wing concluded.
In other words, Islamic State lost all of its battles in Iraq and, along with them, all of the usurped territories that made-up its terror caliphate, but has yet to outright lose the war.