The Islamic State is stepping up its attacks in Iraq, fulfilling the expectations of many analysts that the extremist group would mount a comeback after the Iraqi government declared victory over it in 2017.
While the Islamic State has yet to show the same capabilities it had at its peak in 2013 and 2014, when it gained control of several provinces and population centers — including Mosul, one of Iraq’s largest cities — the tempo of attacks has been increasing for over six months. This coincides with a period of domestic unrest due to widespread anti-government protests.
The US-led coalition against the Islamic State has also reduced its aerial activities due to heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran following the US assassination of Iran’s top military commander, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, in January.
The Islamic State has been ramping up a campaign of violence in rural parts of Iraq since the second half of 2019, focusing on Diyala, Kirkuk and Salahaldin provinces, to the east and north of Baghdad. Both the frequency and character of the attacks have been steadily increasing, and there is data that suggests the Islamic State is moving skilled fighters to the area from Syria to stoke a new insurgency.
If true, this would be reminiscent of the group’s buildup in 2012 and 2013. In April, the Islamic State staged 108 attacks in Iraq, including against an intelligence building in Kirkuk. A large assault targeted the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Forces on May 1 near the city of Samarra, showing that the Islamic State is willing to move beyond guerilla tactics and engage in coordinated and sustained fighting.
There are many reasons why the Islamic State has been able to increase its activity. First, it is deliberately targeting rural areas where the terrain is difficult to access and where the Iraqi security forces have a thin presence, which allows it to launch hit-and-run attacks without many losses. Fewer coalition air strikes and less drone surveillance have also given militants more freedom to move without fear.
With the recent protests in Iraq, the government has focused its security efforts on containing the unrest, which has reduced its bandwidth for dealing with the Islamic State. The ongoing failure of governance at the local level, which is one of the main drivers of the protests, has further sapped public confidence in Iraq’s leaders, while persistently high unemployment has allowed the Islamic State to recruit desperate young men with offers of quick cash payments.
The Iraqi government’s response to COVID-19, which has drawn resources away from countering the Islamic State to maintaining curfews and locking down large urban areas, has also allowed militants to move more freely in rural areas.
To make matters worse, the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq involves more than the Iraqi security forces. It also includes the state-sanctioned, mainly Shiite militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces and the Kurdish peshmerga. But the response to recent attacks has been hampered by a lack of effective coordination and leadership between all these groups, as well as friction between some fighters and local populations. Iraq’s elite, US-trained counterterrorism forces have also suffered from poor leadership and the slow recovery from losses they sustained during the war against the Islamic State from 2014 to 2017.
Despite all of these problems, there is some cause for optimism that Iraq will be able to meet the challenge of a resurgent Islamic State. After five months of political turmoil and two failed attempts, parliament approved a new government last month. The new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, is a former intelligence chief who has promised to prioritize the campaign against the Islamic State and win back some trust from the Iraqi people.
Al-Kadhimi will need to act quickly to quash the insurgency before it develops any further. Fortunately, the Islamic State is widely loathed by most of the Iraqi population. With new leadership in both the elite Counter Terrorism Service and the Interior Ministry, there is the potential for better intelligence gathering and more effective community policing.
Al-Kadhimi has sent signals, including through the arrest of militiamen in Basra accused of shooting at protesters, that he will tackle issues that have long plagued the Iraqi security sector, including corruption and weak accountability, and that paramilitary groups that threaten the rule of law will be brought to justice. Those steps will be vital for the state’s ability to maintain control and avoid situations where local armed groups compete with state security forces and with one another.
Foreign governments and organizations are rightly concerned about the Islamic State’s reemergence, and they have an important role in supporting Iraq. Most importantly, members of the US-led coalition should make a renewed push to dedicate resources solely to its core mission of degrading and defeating the Islamic State, avoiding tit-for-tat confrontations with pro-Iranian armed groups that tend to undermine relations with the Iraqi government.
Defusing tensions between the US and Iran will serve to improve Iraq’s security in general, as it will give Iranian-backed paramilitary groups less incentive to attack US interests. American forces will also be less prone to using Iraq as an arena to push back against Iran. This is a message that coalition members should send to leaders in both Washington and Tehran.
With the global downturn in oil prices amid the coronavirus pandemic putting Iraq under serious strain, foreign powers can provide economic assistance to prevent government collapse, contingent upon the new government undertaking vital reforms.
It is difficult to predict the trajectory of the Islamic State’s activity. There are signs that the group will expand its capabilities in the coming weeks and months, while still falling short of being able to overrun large swaths of territory. A realistic assessment of the Islamic State’s ability will be an important part of the response. Exaggerating its threat is unhelpful, but dismissing it and allowing a low-level rural insurgency to go on for months and years is dangerously short-sighted.
The government will also need to focus on the underlying causes and security gaps that allowed the Islamic State to regain strength in the first place.
It will undoubtedly be a challenge for Iraq’s leadership to act quickly and decisively while spurring improvements in governance, but the country’s leaders have been here before. With the benefit of hindsight and support from the international community, Iraq can avoid a repeat of the past.