Iraqi militants likely to plot comeback under the shadow of regional instability

Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute, said ISIS was most active in rural areas of governorates where the government’s security presence was “thinnest.”
Saturday 14/09/2019
On firm ground. Members of Iraq’s Counterterrorism Service line up during a graduation ceremony in Baghdad, last August.  (AFP)
On firm ground. Members of Iraq’s Counterterrorism Service line up during a graduation ceremony in Baghdad, last August. (AFP)

LONDON - Militants attacked several areas in Iraq on September 7. Two military members were killed in a demining operation in Sinjar, west of Mosul. A sniper shot an intelligence official in Diyala province and a civilian was killed by a bomb in his car. Explosions in Baghdad injured several people.

Security forces carry out operations against fighters from the Islamic State (ISIS). The US-led coalition to defeat ISIS on September 10 released a video of air strikes against ISIS targets on an island in Saladin province.

Reports emerged that the Falcon Intelligence Cell claimed a 75-member ISIS cell, allegedly planning attacks in Saladin, had been dismantled. The cell, Iraqi security expert Fadel Abu Ragheef said, included suicide bombers and administrative officials.

Data published by analyst Joel Wing suggest an uptick in violence in August, with most of the attacks taking place in Diyala province on the Iranian border. Some experts say Diyala is a focal area for insurgents.

Despite the attacks, “the security situation in Iraq is currently the best it has been since 2003,” said Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore. Haddad, however, said there were pockets of insurgent activity “that are unlikely to dissipate any time soon.”

“The overall situation is stable,” said Muhanad Seloom, assistant professor in Critical Security Studies at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. Seloom said the security situation in northern belt of Baghdad was volatile but all areas are under government control. That is not the case in the northern provinces of Saladin, Kirkuk and Nineveh, where pockets are outside state control.

Iraq recently emerged from one of its deadliest periods after the territorial defeat of ISIS in Iraq in 2017. A coalition of Iraqi and international forces pushed the militant group out of all major population centres, including its Iraqi capital of Mosul.

Haddad said ISIS was most active in rural areas of governorates formerly under the group’s control where the government’s security presence was “thinnest.”

Almost two years after the Iraqi government announced the defeat of ISIS, the militant group released a video showing armed men renewing allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Experts said the video was likely shot several months ago, potentially before a video featuring Baghdadi was released in April.

ISIS is said to have attracted many followers through high-quality videos portraying battle and life in what it aimed to portray as a utopian Islamic land. The latest release was of lower quality, likely a sign of the group’s reduced media capabilities.

The group has also changed tactics. Experts said ISIS has moved away from fighting in Iraq’s cities, although small-scale attacks still occur, to rural areas where it carries out hit-and-run attacks and extortion rackets.

“ISIS is not an existential threat anymore” in Iraq, said Seloom. He said the group had lost its capabilities to launch large-scale attacks. However, officials said “a new ISIS generation” could be established in camps for internally displaced people in Iraq and camps holding ISIS suspects and their families in Syria. The presence of just a few extremists, Seloom said, could attract vulnerable young people to militant groups.

Observers said other developments also threaten stability in Iraq. If a regional armed conflict was to break out between Iran and the United States and Israel, Iraq would likely be a primary battleground, said Haddad. “This would destabilise Iraq and give a variety of would-be spoilers — not least ISIS — the enabling environment they seek,” he said.

Israel has reportedly struck Iran-allied groups in Iraq that are part of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) several times. The attacks against the PMF threaten the status quo between the PMF and the Iraqi state, wrote Renad Mansour in the Washington Post.

Under the maximum pressure economic campaign by the United States against Iran and its proxies, Mansour wrote, the PMF leadership around Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis may enter a realm traditionally left to the government. Muhandis, for example, directly addressed the West and the PMF reportedly issued an order to form an air force.

The PMF is undermining the rule of law and democratisation in Iraq, said Seloom, adding that Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi was unable “to stand against the PMF.”

The PMF, he said, is competing with the government and was involved in corruption. In Sunni areas, ISIS and the PMF are posing the same threat to the local population, Seloom said.