Baghdad bombing highlights Iraq’s vulnerability as IS goes back underground

  1. No IS territory but plenty of armed and trained fighters survive
  2. IS previously undermined Iraqi state through "asymmetric insurgency"
  3. Baghdad's embrace of Shia militias leaves Sunnis isolated

A double suicide bombing in central Baghdad is the latest attack to be claimed by the remnants of the group calling itself Islamic State (IS). Though the group’s territory was retaken in 2017, experts warn that its switch to underground terrorism may be particularly effective against a fragile Iraqi state.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared “final victory” over IS on December 9, 2017, roughly three years after the group had seized about a third of Iraq’s territory.

However, Iraq continues to suffer terrorist attacks across the country. On January 15, an attack in Baghdad killed at least 35 people, and injured 90. It’s the latest attack to be claimed by IS, indicating a switch in tactics from open fighting over territory to underground “orthodox” terrorism.

Reverting to the norm

As the group’s territorial control and economy gradually collapsed in 2016 and 2017, it was widely speculated (Brookings Institute) that IS would redirect its efforts to more traditional forms of terrorism, and expanding its underground activity.

As far back as June 2014, when IS’s momentum was at its peak, the group’s magazine, Dabiq, was calling for its international supporters to engage in terrorist attacks.

Rafaello Pantucci, of British defense think tank Royal United Services Institute, stressed that IS has existed, in one form or another, since the late 1990s, and spent most of its existence as an underground insurgency, as it is now.

Though the Iraqi government has declared victory over IS, there remain “plenty of [fighters] in Iraq who are well trained and well armed,” Pantucci told WikiTribune.

The question, said Pantucci, is really about the Iraqi government’s ability to build a functioning state that its citizens, both Sunni and Shia, buy into.

IS still a threat

Despite continuing tensions between Iraq’s Sunni and Shia communities, Baghdad embraced (New York Times) Shia militia groups in 2012, and became heavily reliant on them in the fight against IS.

Throughout the Iraqi government’s advance on IS territory in 2016 and 2017, Sunnis that had been living under IS rule found themselves displaced and destitute, according to Lina Khatib, of UK think tank Chatham House.

By approving the Shia militias, Khatib wrote in June 2016 that Baghdad appeared to reinforce a perceived pro-Shia bias in the eyes of Sunnis.

Sunnis in Iraq make up around 30 percent of the population, according to the CIA Factbook. If they feel disenfranchised or victimized by their government “they will look for Sunni defenders … even if they don’t like their methods or ideology,” said Pantucci.

Matthew Henman, who monitors terrorism and insurgency issues for business intelligence firm IHS Markit, similarly told WikiTribune that IS is likely to try to exploit sectarian tension in Iraq.

“It will likely focus on targeting the Shia militias as well in an attempt to provoke an overreaction that it can exploit to rebuild and redevelop its support base in the Sunni community,” he said.

IS grew and eventually seized territory after years of “asymmetric insurgency,” said Henman, until it was eventually able to undermine the state’s capacity to provide security and stability.

With the Iraqi state vulnerable to such a strategy, IS “will seek to rebuild underground networks in urban centers that will start preparing the ground for a future territorial campaign,” said Henman.

In the West, IS built its brand on having territory and people under its control, enabling it to call itself a caliphate. This, said Henman, meant it was able to inspire support, and action, from Western followers far beyond anything achieved by groups such as Al Qaeda. Having lost this territory, it has focused on calls to action in vengeance of the end of the caliphate, which may well inspire more “lone wolf” attacks in the West, as seen in London and New York in 2017, said Henman.

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