Baghdad bombing highlights Iraq’s vulnerability despite ISIS’s territorial defeats

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  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 such attack to be claimed by the remnants of the group calling itself Islamic State (IS). Though the group’s territory was wiped out 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. The attack in Baghdad that killed at least 27 people was the latest 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 that Islamic State (IS) would redirect its efforts to more traditional forms of terrorism, and expanding its underground activity.

As far back as June 2014, when ISIS’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 defence think tank the Royal United Services Institute, stressed that ISIS 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 may have declared victory over ISIS, there remains “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.

A vulnerable state

The Iraqi government embraced Shia militia groups in… https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/suffering-may-not-be-over-iraqis-liberated-isis 

If Sunnis in Iraq, who make up … 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 ISH Markit, similarly told WikiTribune that ISIS 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.

ISIS 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, ISIS “will seek to rebuild underground networks in urban centres that will start preparing the ground for a future territorial campaign,” said Henman.

In the West, ISIS 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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