July 6, 2018
IntelBrief: The Islamic State Tries to Return to 2013
For the so-called Islamic State, the last few years have been ones of relentless military and territorial defeat, especially in Iraq. The group remains an extremely dangerous terrorist group capable of systemic influence in vulnerable population centers and persistent disruption in large cities, to include Baghdad. The group is nowhere near the strength it possessed in the summer of 2014 when it seized Mosul and proclaimed itself a caliphate, and the government forces arrayed against it are in better shape than 2014 and more focused on the threat. Yet the conditions that gave rise to the Islamic State in 2014—poor governance, sectarian tensions and exploitation, a persistent philosophy of grievance among a substantial Sunni sub-population, economic disaster— still exist even if in lesser degrees.
To get back to its heyday of 2014, the Islamic State first needs to get back to 2013, a year in which the terrorist group concluded one very successful campaign to free thousands of its detained members from Iraqi jails and started another campaign to assassinate and intimidate Iraqi security personnel, particularly local police officers. In 2013, the group, then known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) finished up its ‘Breaking the Walls’ campaign in which it conducted numerous attacks on jails and prisons to free its members; this campaign was doubly successful in that it added hardcore and very loyal members back into active duty while disheartening local communities that realized the government—at any level—was unable not only to protect them from the AQI members free on the streets but also those members behind bars. The ‘Breaking the Walls’ campaign ended with the July 2013 attack on the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, that resulted in the escape of hundreds of AQI members.
The group then immediately began its ‘Soldiers’ Harvest’ campaign. By targeting local security personnel, the group essentially took the governmental legs out from underneath the local communities, crippling the government’s ability to exert its force against the terrorist group and blinding it to the seismic changes happening in many neighborhoods. The weakening and then the collapse of already weak local security—on a very local scale, neighborhood to neighborhood—allowed the group to expand in countless micro-terror-sanctuaries, which served as incubators for what would be a literal existential threat for the Iraqi government less than 12 months later.
A weakened Islamic State is now trying to recreate that past. Targeted attacks on police and government officials have risen in several provinces as the group has stopped its military collapse and refocused on what is possible for the group now. Assassinations require few people and are perfectly suited as a force multiplier for a group that has seen its forces decimated. The late June assassination of 8 Iraqi security personnel—filmed and then put online by the group’s media outlet Amaq—was the most recent and most high-profile of these attacks in the last six months. The reaction by the government—the immediate execution of 12 convicted Islamic State prisoners and the possible near-term execution of perhaps hundreds more—show how strongly the government feels about the need to step in front of any new ‘Soldiers’ Harvest’ campaign and prevent the feedback loop of collapsing local security leading to micro-sanctuaries and then larger threats.
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