May 12, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Car Bomb Campaigns of the Islamic State

• The Islamic State’s deadly multi-location attacks in Baghdad on May 11 marked a continuation of the group’s devastating car bomb campaign

• The car bombing in Sadr City killed at least 64 people and injured dozens more, the majority of which were civilians

• Immediate reaction from angry and grieving Iraqis focused on the government’s seeming inability to protect the general public from these attacks

• As the Islamic State continues to face sustained military pressure in Iraq, the group will increasingly try to shift the momentum in its favor by turning to its long-used tactic of mass-casualty bombings.

The so-called Islamic State is under the greatest military pressure it has faced since the group declared the establishment of a caliphate in June 2014. While it retains military capabilities other terrorist groups can only dream of, the Islamic State is returning to one of its most tried and true tactics to regain some semblance of momentum: mass-casualty car bombings. On May 11, the Islamic State conducted three car bombings in Baghdad, killing a total of at least 93 people. The deadliest of the attacks occurred in a busy market area of Sadr City, killing at least 64. The other two bombings—one in Kadhimiyah and the other in western Baghdad—accounted for the remaining fatalities. All three target locations were Shi'a-majority areas—a tragic consistency of Islamic State attacks that will likely continue in coming weeks and months. The confluence of the upcoming month of Ramadan, the ongoing Iraqi political crisis—which works in the Islamic State's favor—and the steady military pressure the group is facing across Iraq, means the already high tempo of Islamic State car bombings will only continue to increase. 

In the summer and fall of 2009, the Islamic State's predecessor—then known as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI)—was experiencing the most sustained and effective military pressure it had faced. The cumulative impact of cascading joint Iraqi-American raids across Baghdad and other population centers—coupled with the Sunni Awakening resistance in Anbar Province—had the group Abu Musab al-Zarqawi founded on its heels. As part of its attempt to both relocate and reshape the battlefield, ISI pursued a strategy that involved killing large numbers of civilians in order to reignite a sectarian war—a fight that would allow the group to play the role of hero on the Sunni side. The core tactic ISI utilized in pursuit of this strategy was a devastating car bombing campaign that killed hundreds. In August 2009, the group conducted multiple car bombings at the Ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs, killing over 100 people. In October, it bombed the Ministry of Justice as well as the Baghdad Provincial Council, killing over 150 and injuring more than 700. In December, it bombed several government ministries and a courthouse, killing 127; then in late January 2010, it bombed three hotels in Baghdad, killing 37. 

Yet by April of 2010, ISI had lost its two top leaders in U.S. airstrikes, marking the beginning of a several year period in which the group maintained a lower profile, rebuilding its capability and resiliency. The group did not disappear, however, and was never close to true defeat despite being weakened in meaningful ways. The series of car bombings in late 2009 killed hundreds and served as a statement—during a period of political and electoral tensions very similar to those currently facing Iraq—that the group could kill at will. The message was clear: though the group no longer ran parts of the provinces it controlled during the height of violence, it would always retain the catastrophic ability to strike with massive car bombs.

As the summer of 2016 approaches and the Islamic State faces pressure somewhat reminiscent of 2009 and 2010, the group will again turn to a campaign of car bombs. These attacks, whether suicide or not, will seek to accomplish three things: killing as many Shi'a as possible—which often ends up being civilians, despite the group’s claim of targeting Shi’a militias; creating a feedback loop of killings followed by revenge killings, reminiscent of some of the deadliest years of the civil war in 2006 and 2007; and turning all factions against the central government, allowing the group to exploit the resulting chaos.

Car bombs have played a central role in the strategy of the Islamic State and its precursor groups—during both periods of momentum and periods of sustained pressure. The car bombing of the United Nations Headquarters in Iraq in August 2003, which killed UN Special Representative Sergio De Mello, made the burgeoning insurgency impossible for Western media and governments to ignore. The subsequent series of car bombings in 2009 was a consequence of the group hitting its lowest point, striking out in the one way it would always be able to. The 'Breaking Down the Walls' campaign during 2012 and 2013 marked the reemergence of ISI as a serious threat to Iraq, with 24 car bombings and prison breaks that helped replenish the group's ranks with deeply committed fighters. The Islamic State’s capture of Ramadi in May 2015—at a time some had hoped the group’s momentum had been blunted—was significantly aided by the use of multiple massive car bombs to destroy even the most hardened of fixed defenses. Now, finding itself under increased pressure, the Islamic State is again looking to one of its most effective and deadly tactics to reverse the course of the fight.


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