June 7, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Cities Held Hostage by the Islamic State

• On June 5, the Norwegian Refugee Council reported that the Islamic State is directly targeting civilians attempting to flee the besieged Iraqi city of Fallujah

• An estimated 50,000 civilians remain trapped in the city, which has been besieged by the Iraqi military and Shi’a militias for months

• As the battle against the Islamic State progresses in both Iraq and Syria, civilians are increasingly being caught in the crossfire

• Within the complex dynamics driving the fight against the Islamic State, geopolitical concerns often take precedent over the protection of civilians.


On June 5, the Norwegian Refugee Council reported that the so-called Islamic State was systematically gunning down civilians attempting to escape from the besieged Iraqi city of Fallujah. These disturbing reports, conveyed by civilians who had successfully fled the city, add to the plethora of atrocities committed by the Islamic State, and serve as a foreboding sign for the liberation of other Islamic State-held cities, particularly Mosul and Raqqa. Civilian populations are key to the Islamic State in the cities that it controls, as they provide revenue, fighters, and workers—as well as serving as human shields. As such, the group has made it clear that those who attempt to flee its territories are the enemy, and their lives forfeit. The indiscriminate killing of those civilians attempting to escape from Fallujah is merely the latest reminder of this reality.

The sectarian nature of the anti-Islamic State coalition in Iraq has only served to further complicate the situation for civilians in Fallujah. The city, which is primarily Sunni Arab, has been besieged since February by the Iraqi army, as well as by members of the predominantly Shi’a Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)—some of which have been accused of retaliatory violence against Sunni civilian populations in areas liberated from the Islamic State. In order to avoid sparking further sectarian violence, several PMF members—including the powerful Badr Organization, had previously stated that they would leave the final liberation of Fallujah to the Iraqi army. However on June 4, Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri stated that the militia would, in fact, enter Fallujah ‘once civilians had left.’ 

In both Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has expertly manipulated ethnic and sectarian tensions to its benefit. In Iraq, this has meant portraying the Iraqi government—which has been led by Shi’a prime ministers since 2006—as heretical. Therefore, the Iraqi army—which has been heavily reinforced by Shi’a militias—is also portrayed as an apostate force. The group has also stoked fears of Shi’a reprisals, emphasizing that if the Islamic State were to fall, the Shi’a militias would take their revenge on the Sunni populations. To further emphasize this point, the Islamic State intentionally fights from population centers, ensuring civilian casualties from Iraqi army and PMF fire. Recently released pictures appear to show Islamic State fighters firing rockets from civilian homes before retreating, in deliberate attempts to draw fire on civilians. 

Through this narrative of sectarianism, as well as through unbridled brutality, the Islamic State has attempted to turn Sunni Arab populations in Iraq—particularly those in Anbar—against the government, in the hopes that these populations would support the Islamic State over the Iraqi and PMF forces. The group has employed a similar tactic in Syria, using a sectarian narrative to turn Sunni populations against the Syrian government, and an ethnic narrative to turn Arab populations against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and Women's Protection Units (YPJ), which have proven to be among the most effective forces battling the Islamic State in Syria. 

Stoking sectarian and ethnic tensions also serves another purpose for the Islamic State: it weakens the cohesion of the various anti-Islamic State coalitions operating in both Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, emphasizing the influence of Iran—as represented by the PMF—helps to increase tensions between Tehran and its Gulf rivals, primarily Saudi Arabia. The same dynamic can be seen in Syria, where the Iran-backed Assad regime has been more focused on battling Gulf-supported Sunni rebels than the Islamic State. As the Syrian Democratic Forces—dominated by Kurdish fighters and supported by U.S. Special Forces and airstrikes—begin to move deeper into Islamic State territory along the Turkish border, tensions between Ankara and Washington have reached new highs. For the Islamic State, tensions between these powers, and the schisms that they may cause, can only help the group maintain the levels of sectarian and ethnic hatred that allow it to thrive. In the calculus of the Islamic State, the sacrifice of civilian lives is a small price to pay for maintaining the tensions that are so vital to its survival.   


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