March 1, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State Seeks Revenge in Iraq
In the face of increased military pressure, the so-called Islamic State is using suicide bombers in Iraq in the hopes of initiating an escalating series of violent reprisals, thus triggering a broader sectarian war. The February 29, 2016 suicide bombing at a Shi’a funeral in Muqdadiyah, Iraq that reportedly killed 40 people is only the latest in the group's strategic campaign. Muqdadiyah is in Diyala Province, which, along with Baghdad, represents the prime target for Islamic State-driven sectarian attacks. Among the victims of the bombing were six commanders of two Shi’a militia—including Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. Unable up until now of attacking highly symbolic and protected locations such as the ‘Golden Mosque’ in Samarra—the destruction of which helped kick off the 2006 sectarian war—the Islamic State is hoping to kill enough Shi’a civilians and militia members to create a self-sustaining bloodletting that will revive the group's waning fortunes.
A day earlier, in a section of Baghdad known as Sadr City, two Islamic State suicide bombings killed 73 people at the Mredi market. The attacks were a ‘double tap,’ in which the second explosion was timed to kill those who gathered to help those injured from the first explosion. As with the Muqdadiyah attack, the targets were Shi’a civilians and the objective was to instigate revenge attacks against Sunni civilians who, according to the group’s reasoning, would rally to the Islamic State as their only protector.
The ‘double tap’ suicide bombing is designed for maximum carnage in order to generate extreme outrage and desire for revenge. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi stated the Sunday killings would only increase the determination of the state to further degrade and destroy the Islamic State; his Shi’a-majority government faces a difficult task of achieving military success without strong-arm tactics that will ensure long-term defeat. All large-scale military counterterrorism campaigns face the predicament of creating more enemies than are killed or captured, but Iraq’s sectarian powder keg makes it nearly impossible to avoid explosions, especially given the government’s dependency on militias.
As it slides back down from its military heights of 2014-2015, the Islamic State will depend much more on suicide bombings than on military assaults. Iraqi security forces continue to bear a heavy cost from suicide bombings against their positions and patrols around Ramadi; a better supply of anti-tank missiles has helped the military keep the vehicle bombs at bay, engaging them before they can overwhelm static defenses. Adapting to the new reality of military losses and improved government defenses, the Islamic State will increase its use of suicide vests in crowded locations.
The Iraqi government, for its part, is considering building a wall around parts of Baghdad, to better control access in and out of the capital. The Islamic State, like al-Qaeda in Iraq before it, uses the surrounding areas, known as the Baghdad Belt, to prepare for attacks launched inside the city. Smuggling in suicide vests, or even manufacturing them in the capital, is much easier than trying to bring in car bombs. Car bombs traditionally produce higher death tolls, but recent suicide vest attacks in Iraq have been particularly lethal, which suggests that the group has some rather skilled bombmakers and that it is picking the location and timing of these attacks with care. Up until now, the group has not managed to reignite the sectarian war it craves; its revenge-seeking attacks in the last two days show the group will not quit for so long as it has a single bomb to use.
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