November 26, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: War Against All: The Islamic State in Anbar

• Facing a bleak future in which its opponents get stronger while it gets weaker and further encircled, the Islamic State is pushing hard in al-Anbar province, trying to gain more strongholds closer to Baghdad from which to launch attacks into the capital; to date it has been unsuccessful

• The Islamic State has given up the fiction of working with the Sunni tribes in the area, and is now waging a campaign of assassination and mass murder to blunt the ability of these tribes to oppose the group from within as it battles Baghdad and the coalition

• What is happening now is, in effect, a race in al-Anbar between the Islamic State trying to kill its way to Sunni compliance and the Iraqi/U.S. effort to bolster the Sunnis to resist the pressure until the group’s power ebbs

• The weakening of its control in Diyala Province to the north of Baghdad means that the Islamic State needs al-Anbar—to the west of Baghdad—that much more, as it needs areas adjacent to the capital to effectively wage a sustained bombing campaign against it

• From crowing about Kobani to talking about its own currency, the Islamic State hasn’t had a lasting success in months, and being pushed back from Ramadi after such a high-profile attack certainly won’t help the group regain its footing

• While the group remains the most lethal terrorist/insurgent group in Iraq and Syria, it has some hallmarks of a pyramid scheme, in which a seemingly small loss of confidence and new ‘investors’ causes the whole thing to eventually crumble: the group is not going to collapse overnight but its aura of invincibility has been thoroughly pierced.


The notion of tacit and overt Sunni support in al-Anbar province for the Islamic State is giving way to a more brutal reality, in which the terror-insurgent group has abandoned the fiction of representing Iraq’s Sunnis against an oppressive Iraqi Shi’a-led government. The group now sees the Sunni tribes in al-Anbar as the greatest immediate threat to its plan to control areas adjacent to the capital of Baghdad. Fittingly, the group is now conducting a campaign of assassination and mass killing against Sunni tribesmen. The group is now labeling any and all Sunni opposition or potential opposition as “Sahwah” (or Awakening), and striking out violently, without regard to blowback or loss of popular support. In al-Anbar, the Islamic State has moved beyond the stage of nurturing local support and is attempting to terrorize its way to a form of stability from which it can sustain itself.

During retreat this week from its stalled push to take Ramadi—the capital of al-Anbar Province—the Islamic State murdered 25 Sunnis and left their bodies in the open as warning to others that the group has now turned its wrath on the tribes. Gone are the speeches and chants of Sunni solidarity against Shi’a oppression. The Islamic State is forgoing platitudes as it desperately fights to establish and strengthen strongholds near the capital. To that end, the group has murdered almost 1,000 Sunni tribesman in the last month, and over 700 from just one tribe, the Albu Nimr.

After a successful summer, the Islamic State is in the midst of an autumn of setbacks and constraints. The group had made significant advances in al-Anbar up until this month, pushing into al-Hit and surrounding areas, but those advances have been blocked and are now being reversed. The group now faces increasing opposition both from the Iraqi security forces (ISF) and the U.S.-trained tribal fighters operating out of al-Assad airbase. The Islamic State’s favorite tactic of targeted assassinations followed by a sudden swarming attack that overwhelms poorly equipped and less than motivated defenders—which worked rather well in Mosul and other towns in the north—doesn’t work so well anymore, now that everyone expects it. And the opposition, while far from sufficient, is less weak than it was only months ago.

The trend lines are not in the group’s favor. The earlier hit-and-run tactics don’t match its current strategy of hold and build, and the only support (or at least sidelined opposition) it could have reasonably expected—that of Sunnis mistrustful of Baghdad—has evaporated with the onset of mass graves and public executions. The Islamic State is now at its most lethal stage, in which it must conduct war against all in order to hold what it has now. It will seek to eliminate tribal and security leadership across al-Anbar through assassinations, and hope to cower the population before the training, support, and weapons from the Iraqi government and the United States come into full effect.


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