With the liberation of Rawa on Friday November 17th, ISIS lost its last town in Iraq and so it’s entire occupied territory within the country. While ISIS almost certainly still operates in unpopulated land in Anbar, northern Diyala and Niveneh governorates, this victory marks the defeat of ISIS as a territorial based insurgent organisation in the country.read more
Marc Simms is an occasional blogger for Proelium Law LLP. Marc holds a MLitt in Terrorism Studies and a Masters in International Relations, both from St Andrews. His particular interests are in emerging international security issues, unconventional warfare and terrorism.
An assessment of the likely impacts on businesses and foreign workers
With the liberation of Rawa on Friday November 17th, ISIS lost its last town in Iraq and so it’s entire occupied territory within the country. While ISIS almost certainly still operates in unpopulated land in Anbar, northern Diyala and Niveneh governorates, this victory marks the defeat of ISIS as a territorial based insurgent organisation in the country.
This is not an unknown situation for ISIS, who previously operated as a terrorist group before the opportunities of the Syrian civil war allowed them to form their ‘state’, but it will undoubtedly impact on and effect the way in which they operate and the kind of threat they pose going forwards.
After the ‘Islamic State of Iraq’: How ISIS regrouped
The best guide to how ISIS will act in this situation is how they previously acted in similar circumstances.
In 2006, the Anbar tribes who had previously been cooperating with Al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch dramatically broke ranks with the group. Forming a coalition calling themselves the Sons of Iraq, among many other names, these groups were funded and backed by the US military to fight with coalition forces against Al-Qaeda, with considerable success. By 2008, when the Iraqi government took over control funding for the groups, Al-Qaeda’s capabilities had been significantly degraded, to the point that CIA Director Michael Hayden confidently predicted that the group was “on the verge of strategic defeat.”
Instead, as we saw, the group retreated to remote desert areas within Iraq and regrouped under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who ascended to leadership of the group in 2010. With this, the group consolidated their position, obtained new forms of funding and significantly increased their attacks against Shiites in the country. In 2012, the first major move by ISIS was its “Breaking The Walls” campaign, a sustained prison-break venture combined with attacks on the judiciary, security services and supporters of the Iraqi government in those areas which it had previously controlled.
Taking advantage of the chaos in Syria
A year before the Breaking The Walls campaign was launched, sometime in the summer of 2011, al-Baghdadi sent a number of operates to Syria. Led by Abu Muhammed al-Julani, these became the nucleus of the “Nusra Front”, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. When Raqqa fell to the Syrian opposition in 2013, having its soldiers on the ground and being able to bring additional manpower over the Iraqi border meant that ISIS were able to seize control of Raqqa and use it as a logistical and military base.
From here on in, ISIS is able to use its advantageous position straddling the border between Iraq and Syria to deploy its insurgents to either theatre as required. Thus having secured a position in Syria, ISIS then brought its operatives back over into Iraq to conduct the “Soldier’s Harvest” campaign, which targeted Iraqi security forces in preparation for their 2014 territorial campaign, where they ended up taking Fallujah at the start of 2014 and then Mosul later in the summer.
Events over the border will impact on Iraq’s security
From this, it should be clear that the security situation in Iraq is going to be at least partially determined by the conditions in Syria and especially along the border area. While on the ground the SDF and Syrian Army have done much to capture cities from the group, contributing to the complete collapse of their territory in the country, the continuing violence from the civil war and partial collapse of the Syrian state will provide opportunities for ISIS to re-establish themselves in the country. If this does happen, there will undoubtedly be knock-on effects from this on the Iraqi side of the border.
Even putting aside for the moment the question of the settlement of the Syrian civil war, the border region between the two countries is sparsely populated and the perfect territory to maintain a “safe haven” for a terrorist group. Without some form of significant and ongoing security commitment from both countries in their respective regions, it is extremely likely that remnants of ISIS will try to regroup in these areas, though with its Iraqi origins it may find it easier to do so there than it will in Syria.
A question of funding
At its height, ISIS was an incredibly well-financed group. Its gains from illicit oil smuggling were estimated to have netted the group over $2.4 billion in 2015 alone. In addition to this, it was also able to finance its operations through looting banks and levying taxes on the population in the cities it controlled.
However, with the loss of its territory, it has also lost its two main income streams simultaneously. While this may not matter in the short term – as the costs of operation for the group will inevitably decrease due to defecting fighters and no need to maintain conquered territories any more – it inevitably will need to find new sources of revenue if it wishes to continue as an organisation.
Businesses and NGO’s are advised to be wary
It has been theorised that ISIS will step up its kidnapping attempts to support itself. This was a vital source of early income for the group, and it seems very likely it will turn to this again, targeting prominent local families in areas where the group still has some influence, or else looking to kidnap foreigners and business executives for ransom. Businesses and NGOs operating in more isolated areas of northern and eastern Iraq should be especially wary of the possibility of kidnapping attempts.
ISIS is also likely to turn to other traditional, organised-crime adjacent methods of raising funds to finance itself, such as antiquities smuggling and extortion rackets, again the latter more likely in areas where it still has some level of local control or influence. Extortion will likely be targeted against smaller Iraqi businesses, but this will of course impact on anyone they themselves are doing business with, and should also be a consideration for companies operating in the aforementioned areas of Iraq that ISIS previously controlled.
Terrorist attacks and broader strategy
The broader question of whether ISIS will seek to try and rebuild its caliphate or else try to pursue a more terrorist-centred strategy is not knowable at this time.
However, based on its past behaviour, it seems extremely likely that ISIS will undertake certain kinds of violence regardless of its future direction. Firstly, the extremely sectarian nature of ISIS means that it will continue to try and target Iraqi Shiites, and to a lesser extent other religious minorities in the country. Attacking Shiites, however, will pay the most potential dividends, in that it will help stoke the kind of sectarian tensions that helped ISIS flourish previously, and indeed still exist now, as well as hopefully provoking a response from the Shiite-based militias that have fought ISIS, and are now occupying Sunni-majority cities. Shiite mosques and shrines are a likely target, as are prominent local Shiite personalities, especially those involved in politics.
Private Military Contractors and Reconstruction workers may be at risk
This will also figure into their larger military strategy, as attacking the militias will deprive the Iraqi government of a secondary security force. Much as with its campaign of assassinations against the Sons of Iraq, this will remove groups who could potentially lead any fight back against the group or provide security at a local level. It is also likely that ISIS would also seek to target foreign soldiers, private military contractors and even foreign workers brought in for reconstruction efforts. The latter two may also be targeted as part of the kidnapping for ransom approach mentioned previously.
After its defeats, ISIS may also feel like it has ‘something to prove’ with regard to its branding and reputation. As such, it seems likely that ISIS will attempt to carry out acts of “spectacular” terrorism within Iraq – large scale attacks to prove that they are still a force to be reckoned with, and will not be going away anytime soon. The precise nature of such attacks are hard to predict ahead of time, but it should be assumed that there is a potential high risk of a terrorist incident taking place in Baghdad or other cities in northern Iraq, despite the currently decreasing casualty and incident numbers. As insurgent warfare morphs into terrorist violence, it will inevitably become much less constant, but also less predictable.
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