Remaining and Expanding: The Recovery of Islamic State Operations in Iraq in 2019-2020.

AuthorKnights, Michael

The Islamic State continues to show very significant resilience inside Iraq, undertaking a surge in attack activities in the second half of 2019 and the first quarter of 2020. According to the authors' dataset, the number of reported Islamic State attacks increased from 1,470 in 2018 to 1,669 in 2019, with 566 reported attacks in the first quarter of 2020 alone. (1) These national-level figures, supported by detailed qualitative and province-by-province breakdowns in the following sections, paint a picture of a militant organization that is reestablishing itself in Iraq, possibly drawing (in the authors' assessment) on a cadre of experienced tactical leaders and bomb makers that returned from the Syrian battlefields in 2019. (2a) As prior articles in CTC Sentinel have noted, (3) the movement has undertaken an agile, fluid, and pragmatic shift back to insurgency in every area of Iraq where the group has lost physical control of populations and resources. In areas such as Diyala province, which this publication identified in 2016 (4) as the likely future locus for Islamic State operations, (5) the insurgency has been continuously operating since 2003 and is now recovering strongly, becoming the most active Islamic State wilaya (province) in 2019 and 2020. (b)

This article extends the metrics-based analysis used in two prior CTC Sentinel pieces in 2017 and 2018, (6) adding a further year and a half of Islamic State attack metrics in Iraq, picking up from October 2018 (where the last analysis ended) to the end of March 2020. (c) As in the prior study, this article looks at Islamic State attacks in Anbar, Salah al-Din, Baghdad's rural "belts," (d) Nineveh, Kirkuk, and Diyala. To maximize comparability, this analysis used exactly the same data collection and collation methodology (e) as the December 2018 CTC Sentinel study. Attacks were again broken down into explosive (f) or non-explosive events, and also by the four categories of high-quality attacks (effective roadside bombings, (g) attempts to overrun Iraqi security force checkpoints or outposts, (h) person-specific targeted attacks (i) and attempted mass-casualty attacks (j)). Like any set of attack metrics, this analysis is drawing on a partial sample, which probably favors more visible attacks types (explosions, ma'or attacks) over more subtle enemy-initiated actions (such as kidnap or intimidation). Nevertheless, much can be learned from the immersive, manual coding of thousands of geospatially-mapped attacks.

In the following sections, the authors will look at national attacks trends, then proceed governorate-by-governorate to view the variegated nature of attack trends in different tactical environments, and finally review qualitative trends in attack quality and discuss the possible factors behind the Islamic State's partial recovery inside Iraq.

Overall National Trends in Islamic State Activity

The December 2018 CTC Sentinel study of Islamic State attack metrics told the story of a steep decline in operational activities in Iraq in late 2017 that extended into the following year. The Islamic State undertook a monthly average of 490.6 attacks in 2017, dropping sharply to 122.5 per month in 2018. (7) This decline continued into 2019, with attacks bottoming-out at an average of 97.3 attacks per month in the second quarter of 2019. (8)

In every quarter since then, the overall national tally of Islamic State attacks has grown. In Q2 2019, there were 132 attacks per month, followed by 143.6 attacks per month in Q3 2019. (9) In the last quarter of 2019, there were 183.3 attacks per month, and there were 188.6 attacks per month in Q1 2020. (10) The year-on-year comparison of attacks in Q1 2019 versus Q1 2020 shows a 94% increase in attacks, from 292 in the first quarter of 2019 to 566 in the first quarter of this year. (11) The almost doubling of attacks in a year is strong and steady recovery by anyone's standards, (11) even if the Islamic State is still a shadow of its former self in overall attack numbers. According to the SIGACT database, in 2019, the Islamic State undertook 1,669 attacks in Iraq, much lower than the 5,888 in 2017 or the 6,216 in 2013, and a tiny fraction of the 50,159 enemy-initiated attacks in the year of peak violence in 2007. (12)

A breakdown of the attack metrics by broad categories provides further insights into the nature of the partial recovery. At the national level, the proportion of explosive to non-explosive events stayed roughly stable over the coverage period (18 months or six quarters, from October 1, 2018, to March 31, 2020), with explosive incidents varying from 41-53% of all attacks across the quarters. (13) Explosive incidents more than doubled in raw numbers between the low of 40.3 per month in Q1 2019 and 87.3 per month in Q1 2020. (14) The rough mirroring of the increase in explosive attack events to the growth of all attack events provides reinforcing evidence of an overall trend of steady recovery of Islamic State attacks, due to the relatively high confidence analysts can have that explosive events will be missed less often and represent a more reliable category of metric (if counted dihgently). (l) Once again, though the Islamic State is capable of delivering 826 explosive attacks a year (in 2019), (15) this is still a pale shadow of the industrial-scale bombings of 2017 (2,868), 2013 (3,316), or even a previous low point of Islamic State operations in 2011 (1,704) when the group operated under the name the Islamic State of Iraq. (16)

At the national level, high-quality attacks (which also tend to be higher-visibility) also rose by 141%, from 104 high-quality attacks in Q1 2019 to 251 such incidents in Q1 2020. (17) Between these two bookend quarters, the recovery was steady, with high-quality attacks rising to 153 in Q2 2019, 195 in Q3, and 298 in Q4. (18) This recovery of quality attacks was not uniform across the different subclasses, however: 2019 witnessed strong growth in effective roadside bombings (from 308 in 2018 to 402 in 2019) (19) and in overrun attempts on checkpoints and bases (from 135 in 2018 to 234 in 2019). (20) The number of targeted killings (of tribal chiefs and village elders, called mukhtars) steeply declined from 167 in 2018 to 79 in 2019, as did attacks intended to create mass casualties (from 141 in 2018 to 59 in 2019). (21) In Q1 2018, there were eight attempted mass-casualty attacks, reportedly causing 32 deaths and 124 persons wounded. In Q1 2019, there were five attempted mass-casualty attacks and 11 killed and 51 wounded. In Q1 2020, there were three attempted mass-casualty attacks, and two killed and 21 wounded. This suggests a downward trend in mass-casualty attacks and per attack lethality. (22) Qualitative analysis of attack patterns at the local level (which will be explored in full in the below sections) suggests an influx of higher-quality tactical leaders and bomb makers in the second quarter of 2019, a date range that coincides with the collapse of the last pockets of Islamic State territorial control in Syria. (m)

Some of the most interesting trends can be observed by looking at the differing situations in the provinces suffering from Islamic State insurgency--Anbar, Baghdad, Diyala, Kirkuk, Nineveh, and Salah al-Din. In 2018, Kirkuk was the most attacked province (370 attacks), followed by Diyala (340) and Baghdad (328). (n) In 2019, the order changed: Diyala was by far the most attacked (550), well ahead of newly second-ranked Nineveh (293), Kirkuk (228), Baghdad (214), Salah al-Din (142), and Anbar (105). (23o)

In Q1 2020, Kirkuk slipped even lower--ranked fifth of the six provinces in attack numbers with 46 attacks in the quarter (i.e.,not comparable to the annual figures above). (24) In the first quarter of this year, Diyala had the most attacks (140), followed by Baghdad (106) and Nineveh (9 7). (p) Across the last 27 months of metrics monitored by the authors; (i.e., all of 2018 and 2019, plus Q1 2020), Diyala has been the most consistently active operating environment for the Islamic State, totaling 1,030 attacks, versus 644 for Kirkuk and 601 in Ninewh. (q) To dig more deeply into provincial dynamics and trends, the following sections will proceed governorate-by-governorate acrost the six areas.


In the author's December 2018 CTC Sentinel metrics analysis, Anbar had the fewest Islamic State attacks, and this pattern held for most of 2019. (25) In 2018, the monthly average of Islamic State attacks in Anbar was 7.0, and in 2019, it showed little annual change at 8.7 per month. (26) Yet the insurgency in Anbar showed signs of evolution even as attack numbers stayed low. From Q2 2019 onward, Anbar saw the return of attempted mass-casualty attacks, including tentative efforts to restore an ability to strike in cities like Ramadi and Hit. (27) Intimidation of rural tribes increased, including terror tactics such as attempted suicide bombings targeting markets, mosques, and shepherds. (28) Larger and newer-looking weapons caches began to show up in the Hit to Ramadi corridor, suggestive of materiel having been moved dawn the Euphrates River Valley in 2019 and staged within striking distance of Hit, Ramadi, Fallujah, and Baghdad. (r)

By Q1 2020, Anbar was a much more active theater of war, with monthly average attacks jumping to 27.6--triple the average of 2019. (29) Roadside bombings are now more common, tripling from 1.9 per month in 2019 to 6.6 per month in Q1 2020. (30) A favored target set appears to be the soft-skinned civilian vehicles of the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) units moving along the desert highway system between Al-Qaim and Rutbah, which are struck from rural redoubts on the high plateau of Wadi Horan, a launchpad that is ringed on all sides by major highways. (31) The first quarter of 2020 also saw larger-scale tactical operations at platoon strength (30 or more men) with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and mortars, as well as...

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