The Islamic State Inside Iraq: Losing Power or Preserving Strength?

Author:Knights, Michael

It has been a year since Iraq's (then) Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over the Islamic State on December 9, 2017. (1) Yet the Islamic State did not disappear in Iraq. According to the author's attack dataset, (a) in the first 10 months of 2018, the movement mounted 1,271 attacks (of which 762 were explosive events, (b) including 135 attempted mass-casualty attacks (c) and 270 effective (d) roadside bombings). As important, the Islamic State attempted to overrun (e) 120 Iraqi security force checkpoints or outposts and executed 148 precise killings of specifically targeted individuals (f) such as village mukhtars, tribal heads, district council members, or security force leaders.

In an August 2017 CTC Sentinel review of the Islamic State's transition to insurgency in Iraq, (2) this author noted an almost automatic shift back to insurgent tactics in areas where the movement lost control of terrain in 2014-2017. (3) As Hassan Hassan convincingly documented in his December 2017 study for this publication, (4) as early as the summer of 2016, the Islamic State had readied "a calculated strategy by the group after the fall of Mosul to conserve manpower and pivot away from holding territory to pursuing an all-out insurgency." (5) In another September 2018 study, (6) Hassan reiterated that the Islamic State sums up its strategy using three Arabic phrases: sahraa, or desert; sahwat, or Sunni opponents; and sawlat, or hit-and-run operations. (7) Based on the precepts of the Islamic State's own 2009 lessons-learned analysis--"Strategic Plan to Improve the Political Standing of the Islamic State of Iraq"--the plan is to return to the attritional struggle against the Iraqi state and Sunni communities that was executed so successfully by the Islamic State in 2011-2014. (8)

Metrics-Based Analysis of Islamic State in Iraq Attacks

So how is the plan working out thus far? This article is an update and an extension of the author's aforementioned August 2017 metrics analysis of known Islamic State operations in Iraq. The objective of the research is to track how the Islamic State is performing as an insurgent movement in a variety of Iraqi provinces. One output of the research is the benchmarking of current Islamic State operational activity against the metrics of 2017 and the years prior to the movement's 2014 seizure of territory. In August 2017, the author analyzed Islamic State attack metrics in liberated areas in Diyala, Baghdad's rural "belts,"g Salah al-Din, and Anbar. This new analysis will return to the above provinces (including a fully liberated Anbar) and also consider the newly liberated provinces of Nineveh and Kirkuk.

To achieve this, the author has updated his dataset of Iraq attack metrics up to the end of October 2018. The dataset includes non-duplicative inputs from open source reporting, diplomatic security data, private security company incident data, Iraqi incident data, and U.S. government inputs. The dataset was scoured manually, including individual consideration of every Significant Action (SIGACT) in the set, with the intention of filtering out incidents that are probably not related to Islamic State activity. This process includes expansive weeding-out of "legacy IED" incidents (caused by explosive remnants of war) and exclusion of likely factional and criminal incidents, including most incidents in Baghdad city. The author adopted the same conservative standard as was used in prior attack metric studies (9) to produce comparable results. As a result, readers should note that the presented attack numbers are not only a partial sample of Islamic State attacks (because some incidents are not reported) but are also a conservative underestimate of Islamic State incidents (because some urban criminal activity may, in fact, be Islamic State racketeering).

In the August 2017 CTC analysis of Iraq attack metrics, the author suggested (h) that analysts should focus more attention on the qualitative aspects of Islamic State attacks (such as targeted assassinations) to create a richer assessment of the significance of lower-visibility events. In this study, the author takes his own advice and not only breaks down incidents into explosive or non-explosive events, but also created four categories of high-quality attacks (the aforementioned mass-casualty attacks, effective roadside bombings, overrun attacks, and person-specific targeted attacks (10)). Though still highly subjective, the above filtering and categorizing of SIGACTs results in a more precise sample of Islamic State activity from which to derive trends. Immersion in manually coding the detail of thousands of geospatially mapped SIGACTs creates vital opportunities for pattern recognition and relation of trends to key geographies.

National-Level Indicators of Islamic State Potency

There can be no doubt that the Islamic State remains a highly active and aggressive insurgent movement. By the author's count, supported by "heat map" style visualization of Islamic State activity and historic operating patterns, the group maintains permanently operating attack cells in at least 27 areas (i) within Iraq. As a movement, it generated an average of 13.5 attempted mass-casualty attacks per month within Iraq in the first 10 months of 2018, as well as 27.0 effective IEDs per month, 14.8 targeted assassination attempts per month, and 12.0 attempted overruns of Iraqi security force checkpoints or positions per month. (11) At the very least, the Islamic State remains active, trains its fighters in real-world operations, and does not allow the security environment to normalize.

All this being said, the Islamic State appears to be currently functioning at its lowest operational tempo (at the national aggregate level) since its nadir in late 2010. In 2018, combined totals of Islamic State attack metrics for six provinces (Anbar, Baghdad belts, Salah al-Din, Diyala, Nineveh, and Kirkuk) averaged 127.1 per month. (12) In comparison, during 2017 combined totals of Islamic State attack metrics for just four provinces (Anbar, Baghdad belts, Salah al-Din, and Diyala) averaged 490.6 per month. (13) This suggests the Islamic State attacks in 2018 averaged less than a third of their 2017 monthly totals, a huge reduction in operational tempo within Iraq. The 2018 monthly average of 127.1 attacks is also much lower than the six province averages (Anbar, Baghdad belts, Salah al-Din, Diyala, Nineveh, and Kirkuk) from 2013 (518 incidents per month), 2012 (320 incidents per month), and 2011 (317 incidents per month). (14) Though SIGACT reporting could have declined somewhat since 2017, there are no indications of a blackout of reporting that would create a two-thirds reduction in reported incidents. To the contrary, ever-improving social media reporting by security force members and SIGACT or martyrdom aggregators has arguably led to a slight improvement in visibility. (15)

Assuming that greatly reduced attack metrics reflects reality, analysts are faced with a very consequential and tricky exam question: Is the Islamic State unable to mount more attacks in Iraq, or is it marshaling its remaining strength and striking more selectively? If the former, the drop in attack metrics might suggest that Islamic State attempts to hold terrain on multiple fronts in Iraq and Syria resulted in such heavy losses to leadership, personnel, and revenue generation that the Islamic State has emerged more damaged than it was after the Sahwa (Awakening) and the U.S. "Surge." (16)

However, this does not satisfyingly explain how a fairly high number of attacks could continue in late 2017, only dropping off from the second quarter of 2018 onwards. (Overall attacks dropped by 19% between the first and third quarters of 2018, with "high-quality attacks" (mass casualty, overruns, effective roadside bombs, and targeted killings) dropping by 48% in the same comparison.) (17) One explanation that might be consistent with Hassan's description of the Islamic State's "calculated strategy by the group after the fall of Mosul to conserve manpower" (18) is that the group is focusing its efforts on a smaller set of geographies and a "quality over quantity" approach to operations. A tour around the six main provinces with a strong Islamic State presence provides a set of case studies to test the explanations of reduced Islamic State operational tempo.

Weak Insurgencies in Anbar and Salah al-Din

The author's August 2017 CTC Sentinel article noted that Anbar and Salah al-Din were the scene of weak insurgencies in 2017 that were characterized predominately by low-quality harassment attacks, such as mortar or rocket attacks or victim-operated IEDs not focused on specific targets. (19) Attacks metrics from 2018 suggest that the Islamic State is still not generating powerful campaigns of attacks in these provinces and has even weakened in both areas.

In predominately Sunni Anbar, the Islamic State averaged just 9.1 attacks per month in 2018, versus 60.6 attacks per month in 2017 (when Al-Qaim district was excluded from statistics as it was still under the Islamic State) or versus 66.0 attacks per month in 2013 (counting attacks in all of Anbar). (20) Forty-nine percent of attacks in 2018 were "high-quality" types, an increase against the 30% of high-quality attacks in 2017. (21) Nevertheless, the small scale of the insurgency's attack activities in Anbar means that better quality attacks were limited to an average each month of one overrun of an outpost plus one targeted killing and a pair of effective IEDs. (22) Almost no tribal or local community leaders were killed in Anbar (four in 10 months in 2018), and only three mass-casualty attacks were attempted. (23) These are very low figures, both historically and considering that Anbar is Iraq's largest province, perhaps pointing to a de-prioritization of Anbar by the Islamic State as an attack location at this stage of the war. As in 2017, there is...

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