Iraq Threat Update: June 2020
By Evan Kohlmann
Over the past two months, the political situation in Iraq has continued to shift towards greater instability–both in regards to an ongoing ISIS resurgence that has paralyzed areas of Iraq’s Anbar, Saladin, and Diyala Provinces, as well as the flourishing of new Shiite militant groups intent upon launching attacks on U.S. military forces in order to force an American withdrawal from Iraq. An analysis of recent communications by armed extremist groups supported by discussions with local insiders conducted via encrypted online chat platforms suggest that Western diplomats, military personnel, and other assets in Iraq remain at significant risk from a wide variety of hostile parties.
Despite persistent crackdowns, raids, and security sweeps by the Iraqi military, federal police, and Shiite militiamen from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), ISIS has significantly scaled up its operations inside Iraq during the first half of 2020. This resurgence has been made possible in part by tensions between the U.S. and Shiite militias that have distracted attention from the fight against ISIS, as well as a temporary suspension of anti-ISIS operations by the U.S. military due to the COVID-19 pandemic. From hideouts in remote valleys in western Anbar Province, the Hamrin Mountains, and along the shorelines near Adhaim Dam and Lake Hamrin, ISIS operatives have launched attacks on local security forces, kidnapped civilians, and sabotaged Iraq’s infrastructure in a campaign that has stretched across the entire width of Iraq–all the way to the capital Baghdad and the Saudi and Iranian borders. In late May, ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack on an Iraqi military post near the Arar border crossing with Saudi Arabia, inflicting more than 10 casualties. Likewise, there have been repeated ISIS attacks near the city of Khanaqin in Iraq’s Diyala Province, less than 5 miles from the Khosravi border crossing with Iran. These events have taken place amid the grim sixth anniversary of the Camp Speicher massacre, in which thousands of non-Sunni Iraqi army cadets and recruits were tortured and murdered in gruesome fashion by ISIS militants.
For more than two weeks in late May and early June, pitched battles took place near the town of Jurf al-Sakhr–less than 20 miles south of Baghdad International Airport–between Shiite militiamen from pro-Iranian faction Kataib Hezbollah and ISIS fighters attempting to infiltrate the area from western Anbar. Dramatic video from the clashes near Jurf al-Sakhr depicted a chaotic battlefield that more closely resembled frontline combat than it did hit-and-run guerilla warfare. In an exclusive interview, the administrator of influential Iraqi Shiite source “Sabereen News” conceded that Jurf al-Sakhr is a “difficult story”: “It’s like Amazon jungle, the geography, it’s so bad.” However, he also blamed U.S. airstrikes for forcing a withdrawal by Shiite militiamen loyal to Kataib Hezbollah, which has since hesitated ordering any large deployments of their personnel.
Aside from ambushing its enemies from the government and Shiite militias, ISIS operatives have also begun an organized effort to destabilize the country by sabotaging civilian infrastructure. The apparent goal of this campaign is to undermine public confidence in the Iraqi government and spark a leadership vacuum. Towards that end, ISIS has allegedly set dozens of fires targeting Iraqi farms and agricultural crops across the country—a tactic frequently promoted by the group. In at least one such instance, ISIS militants left booby-trapped explosive devices intended to inflict further casualties on first responders attempting to put out the fires. Separately, ISIS has also targeted critical electricity pylons and towers that have led to intermittent blackouts in areas of northern Iraq. There have even been repeated ISIS attacks on the Naft Khanna oil field close to the border with Iran. The “Sabereen News” administrator concurred with the general premise that the purpose of these attacks is “making the streets more angry [with] the Iraqi government.” However, he also noted that “part of it [is] for the purpose of financing ISIS, ISIS imposes a tax on farmers and if they do not pay it, they will burn their farms.”
The ongoing ISIS resurgence in Iraq would not have been possible without the group’s ability to establish new supply and logistical lines running from western Anbar Province all the way east to the Iranian border. Senior Iraqi Popular Mobilization Front officials have characterized the area of the Hamrin Mountains southwest of Kirkuk as “the most important supply line for ISIS.” According to Iraqi Shiite sources, ISIS fighters have established a new logistical supply line running from near the city of Samarra to the village of Sayed Ghraib, where “a special force from Asaib Ahl al-Haq recently arrived to… cut off the supply line to ISIS operatives there.”
In a significant break from its transnational origins, the Iraqi government believes that the vast majority of ISIS fighters currently in Iraq are now of local Iraqi origin. Nonetheless, when Shiite militiamen from Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces raided a suspected ISIS hideout in Iraq’s Diyala Province, they recovered Spanish-language religious documents–hinting that foreign fighters remain active at least in small numbers. Iraqi Shiite sources allege that “the areas of Tarmiyah, Al-Moshahda, and Nebai… are considered to be the main source of financing for [ISIS operations] in Diyala, North Baghdad, and Saladin” including “through [the proceeds] of unregistered fishing operations.”
The “Sabereen News” administrator acknowledged to me that “at the tactical level”, ISIS has recently “become more dangerous” despite having “lost much of its popular base” by appealing to a “new generation” of recruits who were only “children” in 2014 and now, as adults, are demanding vengeance for their fathers who were eliminated by security forces in Iraq. He attributed the failures of the Iraqi government and the Popular Mobilization Forces in countering ISIS to the inherent difficulties in handling such an amorphous adversary: “The biggest army in the world, such as America, could not stop the Taliban, because it is a guerrilla war, despite the different geography between Iraq and Afghanistan.” The Sabereen administrator insisted that it is “not the number of guns and security plans” that will influence victory over ISIS but rather inserting spies in their organization “or spy instrument[s] like cameras.” He emphasized that more widespread use of drones by Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias would also help reveal a “treasure” of new intelligence about the group. Otherwise, he warned, “ISIS will expand and gain a larger popular base.”
A variety of Iraqi Shiite activists have been particularly critical of recent anti-ISIS operations conducted by both the Iraqi government and Popular Mobilization Forces–not for their goals, but over the very public execution of them. In the view of these observers, Iraqi security forces have been more interested in making grand announcements to the media and posing for photographs than taking meaningful steps towards addressing the threat, including more aggressive intelligence collection from human sources and conducting reconnaissance via drone aircraft. For example, on May 21, 2020, the Iraqi Intelligence Service announced that they had captured ISIS’s leader, when in fact they had just received custody of Abdul Nasser Qardash, a senior member of ISIS, who had been detained by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) for over a year.
Likewise, drones are reported to once again be a subject of interest for ISIS itself. After a lull in ISIS flirtations with drone technology following the collapse of the territorial caliphate in Syria, there are now rumors from Iraqi Shiite sources that ISIS militants have resumed their exploration of the platform and are seeking to carry out new attacks using modified Quadcopter-type drone aircraft, specifically near the city of Ramadi and in Iraq’s restive Diyala Province.
Shiite Militia Groups
The milieu of armed Shiite factions in Iraq has been frothing with activity over the past two months, despite a relaxing of tensions between the U.S. and their principal sponsor, Iran. In late May, the leader of key Iranian proxy Lebanese Hezbollah publicly termed the possibility “in the near term” of war “on multiple fronts” as “unlikely”–and “war between America and Iran is very unlikely.” Yet, with the U.S. stalling on removing its military forces from Iraqi territory, pro-Iranian Shiite militiamen who are strongly opposed to a U.S. presence have bucked Iran’s approval of the new Iraqi Prime Minister and its desire to calm tensions with the United States–and instead are preparing for a possible conflict with the American military. According to the administrator of Sabereen News, “the attack that targeted the two leaders at Baghdad Airport has gained the resistance more wise people who joined the view that the American side should be removed from Iraq, even by force.” Over the last 90 days, well-established Shiite militias like Kataib Hezbollah, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq have all generally threatened U.S. military forces in Iraq.
- April 8 – Kataib Hezbollah official Abu Ahmed Al-Basri tells Iranian media: “Our leaders instructed us to continue preparing strategic operations against the invading forces”–but “no operations will be carried out targeting enemy forces as long as they continue to withdraw from our country.”
- April 10 – Kataib Hezbollah warns in an official statement, “we will not stop pursuing those involved in spilling the blood of our martyrs and our victorious commanders, and you will never see us rest until we see them behind the bars of justice.”
- April 26 – Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba insists in an online propaganda document: “The vengeance for the blood of Hajj Qasem [al-Soleimani] and Abu Mahdi [al-Muhandis] and all the martyrs of the resistance will be the removal of America and Israel from existence.”
- April 30 – Official spokesman for Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba insists: “There is no force capable of preventing or stopping the resistance from expelling foreign forces from Iraq… The resistance will continue its operations until the last soldier leaves Iraq, no matter the price.”
- May 25 – Leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq vows, “If there is no withdrawal, the foreign occupiers should know that Iraqis will not accept the presence of their forces… We are not warlords or bloodthirsty, but we are patriots and we defend our dignity and sovereignty.”
- June 14 – Kataib Hezbollah announces in an official communique, the “U.S. presence is no longer welcome in Iraq” and threatens that if the U.S. “tries to circumvent the decision by the Iraqi parliament” ordering the departure of its troops, “it will cost her dearly.”
- June 15 – Leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq again vows: “If the American forces do not leave Iraq of their own volition, they will be forced out against their will, and it is our vow to the blood of the martyrs.”
The willingness of the Iranian government to lend its support to the new Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was notably not shared by its Shiite militia allies in Iraq, many of whom–to the contrary–flatly rejected al-Kadhimi as an American puppet regardless of Iran’s preference. Kataib Hezbollah issued a critical statement acknowledging “the great pressure” its allies in the Iraqi Parliament “were under over voting to select the al-Kadhimi government–but this does not excuse their responsibility for continuing to pursue those involved in the murder of our martyred leaders–whatever their job descriptions may be.”
Increased activity by Shiite militias has posed a threat not only to the U.S., but also its European allies active in Iraq. Both conservative Shiites and Sunnis were incensed by a decision of the European Union and EU member states to fly a rainbow flag from their embassies and consulates in mid-May to mark the International Day Against Homophobia. In response, political officials from Asaib Ahl al-Haq called for popular protests outside European diplomatic facilities in Iraq with the aim of eventually shuttering them. An official communique issued later by Kataib Hezbollah accused the U.S. and its European allies of supporting “groups that promote homosexuality and moral decay to corrupt our social and cultural values… in order to control people, brainwash them, distract them… and make them accept normalization with the Zionists.” Shiite militia supporters were also angered at the role that European diplomats played in securing the freedom of 3 French Christian charity workers in Iraq who were kidnapped in January and accused of being “Israeli Mossad agents.” Two months after they were initially taken hostage, the three were “regretfully released due to the betrayal of one of our so-called Shiite leaders in exchange for a sum of money received from Swedish intelligence, who served as the negotiators during the deal.”
Despite the raised tensions with high-profile groups like Kataib Hezbollah, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, arguably, the most interesting activity has been from a handful of new shadowy Shiite “resistance factions” that have emerged over the past nine months–and particularly so following the U.S. airstrike in January that killed Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi Shiite militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. These relative newcomers include, most notably: Usbat al-Thaereen, Ashab Ahl al-Kahf, Al-Muhandis Revenge Brigade, and the Second Twenty Revolution Brigade. As they communicate primarily through the encrypted chat service Telegram and operate in secrecy, few hard facts are known to date about their background, history, or leadership.
When prodded with the question of how seriously to take these nascent groups that lack any sort of visible presence on the ground, the administrator of Sabereen News insisted that they indeed exist, and should be characterized as “hybrid or genetically modified species groups”: “These groups are all real, and all [their] video productions are real… There is only one video, part of which was not accurate.” In some cases, these factions have broken away from larger, well-known militias and have chosen to operate independently to “depart” from unpopular “bureaucratic decisions” made by their leaders–while others have merely adopted pseudonyms to avoid using the “real name” of their affiliation ”so that they do not fall under pressure or embarrassment with the Iraqi central government because part of it works with the PMF that is part of the Iraqi government forces.” The Sabereen News administrator painted these internecine divisions among Shiite militiamen as “a healthy phenomenon that confirms that… the mind of the Shiite militant… does not blindly obey its leaders.”
In large part, each of the newly-formed armed Iraqi Shiite factions active on Telegram each have their own specialty. Usbat al-Thaereen prides itself on the use of drone reconnaissance aircraft and Katyusha rockets, primarily targeting the U.S. embassy, Baghdad Airport, and Taji Airbase (all in Baghdad). Ashab Ahl al-Kahf claims to have a substantial rocket stockpile, but has thus far largely focused on roadside bombing attacks targeting local supply convoys servicing U.S. military bases–as has the Second Twenty Revolution Brigade. The Al-Muhandis Revenge Brigade has thus far arguably shown the greatest range in capabilities, having claimed credit for both a rocket attack on Baghdad Airport and an attempted SA-7 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile attack on a U.S. CH-47 Chinook helicopter southeast of Baghdad. Neither the U.S. nor the Iraqi governments have had much success in preventing these attacks, the majority of which cost the perpetrators comparatively little. According to the Sabereen News administrator, “A white Kia [truck] will not cost me about 10,000 dollars, but it will cost the US Army 100,000 dollars for every soldier killed as compensation. Also [the] cost [of the] tears [of] the American mothers that they lost their sons by our hands.” Launchers for the Katyusha rocket attacks in Baghdad have been as simple and inexpensive as a lattice of wooden boards with an attached battery hidden in an empty ice cream box.
U.S. military forces, Western diplomats, and foreign contractors remain at significant risk presently in Iraq. ISIS is likely to continue its ongoing resurgence in the country unless Iraqi security forces are able to work significantly more effectively in key areas like Anbar Province, Saladin Province, Diyala Province, and the Jurf al-Sakhr area–and dramatic made-for-television security sweeps are not enough. If purposeful action is not taken to increase intelligence gathering, close off supply lines, and dry up financing sources, it is likely that ISIS will increase its operations in or near the capital Baghdad in an attempt to choke the government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. In the meantime, ISIS militants will continue with their efforts to sabotage the economy and infrastructure of Iraq through attacks on farms, oil fields, power stations, transmission towers, and similar targets. While ISIS has mostly focused its attacks of late on Iraqi security forces, this does not insulate U.S. military servicemen and/or diplomats from its reach, especially as it strives to maintain relevancy in its transnational war with the United States.
Likewise, a partial relaxing of tensions between the U.S. and Iran–and even optimistic words from the head of Lebanese Hezbollah to that effect–has not resolved feelings of anger and resentment among disaffected Shiite militiamen from pro-Iranian factions active in Iraq. Whether operating entirely outside their mother organizations or simply having adopted a new name to create plausible deniability, these dissident fighters are openly defying warnings from the Iraqi government and the threat of U.S. military reprisals, and they nonetheless continue to escalate their attacks. Unlike ISIS, however, the aim of these Shiite militiamen is far more narrow and focused–at specific risk are contractors and suppliers of U.S. military installations in Iraq along with U.S. diplomatic and military personnel stationed in the Green Zone, Baghdad International Airport, Taji Airbase, and Ain al-Assad Airbase. There is the possibility that Europeans may also be targeted due to fallout over the rainbow flag controversy, as well as the case of the kidnapped French charity workers freed in March. Nonetheless, the Sabereen News administrator has insisted that their goals are local and “we are not [al-]Qaida or ISIS.”