While the strength of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is clearly growing in Iraq and Syria, it is important to measure their status concretely. AQI emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has expressed the goal to establish an Islamic emirate in Iraq and Syria. This goal depends foremost upon establishing control of physical terrain as a function of military strength. Following ISW’s October assessment of AQI’s pursuit of specific terrain in Ninewa province, this update will take inventory of the indicators elsewhere in Iraq that AQI is pursuing tactical control on the ground. This very concern was expressed on October 24 by Sahwa leaders in Kirkuk, warning that AQI wishes to take over towns and “hold terrain.” Achieving control of terrain in Iraq may be considered much harder for AQI than it is in Syria, given the Syrian context of prolonged civil war, state collapse, and wide population displacement. Therefore, observing their ground campaign in Iraq also provides a means to discern key aspects of their campaign plan, military organization, and effectiveness.
The key indicators observed in southeastern Ninewa during the early months of AQI’s “Soldiers’ Harvest” campaign included leaflets and threats to the population instructing them to tolerate AQI or displace; attacks upon ISF facilities and convoys; and explosive attacks targeting the homes of the ISF in the area. Elsewhere in Iraq, these same indicators have also presented, carving an outline of AQI’s national footprint from which it might repel the advance of the ISF. Additional indicators of AQI’s advance include population displacement and sustained gun battles with the ISF, both of which have also occurred since AQI announced the conclusion of the “Breaking the Walls” campaign. This report will begin with the areas assessed to be historic support zones for AQI where they may first pursue tactical control.
Diyala population displacement
Population displacement in Iraq is a strong indicator of sectarian infighting. In some cases, it is also a strong indicator of AQI’s intent to move in to an area and establish control. Warnings of population displacement in Diyala first began to rise in July 2013 after a suicide bombing on a Shi‘a funeral in Muqdadiya, at the northern edge of the Diyala river valley. The displacement of Shi‘a and Sunni communities in Muqdadiya since that time have been mutual, with significant sectarian and security force mobilization. On October 7, Diyala officials estimated the displacement phenomenon in the province at 400 families, accusing both AQI and “the militias” of responsibility. The “militias” are likely a reference to Shi‘a militia groups.
Diyala, like Baghdad, is a mixed Sunni and Shi‘a province. Communities and political alliances cross sectarian lines. This makes the province particularly valuable for AQI to destroy Iraqi social fabric and to incite sectarian violence, facilitating their movement in the area. The potential rise to arms of Shi‘a militias in Diyala significantly raises the stakes for their mobilization in Baghdad, particularly if Shi‘a neighborhoods are being overrun by AQI. Furthermore, it demonstrates AQI’s campaign success. In June 2012, before the start of AQI’s “Breaking the Walls” campaign, AQI spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani indicated Diyala’s strategic significance in a speech. He expressed that where Fallujah had been the spark of the war against the West, Diyala would be the “spark” of the war against the Rafidha, a derogatory reference to the Shi‘a. With this speech in mind, it is likely that Diyala has been a focus of AQI’s resurgence for over a year, such that contemporary motion to displace populations from the provincial capital may be regarded now as a grave sign. Likewise, AQI’s VBIED attack upon a mosque hosting a joint Sunni-Shi‘a prayer on September 13 demonstrates AQI’s enduring focus upon the sectarian theme.
AQI’s recent activities in the provincial capital of Baquba indicate their advance from this point toward Baghdad. On September 30, eight families in the Tahrir neighborhood of west Baquba received threats from AQI and displaced to a northern district of Baquba. On October 1, 30 families from the Shi‘a Shammar tribe also received threats, likely from AQI, to displace from the Gatun area of northern Baquba. On November 4, AQI distributed leaflets in several locations across Diyala warning Shi‘a against religious practices during the month of Muharram, leading up to the Ashura. This represents an escalation of the AQI threat in the province, further underscored by a recent attack on November 3 against a police headquarters in Baquba. The attack reportedly involved at least two successful VBIEDs as well as additional SVESTs, VBIEDs, and IEDs reported by the provincial police chief, General Jamil al-Shamari, to have been successfully dismantled. A shift in attack patterns to target ISF headquarters rather than civilians or ISF patrols is another sign of AQI’s increased strength in Diyala. During the month of Muharram, it is likely that AQI will regard Diyala as a main effort. How their operations in Diyala relate to their operations in other provinces and also in Syria will lend further insight into the degree of sophistication of AQI’s military bureaucracy.
The last major ISF operations reported in Diyala occurred during the “Revenge of the Martyrs” campaign in September 2013. The fighting, however, escalated before that in April 2013. Fighting between the ISF and armed gunmen was most intense in Qara Tapa and Suleiman Beg, and gunmen briefly took control of the latter town. Since then, little has been reported of the ISF response to AQI in Diyala. On October 17, the ISF in Baquba announced the implementation of a plan to stop the forced displacements at the hand of AQI, involving increased cooperation between the Sahwa and the ISF. Additionally, on October 22, the Tigris Operations Command (TOC) moved in to augment the ISF west of Baquba, replacing the 19th Brigade of the 5th Infantry Division of the Iraqi Army and the 4th Regiment of the Emergency Police. This affirms that AQI’s advance in Diyala is drawing significant operational response from the ISF, and that this historic zone of control may be re-opened by AQI.
Leaflets and Threats across Iraq
As reported previously, AQI has also used leaflets and threats to shape conditions on the ground in Ninewa province. On September 17, flyers marked with the seal of AQI were discovered in Shura, threatening civilians who work for the government. On September 24, AQI issued a statement on ISIS signature letterhead urging the Ninewa tribes to stop working for the ISF. This technique has also been observed in other provinces. On October 3, 20 Sahwa in Salah ad-Din province indicated the intent to disband after receiving threats from armed groups, presumably AQI. This follows the assassination of Baiji Sahwa leader Monen Adnan Hamid. Additionally, on November 2, shop owners in the southeastern Baghdad area of Jisr Diyala reportedly received threats from AQI if they did not displace. Baiji is key terrain for Iraq’s oil industry, the site of a major refinery, and Jisr Diyala is a historic control zone for AQI that also witnessed sectarian violence during 2006-2007. These events indicate the expansion of AQI’s latest messaging campaign, communicating to various constituencies from a position of increased lethal power.
House-borne Improvised Explosive Devices (HBIEDs)
A resurgence of HBIEDs has also been observed in recent months. Whereas HBIEDs had been used by AQI in previous years as booby-traps to injure security forces conducting raids, they now appear to be part of AQI’s intimidation campaign against the ISF. The homes of the ISF themselves are the new target of these attacks. On September 16, 22 houses belonging to ISF personnel south of Mosul were targeted with HBIEDs. On September 17, another six houses in the same vicinity were evacuated and detonated. On October 4, ISF elements interdicted a small team reportedly planning to destroy houses in the vicinity of Kirkuk. On October 9, 18 ISF homes in southwestern Kirkuk were blown up. Additional HBIED attacks against ISF members occurred south and west of Kirkuk on October 29 and November 1 and in Ninewa on October 18. On October 27, six houses under construction and belonging to ISF members were destroyed in western Tikrit. While the intent to intimidate the ISF through HBIEDs appears to be radiating from the Za’ab Triangle north of Baiji where Ninewa, Kirkuk, and Salah ad-Din provinces meet, the technique has been seen before. This year, on September 3, Shi‘a families in Latifiyah were targeted by HBIEDs. In this case, the families were executed first and their houses blown up afterwards. The HBIED campaign against ISF, however, thus far appears to be a largely nonlethal effort, focused upon the destruction of personal property. It is possible that AQI is using this tactic to weaken the ISF in place, though the direct connection to a campaign for territorial control is not yet clear. It is likely that the Za’ab Triangle, a historic support zone for AQI, is a source of consolidated strength for the organization rather than new territory.
Attacks upon Fixed Positions
An alarming attack trend prosecuted by AQI to a greater extent recently is a complex attack upon a fixed site, such as an ISF headquarters or an oil field. This tactic had been used effectively during the 2012-2013 “Breaking the Walls” campaign in order to attack prisons. Some of the attacks have been explosive-based complex attacks. On September 29, the General Security Directorate in Irbil was attacked with an SVBIED and four suicide bombers and finally an ambulance-borne SVBIED. On October 1, the ISF claimed to have foiled an attack against the Directorate of Explosive Ordinance Disposal in Tikrit involving three suicide bombers. On October 22, two VBIEDs detonated on the Federal Police headquartersin Jurf al-Sakhar, northern Babel province. On November 7, an SVBIED targeted the Iraqi Army headquarters in Ana, western Anbar. On October 25, the headquarters of the Ninewa Operations Commandand Federal Police in Mosul were targeted with a VBIED and suicide bombings.
In other cases, the attacks involved tactical ground assaults with small arms. On September 17, gunmen attacked the Tahadi police station in southern Fallujah with small arms and two SVESTs. On September 25, gunmen attacked the Municipal Council of Hawija with two SVBIEDs and small arms. On October 12, gunmen attacked the headquarters of the 51stBattalionof the Iraqi Army in southern Mosul. On October 16, gunmen attacked the ISF headquarters in Shirqat, north of Tikrit. These attacks are significant because they indicate clearly that AQI is attempting to displace the ISF or challenge their control, beyond merely attacking civilians to demonstrate their inefficacy.
Prolonged Gun Battles
There have also been several prolonged attacks. The first occurred in western Anbar on September 24. Gunmen attacked ISF personnel in Ana and Rawa and sustained fire overnight, establishing control over these areas briefly. The gunmen also destroyed the al-Fhemi bridge linking Rawa and Ana during this time. AQI’s presence in this area is likely still robust, based upon ISF reports that AQI decapitated 14 Iraq Police personnel on October 23 in west Anbar and recent attacks against power lines between Ana and Haditha. Another major ground assault occurred at this time on October 21 in Fallujah. Gunmen attacked the IP Directorate, the Power Directorate, the Real Estate Directorate, and security checkpoints in the city. The attack involved small arms fire and mortars followed by three SVESTs. The gunmen seized the Power Directorate building, and it took the Iraqi Police nine hours of sustained fighting supported by Iraqi Army (IA) helicopters to retake the building. With these two attacks, it becomes apparent that the AQI footprint in Anbar is strong enough that AQI’s ground forces can move to fixed locations, engage ISF elements, and hold terrain briefly. This indicates not only the re-establishment of local security battalions within AQI’s military that can execute organized ground assaults, but also their intent to establish military control by ousting the ISF from hardened positions.
The ability to sustain prolonged engagement with the ISF has also been seen in northern Babel province. On October 8, the “Scorpion” Special Forces unit moved into Jurf al-Sakhar and clashed with 300 AQI gunmen. In this case, the attack was initiated by the ISF, but the act of repelling ISF forces may indicate that this area is already under AQI control. The ISF reported around this time the discovery of an AQI training camp and a VBIED factory in the vicinity, an area that had been a safe haven for AQI in 2006-2007. These incidents correspond with the early September 2013 reports of HBIEDs and population displacement in nearby Mahmudiyah and Latifiyah. ISF reports of activities in this area have continued into November, suggesting that this terrain is still actively supporting AQI activities in Babel and Anbar provinces.
Potential to Detect Campaign Sequencing
The fact that several of these AQI control indicators have presented in multiple provinces raises the question of operational sequencing. Does one style of attack consistently precede others? Are these attacks scattered and random, or do they illustrate campaign planning? The case of Jurf al-Sakhar in northern Babel generates a compelling hypothesis. First, ISW assessed that Mahmudiyah may have emerged in early 2013 as a renewed VBIED control node for attacks in Baghdad. Second, the complex attack upon Abu Ghraib prisonoccurred on August 21, 2013 west of Baghdad, just north of this area of Babel province. Third, HBIEDs and population displacement occurred in Mahmudiyah and Latifiyah in September 2013. Fourth, sustained offensive attacks upon ISF positions in Fallujah, Ana, and Rawa in Anbar occurred in September-October 2013, potentially launched from Jurf al-Sakhar. Fifth, sustained defense of the main control position in Jurf al-Sakhar was witnessed when ISF elements moved to engage in the same area.
If we look to other historic support zones, like the Za’ab Triangle and northern Diyala province, and scan for indications of VBIED control nodes, HBIEDs, and population displacement, we may begin to see that recent AQI offensive activities cluster at a reasonable distance from these areas. This is an early hypothesis, that AQI’s ground assaults are a function of their established control of terrain, and it may be tested by observing where next AQI projects ground assaults upon ISF headquarters in November 2013. At this time, it is likely that the Za’ab Triangle, northern Diyala, and northern Babel province are among the zones in Iraq where AQI is exercising control. We may therefore next see attacks project upon ISF positions in Baiji at the southern tip of the Za’ab Triangle and Samarra in southern Salah ad-Din province, as a western expansion of the Diyala corridor. The plan of attack to counter AQI should orient around the three aforementioned centers of gravity once effective provisions for security in Iraq’s major cities have been established. It is important to recognize that Baghdad, Mosul, and Kirkuk are still attack zones, and AQI will achieve success if militant groups of any persuasion seize control of neighborhoods in these cities. It is lately visible that security response to attacks in Mosul has escalated. The ISF in Mosul increased defensive measures after the Ninewa Operations Command (NOC) sustained attacks on October 25. These measures included closing all five bridges in Mosul.
Likewise in Baghdad, the campaign of VBIEDs targeting Shi‘a neighborhoods has continued unabated. Since the first VBIED wave of the new AQI “Soldiers’ Harvest” campaign on August 29, there have been six additional VBIED waves in Baghdad, on September 3, September 17, September 30, October 7, October 17, and October 27, roughly the same pattern reported previously, in addition to a sustained VBIED activity elsewhere in Iraq.The sustained pattern of independent VBIED attacks throughout this period underscores the assessment that the VBIED command lies apart from AQI’s security battalions in terms of operational control. The integration of VBIEDs into some ground assaults indicates combined arms operational design by a higher headquarters. It is therefore likely that the VBIED campaign in Iraq will continue in Baghdad and push further south, continuously exploiting the sectarian vulnerability. Elsewhere, it appears that AQI has now oriented its offensive lethal campaign primarily against ISF positions, launching from specific zones of established control, such as the Za’ab Triangle, northern Diyala, and northern Babel province.
Looking ahead, in the provinces and in major cities, AQI will also likely continue to target Sunni citizens and community leaders across Iraq to deter political engagement, limit competing influence, and increase deprivation. The Iraqi government’s campaign to counter AQI must protect the whole population in order to secure its support and to mitigate AQI’s pursuit of terrain control.