by Lauren Squires, Jessica Lewis, and ISW Iraq Team
Key Takeaway: ISW has observed a step change in ISIS’s activity in Baghdad and its environs that represents an escalated threat. ISW remains vigilant in light of this change with the expectation that ISIS will attempt a main effort before the end of Ramadan on 28 July 2014. ISW is therefore issuing a warning intelligence update for Baghdad. This essay explains the indicators that triggered this warning by reviewing Baghdad attacks over the last month.
ISIS seeks to break down political boundaries in the Middle East by cultivating conditions for governmental failure, especially in Iraq. Baghdad represents an important location for ISIS to target. ISIS spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani stated on 11 June that ISIS’s intent to attack Baghdad and toppling the standing Iraqi government. Consistent, coordinated, and overwhelming attacks in Baghdad proper might sufficiently address the organization’s political strategic objectives. ISIS has apparently altered its military posture in Baghdad Province from that which had been witnessed since the fall of Mosul, possibly indicating a new move in this direction. Multiple attacks including SVESTs, coordinated VBIEDs, and indirect fire have occurred along avenues of approach to the capital and also within Baghdad proper. Most significantly, ISIS conducted a VBIED wave on 19 July. A VBIED wave is ISIS’s signature attack pattern and features six or more VBIEDs in a single day.
The VBIED wave on 19 July was the first ISIS has conducted since 13 May, representing the most dangerous element of the observed step change. The VBIED wave demonstrates ISIS’s high level of inter-cell coordination, its reach into Baghdad proper, and its ability for multiple teams to communicate, even in the context of Baghdad’s heightened security posture since the fall of Mosul. ISW assesses that ISIS is testing ISF and Shi‘a militia responses to ISIS attacks in order to determine how to develop an attack plan that considers how opposing forces react and move. ISW also assesses that ISIS is reallocating resources in preparation for an ISIS main offensive in Baghdad.
ISIS may be pursuing its Baghdad campaign both inside the city and from the Baghdad Belts, the areas surrounding the city that have traditionally functioned as support zones for ISIS and its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq. Previous ISW assessments hold that ISIS has robust presence and access to the northern, western, and southern Baghdad Belts. It is also possible that ISIS established sleeper cells Baghdad prior to or during the current northern offensive that have not yet activated. It is important to consider whether recent events in Baghdad illustrate how ISIS may be preparing to attack.
ISIS is still attacking deep into Shi’a strongholds within Baghdad, especially Kadhimiyah and Sadr City. The defenses of these areas should have increased to new levels since the fall of Mosul given the full mobilization of volunteer and Shi’a militia-led forces. However, ISIS has been attacking these areas, and at an increasing rate recently. ISIS attacked near the Kadhimiyah shrine in northern Baghdad on 26 June, and on 2 July detonated another SVEST at the al-Mustaf Husseiniyah, a Shi‘a religious center in the al-Jihad neighborhood of southwestern Baghdad. The Kadhimiyah shrine is a hardened target and a top protection priority for both Iranian forces and Shi‘a militias. The attacks using SVESTs in the vicinity of these two mosques demonstrates ISIS’s ability to conduct successful attacks in Baghdad city’s Shi’a neighborhoods despite the increased security presence of pro-government forces. ISIS may be targeting these neighborhoods in order to test these defenses or simply to demonstrate their inefficacy to the population.
These attacks also show that ISIS retains its ability to maneuver throughout Baghdad. ISIS has easier access to neighborhoods on the west side of Baghdad along main highways from its positions in the southwestern and northwestern Baghdad Belts. ISIS conducted a mortar attack in Shula District, a Shi’a neighborhood abutting Kadhimiyah in northwest Baghdad, on 14 July, likely launched from firing positions in the Thar Thar region, an assessed ISIS stronghold. This mortar attack signifies the potential testing of ISIS’s ability to conduct precise fires in the vicinity of Baghdad city, and particularly near the shrine.
Twelve of the fifteen ISIS attacks in Baghdad during this time period involved VBIEDs. ISIS has consistently used VBIED waves in Baghdad to target Shi‘a civilians over the last two years. ISIS used six VBIEDs to conduct a wave of attacks on 19 July, reviving its previous pattern. One VBIED targeted a checkpoint in a predominantly Shi‘a neighborhood of Abu Dashir in southern Baghdad, where the Iranian-backed Shi'a militia group Asai’b Ahl al-Haq has long had a presence. ISIS detonated three VBIEDs in the span of 10 minutes in the predominantly Shi’a areas of Bayaa and Jihad located southwestern Baghdad, and in the northeastern part of the city Kadhimiyah, later that day. ISIS also attacked a bus stop in Kadhimiyah, the neighborhood that contains al-Kadhimiyah shrine, with an additional VBIED that day. Finally, ISIS detonated a VBIED in the Shi’a neighborhood of Saydiyah neighborhood of southwestern Baghdad, along the southwest approach to Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) from the city center. ISW assesses that VBIEDs are entering Baghdad along permissive avenues of approach from the Northern, Western, and possibly Southern Baghdad Belts. It is also possible that ISIS had staged VBIEDs inside Baghdad prior to the fall of Mosul, in anticipation that security measures in Baghdad would be heightened after Mosul’s fall.
This wave of VBIED attacks is the first wave ISIS has conducted since the beginning of the Mosul offensive. In fact, the last VBIED wave witnessed in Baghdad occurred on 13 May 2014. This uptick in VBIEDs within Baghdad city is significant because it demonstrates that the reason for the break in the previously regular VBIED wave pattern may not have been the effective defense of Baghdad by the ISF and Shi’a militias. It may instead indicate that ISIS has been holding its VBIEDs in reserve, most likely to determine an effective way to implement them in support of a broader offensive that takes Baghdad’s new defenses into consideration.
The VBIED wave on 19 July was also preceded by a series of smaller VBIED attacks over the previous week. VBIED attacks were conducted in al-Alawi an area of central Baghdad and al-Bayaa, in southwestern Baghdad on 14 July. Dual simultaneous VBIEDs exploded in Sadr City on 16 July, proving ISIS’s ability to conduct attacks in an area heavily fortified by Shi‘a militia. While Sadr City had been a frequent ISIS target prior to the fall of Mosul, attacks there are more significant now, not only because Sadr city is likely heavily defended, but also because it is in eastern Baghdad, which is likely harder for ISIS to access along main roads. ISIS detonated another SVBIED in Kadhimiyah against a police checkpoint, killing 23 people and is therefore ongoing.
ISW assesses that ISIS has identified specific locations as key terrain within Baghdad proper. First, Baghdad’s Green Zone houses many government buildings that, if attacked, would deny the seat of government as a means of overcoming Iraq permanently. Second, Baghdad International Airport is located on the southwest corner of Baghdad proper and represents a strategic element of Baghdad’s defense. Neutralizing BIAP could serve as a supporting effort to make Baghdad more vulnerable. Third, it is possible that ISIS might target the Kadhimiyah shrine. ISIS attacked al-Kadhimiyah shrine on 26 June with an SVEST, but this did not result in the shrine itself incurring structural damage. If ISIS destroyed the shrine, the Shi‘a backlash would likely result in sectarian war and increased Iranian involvement. ISIS has SVESTS, VBIEDs, and IDF at its disposal to attack fixed sites.
South of Baghdad including Mahmudiyah, Latifiyah, and Yusifiyah
The step change in ISIS activity near Baghdad has also reflected in the southwestern Baghdad Belts. The southwestern zone provides multiple avenues of approach for ISIS to enter southwest Baghdad. The key terrain that ISIS may seek to target in southwest Baghdad is BIAP. Greater Mahmudiyah, located directly south of Baghdad and known as the “Gateway to Baghdad” has experienced few and simple attacks in the past 6 months; however this past month there were two separate attacks in Mahmudiyah. First, ISIS conducted a complex attack in the Mahmudiyah market incorporating an IED, SVEST, and mortars, on 26 June. Then, ISIS detonated an IED in a market in Mahmudiyah killing one and wounding 4 people, on 2 July. ISIS and ISF have clashed in the regions surrounding Latifiyah and Yusifiyah, but after the fall of Mosul there have been reduced reporting of attacks in this area. ISIS published images of them attacking ISF using direct and IDF in the past two weeks. The resumption of attacks upon Mahmudiyah represents a step change since the area has most likely witnessed an increased deployment of Iraqi Shi‘a militias and ISF after the fall of Mosul in order to protect Baghdad’s southern front from a potential ISIS attack. Also the minimum rate of reporting on kinetic engagements in Yusifiyah and Latifiyah in the local Iraqi media is a dangerous indicator that has been observed similarly before the fall of Mosul.
The uptick of attacks in Mahmudiyah and on the ISF in Latifiyah and Yusifiyah indicate an ISIS contingent operates beyond the ISIS and ISF/Iraqi Shi militias’ front line in vicinity of Jurf al-Sakhar in northern Babil. ISIS also has freedom of movement in this area, considered an ISIS stronghold, representing a major part of the ISIS governorate in the area, which it calls Wilayat al-Janub. This ISIS system extends from northern Babil to south of Baghdad and south east of Fallujah. Jurf al-Sakhar connects the northern Babil ISIS system and the Anbar ISIS system, and therefore ISIS will most likely continue to defend it from attempts by the ISF and Shi‘a militias attempts to clear it. The ISF and Iraqi Shi‘a militias are likely disrupting ISIS efforts in the area, but ISIS could still operate.
Another indicator of ISIS presence south of Baghdad was the discovery of an IED manufacturing workshop by the FP on 17 July, in the area of Kwerish, located 2.5 miles from Dora where AQI had a strong hold in 2006-2007. An IED targeted Sahwa force in the Albu Aitha area, close to Dora in southern Baghdad, on the same day. This suggests the presence of ISIS cells near Baghdad and IED-making capabilities in rural areas where ISIS has traditionally used as havens and preparation grounds. These small attacks effectively soften the regime and Shi‘a defenses.
North of Baghdad including Taji, Tarmiyah, Balad, and Samarra
ISW observed an increase in ISIS activity closing in on Baghdad Province from the north in the past three weeks, especially from Taji and Mashada. Taji is a rural district with a Shi’a population on the northern avenue of approach to Baghdad. The Iraqi government acknowledged the northern belt as an area from where ISIS might launch an attack, and created obstacles such as sand berms on 27 June to block possible avenues of approach from Taji into the Baghdad proper. Shi‘a volunteers and ISIS members clashed in the area of Mashahda, northwest of camp Taji, resulting in two volunteers killed, five volunteers injured, and three ISIS members injured on 1 July. The northwestern corridor also includes Taji base, a strategic ISF facility that houses an IA depot and Taji prison, which was attacked by ISIS on 21 July 2013 in a dual prison attack along with Abu Ghraib. Since the fall of Mosul, Taji has begun to witness direct attacks again. An IED detonated in Taji, resulting in the death and injury of eight individuals on 14 July 2014. A SVBIED targeted a security checkpoint between Baghdad and Taji and resulted in the death of three individuals and injured seven others on 17 July.
ISIS shot mortars into the Shi’a dominated area of Sabaa al-Bour in Taji District on 23 July. This mortar attack signifies the potential testing of ISIS’s ability to conduct mortar fire in the vicinity of northern Baghdad Shi’a neighborhoods. Sabaa al-Bour saw some of the worst sectarian violence of the Iraq War. ISIS could be conducting these attacks to foment sectarian violence in northern Baghdad as unrest will delegitimize the Iraqi government.
The corridors north and northwest comprising Taji, Mashahda and Tarmiyah have historically been areas where ISIS and its predecessor AQI thrived and are currently part of the named ISIS Wilayat Northern Baghdad system. These areas have witnessed increased kinetic ISIS activities since late 2013 but have been quiet since the fall of Mosul. It is possible that the deployment of Shi‘a volunteers, militias, and ISF to the northern Baghdad Belts has disrupted ISIS, it is also possible that ISIS forces there remain in reserve. ISW had assessed previously that VBIEDs may be manufactured in Tarmiyah for deployment in Baghdad.
West of Baghdad including Abu Ghraib, Zaidan
There has also been a reverse step change west of Baghdad, in that areas that had previously seen much activity have become quiet since the fall of Mosul. The contingent of ISIS between Fallujah and Baghdad clashed often with Iraqi Shi‘a militias and the ISF since the beginning of the Fallujah crisis in the Spring of 2014. Clashes intensified in April 2014 in Zaidan, a predominantly Sunni neighborhood on western outskirts of Baghdad, and Abu Ghraib, immediately north of Zaidan. ISF control in these two areas deteriorated to the point where the government evacuated all the prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison and closed the prison by 15 April. Reports of clashes and other kinetic engagements from the western Baghdad Belts have seldom been reported since. ISW assesses the ISIS contingent in western Baghdad Province may be fixed due to the increased presence of Iraqi Shi‘a militias and ISF in the area; however, this is another location where ISIS forces may still be postured in reserve. Abu Ghraib is the Western gateway to Baghdad, adjacent to BIAP and near to Fallujah, an ISIS stronghold. The imminent threat to Abu Ghraib and the possible advance of ISIS from the West should not be ignored.
East of Baghdad including Mada’in, Arab Jubur, and Nahrawan
While the ISF orients its defenses against likely avenues of approach by ISIS, it is important to consider that ISIS may also be approaching from the southeast. Reporting on ISIS kinetic activity east of Baghdad has been limited. Still, it is important to recognize that not only does the eastern corridor present a large Shi’a target for ISIS, but that the east serves as another available avenue of approach towards Baghdad. The southeast was an active zone for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), ISIS’s predecessor. The Iraqi Ministry of Defense seized shells, explosive material, and bomb-making material in the Arab Jubur area in southeastern Baghdad on 12 July, a historical support zone for AQI. ISIS detonated an IED in the southeastern corridor of Mada’in, an area just east of the Tigris River on 20 July and a historic AQI attack zone. This activity may indicate that ISIS has support zones on the southeastern approach into Baghdad city. A VBIED also detonated in Nahrawan, an area directly east of Baghdad on 22 July, resulting in at least three individuals killed and eight others injured. This is the first major attack in the eastern area around Baghdad since the start of 2014. The area of Nahrawan is not an historic attack zone for ISIS, but it is an historic area of operation for Iranian-backed Shi’a militias, the likely target of the attacks. The key Iranian infrastructure in the eastern corridor is Rasheed Airbase located adjacent to Baghdad proper in the city’s southeastern corner. ISIS could impede the Iranian resupply of the Iraqi pro-government forces and obstruct their offensive air capabilities by seizing the airbase and wresting control of the eastern Baghdad Belts.
Given the increase in kinetic activity within Baghdad city, and specifically the renewal of VBIED attacks, it is important to remain vigilant against the threat of an ISIS offensive in the capital, especially before the end of Ramadan on 28 July. ISIS may have positions inside Baghdad city, and ISIS likely retains extensive freedom of maneuver throughout the Baghdad Belts. The defense of Baghdad must take into consideration the possible operational targets of ISIS, as well as its ability to conduct a range of attacks that include mortars and complex attacks upon fixed sites. The military bases within and surrounding Baghdad must also remain prepared to withstand an attack. ISW assesses that BIAP is particularly vulnerable at this time.