Thursday, March 7, 2019

ISIS Re-Establishes Historical Sanctuary in Iraq

By: Brandon Wallace

Key Takeaway: ISIS’s post-Caliphate insurgency in Iraq is accelerating faster than efforts to prevent it by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. ISIS is re-establishing capable insurgent networks in multiple historical strongholds and linking them together, setting the conditions for future offensive operations against the Government of Iraq. The U.S. and its partners should not view the current relative security in Baghdad as confirmation of the defeat of ISIS. The U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition’s strategy to enable Iraq to “independently manage” an insurgency through intelligence support and other building partner capacity efforts will likely fail to prevent ISIS from regaining momentum based on its current trajectory in Iraq. 

1) ISIS has established and strengthened a durable support zone in the vicinity of Hawija in Kirkuk Province since September 2017
  • The System: Hawija is a historical stronghold for ISIS and its predecessor al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) with a sympathetic population of Sunni Arabs. The Hamrin Mountains near Hawija enable north-south transit from Ninewa Province to Diyala Province. The mountains also provide durable sanctuary from airstrikes and ground clearing operations.
  • Resurgent ISIS Activity: ISIS ceded territorial control of Hawija to the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in October 2017 in order to preserve its forces and resources to mount a future insurgency in Northern Iraq. ISIS preserved much of these capabilities in the Hamrin Mountains but also embedded cells within the civilian population around Hawija. The military escalation between the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) against Iraqi Kurdistan along the Disputed Internal Boundaries (DIBs) in October 2017 created security gaps that provided additional opportunities for ISIS to resurge near Hawija. ISIS began to conduct and claim insurgent attacks against the ISF and PMF by December 2017, when a member of the Iraqi Council of Representatives warned that at least “1000” ISIS fighters were operating near Hawija.[1] By May 2018, ISIS had expanded its local operations to include extortion and the destruction of crops in order to generate revenue and degrade popular confidence in the ability of security forces.[2] ISIS also continued to develop its support infrastructure in the Hamrin Mountains. ISIS had reportedly established permanent infrastructure including training camps, courts, and militant housing in Hamrin by September 2018.[3] The ISF failed to clear ISIS from Hawija despite major clearing operations in April 2018. [4]
2) ISIS is forming a durable support zone in the Northern Diyala River Valley.
  • The System: Diyala Province is a frequent target of sectarian violence given its population mix of Shi’a Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds. The Iraqi Government and Iraqi Kurdistan dispute zones in majority-Kurdish Northern Diyala Province, generating instability that can be exploited by ISIS. The Diyala River Valley (DRV) holds a dense network of orchards which provide cover for insurgent activity. The Hamrin Mountains end in Northern Diyala Province, connecting it to Kirkuk and Ninewa Provinces. The PMF and ISF claimed to clear ISIS from Diyala Province in January 2015 without support from the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition.
  • Resurgent ISIS Activity: ISIS has waged a slow but steady campaign of attacks to increase its freedom of movement in Diyala Province January 2015. In July 2018, ISIS accelerated its efforts to re-establish a support zone in a region stretching from Khanaqin to Muqdadiyah and Lake Hamrin in Northern Diyala Province. ISIS reinforced this campaign by transiting fighters from Kirkuk Province to Diyala Province via the Hamrin Mountains, according to local security officials.[5] ISIS operates safe houses near Lake Hamrin that direct militants further on into DRV. Local Kurds fled as many as thirty small villages near Khanaqin between July - November 2018 under pressure from ISIS.[6] A member of the Diyala Provincial Council issued a failed call for a state of emergency and tribal mobilization near Khanaqin in November 2018.[7] Local officials confirmed that ISIS de facto controls several villages near Muqdadiyah in January 2019.[8] Local security forces conduct frequent clearing operations in the area with little effect.
3) ISIS is developing an attack and transit vector south of Baqubah City, Diyala Province.
  • The System: Baqubah links networks in Northern Diyala Province to the Northern Baghdad Belts. Buhriz Subdistrict south of Baqubah features dense palm groves that provide ideal conditions for a sustained insurgency. AQI historically projected attack cells southward from Buhriz through Khan Bani Saad into Northern Baghdad. ISIS attempted but failed to seize Buhriz in March 2014 during its territorial campaign in Diyala Province. 
  • Resurgent ISIS Activity: ISIS is expanding its operations in its durable support zone near Buhriz. ISIS began conducting hit-and-run attacks near Buhriz in mid-2018.[9] ISIS later escalated its attack tempo against security forces, local tribal figures, and commercial sites in Buhriz in January 2019. Buhriz Subdistrict was “almost under the control of ISIS” by February 2019, according to an anonymous security source.[10] A member of the Iraqi Council of Representatives called on the Government of Iraq to deploy additional troops to prevent a “serious security deterioration” in Diyala Province on February 28, 2019.[11] ISIS will likely leverage its presence in Buhriz to attack both south into Baghdad and north into Baqubah, from which it could ultimately project force farther along the DRV and connect with its support zones in Northern Diyala Province. 
4) ISIS is building out a support zone in the Northern Baghdad Belts that connects its operations in Diyala and Anbar Provinces. 
  • The System: AQI historically used the zone from Karmah to Taji and Tarmiyah in the Northern Baghdad Belts as a support zone to launch attacks into Baghdad as well as transit fighters and supplies between Anbar, Salah ad-Din, and Diyala Provinces.
  • Resurgent ISIS Activity: ISIS retained a latent presence in the Northern Baghdad Belts, which were never adequately cleared by the ISF and PMF. ISIS has thus far limited its attacks in this area to small-scale raids and SVESTs but it is attempting to develop a more robust network. The ISF detained a school principal for providing a safe house for a suicide bomber in Tarmiyah in April 2018. The Iraqi Ministry of Interior later claimed to disrupt an ISIS VBIED cell north of Baghdad in September 2018.[12] ISIS has also established several cells near Karmah in Anbar Province since October 2018.[13] The U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition maintains a footprint at Camp Taji that enables it to facilitate raids by the ISF that have disrupted but not dismantled ISIS in the Northern Baghdad Belts.
5) ISIS is expanding a support zone in the southwestern quadrant of the Baghdad Belts.
  • The System: The so-called “Triangle of Death” in the Southern Baghdad Belts stretches from south of Fallujah through Amariyat al-Fallujah and Jurf al-Sakhar into Northern Babil Province. This system links ISIS in Anbar Province to Baghdad and Babil Province. ISIS used its a presence in this area to support its operations in Fallujah in 2014. ISIS later seized control of Jurf al-Sakhar and declared an official province for its operations in Northern Babil Province in 2014. ISIS used several VBIED factories near Amariyat al-Fallujah in its defense of Fallujah against the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. 
  • Resurgent ISIS Activity: ISIS has re-established a support zone near Amariyat al-Fallujah to attack into Fallujah as of August 2018. ISIS attempted a motorcycle-borne suicide bombing of a popular restaurant in Fallujah in August 2018.[14] In October 2018, ISIS detonated its first VBIED in Fallujah since the city’s recapture by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in June 2016. ISIS likely produced the VBIED using historical production sites in Amariyat al-Fallujah or Southern Fallujah. The ISF discovered sophisticated tunnel networks entering Fallujah from the direction of Amariyat al-Fallujah in January 2019.[15] ISIS likely used the tunnels to infiltrate cells into the city. Security forces later arrested more than 180 individuals connected to ISIS in Fallujah in February 2019.[16] ISIS has also begun using its support zone in Amariyat al-Fallujah to project force south towards Jurf al-Sakhar and Northern Babil Province in December 2018. The ISF has detained several ISIS militants at checkpoints along the highways connecting Babil Province to Baghdad since December 2018.[17] Security forces later thwarted an ISIS SVBIED in Jurf al-Sakhar in January 2019.[18]
6) ISIS maintains freedom of movement in the Jazeera Desert that it uses to transport fighters and materials between Syria, Anbar Province, and Salah al-Din Province.
  • The System: The Jazeera Desert along the Iraqi-Syrian Border north of the Euphrates River is an ungoverned space featuring robust cross-border operations by both criminal networks and ISIS. ISIS and AQI both leveraged their freedom of action in this area to mitigate the effects of clearing operations against their ground lines of communication along the Euphrates River Valley (ERV). AQI became increasingly reliant upon this area for logistics after its loss of popular support along the ERV during the Anbar Awakening in mid-2007.
  • Resurgent ISIS Activity: ISIS maintains a logistics network in the vicinity of Al-Qaim that uses tunnels and safe houses to transit fighters, drugs, money, and other materials along the Middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV).[19] This network is likely exfiltrating fighters and material from the final physical zone controlled by ISIS in Baghuz in Syria. Anonymous U.S. and Iraqi officials stated in February 2019 that more than 1,000 ISIS fighters had crossed the Iraq-Syrian Border through the Jazeera Desert since September 2018. The ISF and PMF have disrupted tens of cells smuggling militants and resources in small villages farther east along the ERV since September 2018. Some of these fighters may be establishing local support networks, but many others are moving on to conduct attacks farther north in Salah al-Din Province. ISIS is reportedly attacking Baiji from the Jazeera Desert, demonstrating its use of desert logistics networks to project force into Central Iraq.[20] ISIS has also attacked security forces patrolling the Jazeera Desert north of Al-Qaim in a likely effort to protect its supply routes across the Iraqi-Syrian Border.
7) ISIS elements are entrenched in a geographic safe haven west of Mosul City.
  • The System: The Badush Mountains southwest of Mosul provide a geographic safe haven for insurgency similar to the Hamrin Mountains southwest of Kirkuk. This system connects to a region of industrial areas and small villages on the southwest outskirts of Mosul called the Jurn Corridor. AQI historically used this area as sanctuary. Both ISIS and AQI also used the area as a staging ground for attacks into Mosul.
  • Resurgent ISIS Activity: The U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition never successfully cleared ISIS from the Badush Mountains, which likely received an influx of fighters and material as ISIS fled Mosul in 2017. ISIS fighters retreating from ground operations by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in Syria may also be relocating to this area via the Jazeera Desert. Reports of ISIS performing support functions and reconstituting fighting forces in the Badush Mountains increased in November 2018.[21] ISIS is conducting attacks against local security forces and tribal figures in villages south of the Badush Mountains. It may ultimately expand its attacks to Mosul and contest access to the Mosul-Baiji Highway. Raids by the elite Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) have not degraded the safe haven held by ISIS in the Badush Mountains.[22]
8) ISIS is reconstituting a networked presence in Mosul 
  • The System: Mosul was largely destroyed during clearing operations by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. Some of the civilian population has since returned but many others have opted to remain in internally-displaced persons camps outside Mosul. Mosul requires significant investment including unexploded ordinance removal to rehabilitate areas of the city destroyed or heavily mined by ISIS. Reconstruction efforts have been marred by corruption and mismanagement. The CTS identified Gogjali District in Eastern Mosul as the main center of ISIS VBIED factories during the Battle of Mosul.
  • Resurgent ISIS Activity: ISIS established a network of sleeper cells throughout Mosul after its recapture by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in July 2017. ISIS detonated its first VBIED in Mosul since 2017 in November 2018 followed by a second VBEID in February 2019. ISIS’s networks inside Mosul likely facilitated these attacks. ISIS also likely retains some VBIED capabilities in Eastern Mosul including Gogjali District.
9) ISIS is successfully recruiting among Iraqi Kurds with the potential to create a new insurgent threat based in Iraqi Kurdistan. 
  • The System: Iraqi Kurds have historically contributed to Salafi-Jihadist Groups in Iraq. Kurdish Salafi-Jihadists operated under the banner of Ansar al-Islam during the Iraq War. Large elements of Ansar al-Islam in Iraq later merged with ISIS in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga prevented ISIS from advancing into Iraqi Kurdistan in 2014 - 2015.
  • Resurgent ISIS Activity: ISIS is recruiting and generating attack networks within Iraqi Kurdistan. Three Kurds seized two hostages after storming the Arbil Province Governor’s Building in Arbil on July 21, 2018.[23] The militants were high school students from Arbil who were radicalized by an Iraqi Kurdish cleric with known ties to ISIS, whom security forces subsequently arrested on July 24, 2018.[24] Security forces also arrested eight members of an ISIS financing network in Arbil in October 2018. The militants were connected to the Al-Rawi Network sanctioned by the U.S. in 2016. Security forces have also detained multiple cells plotting spectacular attacks in Sulaymaniyah Province following a prison break in December 2018. Prison breaks were a leading indicator of ISIS’s resurgence in Iraq after the withdrawal of the U.S. in 2011. 

[2] [“Source Reveals the Displacement of Families from the South of Kirkuk,”] Sot al-Iraq, June 20, 2018, https://www.sotaliraq(.)com/2018/06/20/%D9%85%D8%B5%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D9%8A%D9%83%D8%B4%D9%81-%D8%B9%D9%86-%D9%86%D8%B2%D9%88%D8%AD-%D8%B9%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%A6%D9%84-%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%AC%D9%86%D9%88%D8%A8-%D9%83%D8%B1%D9%83%D9%88%D9%83/; [“ISIS Burns Crops of Wheat from Owners Who Refused to Pay Zakat,”] Al-Bawabah, 24 May, 2018, https://www.albawabhnews(.)com/3118414.
[4] “Iraqi Forces Target ISIS, ‘White Flags’ on Kirkuk-Khurmatu-Kifri Road,” Rudaw, April 07, 2018, http://www.rudaw(.)net/english/middleeast/iraq/040720181.
[5] [“Arrest of ISIS Transport Official and Three of His Assistants in a Surprise Operation in Northeastern Diyala,”] Al-Ghad Press, July 25, 2018, https://www.alghadpress(.)com/news/%D8%A3%D8%AE%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%82/167889/%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%82%D8%A8%D8%B6-%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%89-%D9%85%D8%B3%D8%A4%D9%88%D9%84-%D9%86%D9%82%D9%84-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AF%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%B4-%D9%883-%D9%85%D9%86-%D9%85%D8%B9%D8%A7%D9%88%D9%86%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A8%D8%B9%D9%85%D9%84%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%85; [“Diyala Police: Arrest of ISIS Transport Official and Three of His Assistants in a Surprise Operation in the Northeast of the Province,”] Badr Organization, July 25, 2018, http://badr(.)iq/ar/41168; “IS Commander Captured Before Entering Kirkuk,” Basnews, July 24, 2018, http://www.basnews(.)com/index.php/en/news/iraq/454335.
[6] “ISIS Threats Force Kurds to Evacuate Village Near Khanaqin,” Rudaw, July 25, 2018, http://www.rudaw(.)net/english/kurdistan/25072018; “Khanaqin Villagers Flee Their Homes, Fearing Resurgent ISIS,” Rudaw, December 13, 2018, http://www.rudaw(.)net/english/kurdistan/131220183.
[7] [“Claims of the Return of Peshmerga and Asayish to Khanaqin,”] PUK Media, January 11, 2018, http://pukmedia(.)com/AR_Direje.aspx?Jimare=119618.
[9] [“7 Civilians Shot Dead in Diyala,”] Rudaw, July 06, 2018, http://www.rudaw(.)net/arabic/middleeast/iraq/060720189.
[13] [“Dismantling a Terrorist Cell in Anbar,”] PUK Media, October 20, 2018, http://pukmedia(.)com/AR_Direje.aspx?Jimare=119052; [“Detained One of the ISIS Snipers in Karmah,”] PUK Media, February 17, 2019, http://pukmedia(.)com/AR_Direje.aspx?Jimare=124001.
[16] [“Spokesman of the Interior Ministry Holds a Press Conference in Anbar Province,”] Iraqi Ministry of Interior, February 11, 2019,
[23] “Update: 3 Gunmen Who Attacked Erbil Governor’s Building Named,” Rudaw, July 23, 2018, http://www(.)
[24] “Radical Cleric Accused of ISIS Links Arrested by Erbil Security Forces,” Rudaw, July 24, 2018, http://www.rudaw(.)net/english/kurdistan/240720182.