MS Risk Blog

Islamic State’s threat in Iraq

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Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a Sunni Islamic jihadist group, rose from the ashes of Al-Qaeda in 2014, establishing a ‘caliphate’ in northern Iraq and Syria. In 2017, a US-led anti-terrorism coalition declared victory over ISIS, expelling them from their lands in northern Iraq. Following the withdrawal of US troops from the region in 2021, and even more since the escalation of conflict between Israel and Hamas in 2023, however, ISIS have been conducting an increasing number of attacks throughout the region, leading to more destabilised security conditions. This paper aims to analyse ISIS activities in 2024 to assess the likely threat they pose in the region over the next several months, as well as Iraq’s decision making in this regard.

The month of March 2024 saw ISIS’ most active month in terms of quantity of attacks since 2017 levels, conducting at least 69 attacks in central Syria in just that month. These attacks have resulted in the deaths of at least 84 Syrian soldiers and 44 civilians, which is more than double the confirmed operations ISIS have conducted in 2024. As well as these attacks in Syria, ISIS have been conducting operations in Iraq, with a recent attack on May 13th, 2024, in the Salahuddin province resulting in the death of one Iraqi officer and four soldiers. These increasing levels of attacks in the last 6 months, as well as severity of the attacks, as demonstrated by ISIS-K in the Moscow concert hall shooting on March 22nd, 2024, which saw the death of 145 civilians and at least 500 more injured, as well as the bombing in Iran on January 3rd, 2024, which resulted in the deaths of 103 people and injured 284 others, indicate the increasingly severe threat posed by Islamic State.

This increase in attacks occurs as the Iraqi and US political leadership are discussing the withdrawal of US military personnel and the end of the international coalition which resulted in the defeat of ISIS in 2017. Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani’s office stated in January of 2024 that “Military experts will oversee ending the military mission of the Global Coalition against Daesh [ISIL], a decade after its initiation and after its successful achievement of its mission in partnership with Iraqi security and military forces”. There are two crucial reasons behind this decision, the first being the increasing capabilities of the Iraqi military and security forces since 2017. Iraq has been prioritising the strengthening of its defence capabilities, primarily through the means of acquiring modernised aircraft for air superiority. In 2023, Iraq finalised a $3.2 billion contract with Dassault Aviation to purchase 14 Rafale aircraft, a French, twin-jet combat aircraft with both long- and short-range capabilities, high-accuracy strikes, and reconnaissance. This modernisation of the Iraqi forces comes as a direct result of the possible resurgence of ISIS in Iraq, and thus the talks to end the coalition indicate Iraq’s preparedness for military dominance over ISIS. There are currently 2,500 US troops present in Iraq as part of the coalition against ISIS. If these troops are to leave, there is a worrying potential for a similar power vacuum left in Afghanistan in 2021, providing ISIS with the opportunity to regain territory.

The second crucial reason is due to the activity in Iraq as a result of the Israel-Hamas conflict. Since October of 2023, Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria have targeted US troops over 170 times. The 2,500 troops have been targeted at Al-Asad air base numerous times, as well as in Jordan, where an attack in February of 2024 resulted in the death of three American soldiers. The US retaliation for the attack in Jordan was a series of strikes on over 85 targets throughout Iraq and Syria, resulting in the deaths of 16 people, including civilians, and over 25 injured. Even in 2020, US forces conducted an air strike outside Baghdad airport which killed the Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, as well as Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Iraq has complained that these US attacks violate Iraq’s sovereignty, and thus is a further reason for the discussions of the removal of US troops. ISIS, however, have taken credit for the decision to begin the removal of US troops as a consequence of their force, and have promised to continue its attacks.

ISIS in 2024 has demonstrated its capabilities to execute complex attacks on an international scale, and therefore almost certainly poses a significant threat to regional security in Iraq in the short-term future. This is compounded with the intention to withdraw US forces from the region, leaving behind a significant power vacuum in Iraq’s security apparatus, providing ISIS with opportunity to engage with their intentions of re-establishing power. We assess with high confidence that ISIS will continue to attack US and Iraqi forces at a high rate over the next 6 months.

Iraq, however, has been investing in the modernisation of its equipment, with a priority on aircraft, and as such is certain to have military dominance over ISIS, in contrast to in 2014 when Iraq’s security structure was highly ineffective. We therefore assess with moderate confidence that Iraq has the capabilities, the training, and the experience, to effectively combat ISIS’ attempts to regain land in Iraq. This was recently demonstrated on the 22nd of June 2024, by an announcement by the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) regarding a successful joint operation with the Iraqi National Intelligence Service against an ISIS cell in the city of Tuz Khurmato in northern Iraq. The operation resulted in the death of at least 7 militants, including the leader of the cell. The ISOF stated that F-16 aircraft carried out strikes that destroyed tunnel systems and hideouts, resulting in the death of all the cell’s militants.