IS militants exploit political unrest in Iraq to rise again

Islamic State sleeper cells use the protests’ crisis to their advantage to operate in Iraqi cities.

al-monitor Iraqi demonstrators take part in ongoing anti-government protests, in Baghdad, Iraq, Dec. 10, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Alaa al-Marjani.

Dec 21, 2019

As protests in Iraq maintain momentum, the Islamic State (IS) has been carrying out more frequent attacks in multiple parts of the country. An IS suicide bomber in a car killed four members of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in Samarra in Salahuddin province and attacked Dibis district in Kirkuk province Dec. 10. 

IS also tried Dec. 10 to target the border camera surveillance system between Salahuddin and Diyala. As a preemptive measure, the Iraqi army has begun pursuing IS members in the northern parts of the country.

A statement on the PMU website said Dec. 2 that four of its members were killed in an IS attack in Diyala province. On Nov. 16, the PMU mentioned having aborted IS moves aimed at bringing parts of Kirkuk under IS control.

In light of the turmoil caused by the demonstrations and political instability following Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s resignation amid popular pressure, the Kurdish presidency warned against mounting IS threats. It perceived Dec. 5 that an IS attack on a peshmerga forces brigade in Khanaqin district is proof of the threat IS poses to stability and security in the region. 

The secretary-general of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Qais al-Khazali, told the press IS has infiltrated the demonstrations. Yet an unidentified Joint Operations Command officer told the press that “leaders of the PMU seek to intimidate and terrorize the protesters and blame them for the security breaches, although the PMU are responsible for the poor security plans in their areas.”

Irrespective of the differing views on IS's role in the demonstrations, IS is obviously investing in the popular outburst and ensuing political, security and even social turmoil. Speaking to Al-Monitor, Ahmed al-Sharifi, a military analyst and former member of the United Iraqi Alliance, indicated that “IS is active in Baghdad, taking advantage of the security forces’ preoccupation with the demonstrations." He said, “IS cells were already able to attack with a grenade the Central Bank in Baghdad, located among the crowds on al-Rashid Street in the center of Baghdad.” Sharifi has even anticipated that “IS would carry out major terrorist attacks in Baghdad, the southern and central provinces as well.”

Sharifi’s point of view on IS's role during the protests is in line with remarks made by the spokesperson of the Joint Operations Command Spokesman Maj. Gen. Tahsin al-Khafaji. Khafaji told Al-Monitor, “IS is trying to activate sleeper cells, taking advantage of the security forces’ preoccupation with securing the demonstrations.” He revealed that “[slain IS leader Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi’s deputy chief in Kirkuk, who was arrested, stated in the interrogation that he was plotting to infiltrate the demonstrations to carry out military attacks.”

Hanin al-Qadu, a member of parliament for Ninevah province, told Al-Monitor, "Bearing in mind the security forces’ preoccupation with the demonstrations in the southern and central provinces, IS would plan attacks in the northern areas where its moves and capabilities [required] to carry out attacks are greater than those in the central and southern areas.”

Fallah al-Khafaji, a parliament member who worked on the security and terrorism dossier in Babil province, told Al-Monitor that “IS views the demonstrations as a window of opportunity to conduct attacks by activating its sleeper cells, particularly in the northern and western parts and on the outskirts of the provinces where the environment is favorable.”

In fact, Security Media Cell said Dec. 12 that three IS members were arrested in Anbar and Salahuddin provinces.

Ahmed al-Jabouri, a parliament member for Ninevah province, told Al-Monitor, “There is significant terrorist activity in Samarra, Ninevah and on the outskirts of Salahuddin and Kirkuk. That necessitates urgent security measures to chase IS, which thinks it can return to where it was during the protest period.”

The blasts caused by IS have been close to the demonstrations. A security source reported Dec. 12 that two civilians were wounded when two roadside bombs blew up in Baladiyat in Baghdad. Meanwhile, military expert Sarmad Al-Bayati told media outlets that “IS does not seek to strike the demonstrators in Baghdad. They are not a part of its goal.” Rather, he added, "what it wants is to annoy the Iraqi forces."

Political analyst, researcher and secretary of the Iraq Media Observatory Mahmoud al-Hashemi sees a “conspiracy” thread between IS activation and mounting momentum of the demonstrations. He told Al-Monitor, “The presence of such a large number of terrorist groups in Syria is intended to be used in an anarchy project, be it in Iraq or any other target zone.”

Hashemi perceives "the demonstrations’ crisis and preparations [for this crisis] came according to the existing schedule (in early October) and coincided with the protests in Lebanon and Iran. Their geography (in a Shiite surrounding) points at their rigorous planning, which would help mitigate the state-building and the rule of the public opinion and limit the security forces’ role that has become minimal. That is what prompted the US forces to flow to Iraq, coming from Jordan and Syria, and to push the terrorist groups to conduct a series of operations.”

Hashemi added, “There will be more targets, as planned, in parallel with the acts of violence accompanying the demonstrations.” IS history in Iraq shows it utilizes every chance for insecurity and public discontent with the government or [general] conditions to cement its presence and efficiency. In 2004, IS took advantage of public resentment with the local and federal governments to occupy Mosul.

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