The Shifting Strategies of ISIS

The battle for Mosul — the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) bastion in Iraq — is entering its sixth month with Iraqi forces backed by a US-led coalition controlling about three quarters of the city. While fighting is focused on capturing the symbolic Nuri mosque in the Old City, where the organization leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi declared his caliphate in 2014, the war on ISIS is still unfolding elsewhere in Iraq. The organization may revert to old strategies and create new ones in order to survive an increasingly adverse environment.  

As the military conflict appears to be nearing the end in Mosul, ISIS may resort to a string of tactics to hinder its untimely fall: from desperate measures in Mosul, to exporting the fight elsewhere in Iraq, to regrouping and retreating to secure locations, reprioritizing guerilla warfare, decentralizing, and rebuilding its financial networks.

With the fight intensifying in Mosul, where at least 150 people last week died in airstrikes, the organization appears to recourse to desperate measures. Besides using suicide VBIEDs, ISIS is now using parked vehicles as barriers of fire and also planting snipers in the houses of civilians to hinder the advance of Iraqi troops, Iraqi newswire Niqash reported recently. According to Iraqi news, the organization has also taken hostage some 200 children to used as human shields. The scorched earth policy used by ISIS will likely intensify as the conflict nears its end, with the organization possibly trying to cause the largest number of civilian casualties in its last salvo, in an attempted doomsday scenario.

Yet the battle against ISIS will not stop after Mosul. It will be exported to other cities such as Hawija that are still under the organization’s control. According to Kurdish military commander Dr. Kemal Kirkuki, who is responsible for the Kirkuk frontline, there was a plan to take Hawija, however the battle was postponed after a meeting with PM Haidar Abadi and Hadi Ameri from the Shia Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). The city is encircled on three sides by these two forces and one side by the Kurds. Abadi and Ameri wanted to launch the attack from the area liberated by the Kurds, explains Dr. Kirkuki. The three factions will nonetheless have to reach an agreement after Mosul, to prepare for the Hawija battle. The city is an important base for ISIS and a pro-Saddam stronghold and the site of Sunni anti-government protests that were halted violently by the Iraqi army in early 2013, resulting in dozens of deaths, explains colonel Harry Schute, a military advisor to the KRG.

After Mosul, it is likely that ISIS will work on salvaging its militant networks. Dr. Kirkuki explains that many ISIS fighters are attempting to join the cohorts of refugees fleeing the regions still occupied by terrorists. The organization appears to also be working on freeing as many members as possible who have been arrested by Iraqi forces. “We have heard of cases of ISIS members being freed against bribes,” says Mosul activist Ghanem Abadi. The militants will likely disperse and regroup and dig into their positions in remote location; where they will move men and materials as well as weapons. Iraqi military expert Ahmad Shawqi underlines areas that ISIS still disposes of weapon production facilities in the Jezira west of Mosul, information that could not be independently verified. Other areas that will be used by ISIS for hiding are the deserts west of Haditha and Wadi Hawra, Mataibij, the Makhoul Mountains and the Baiji desert.

ISIS strategy appears to have kick started in the last two areas as reported in a recent Niqash article, over 40 recorded attacks occurred in the month of February alone underlining the resumption of terror attacks in Baiji. Additionally, suicide bombers also attacked a wedding in Hajaj village killing over 20 locals that same month. The Niqash article has also linked security problems to the mountainous Makhoul area, which extends from Diyala in the east, into the north of Salahaddin. This renewed insurgency is likely to conduct ambushes and spectacular attacks using suicide bombers. “The Iraqi army has to be prepared for this insurgency that differs from the previous hybrid fight on ISIS,” adds Shawki.

As the fortunes of ISIS continue to decline, the organization will pursue its decentralization efforts and regrouping in small sleeper cells. “US-led coalition air strikes have severely decimated ISIS leadership structure,” says Colonel Schute. According a Niqash article quoting Nineveh Commander of Operations, Lieutenant General Abdel Amir Yarallah, Baghdadi totally lost control on the ground. “Those with him are fighting without leadership. They fight through decentralized control in areas where we are fighting.”

In such a context, local ISIS leaders will likely take preeminence in the various regions, with cells operating nearly independently from one another on the short term. It will be interesting to see if such groups will continue to operate under the ISIS label or if they will rebrand. Dr. Kirkuki emphasizes that attacks in his sector have been claimed by a group called “Fajr Alathim,” that he believes ISIS created and that contrary to its parent organization does not capture terrain but favors intermittent sporadic attacks. Local sources within the federal police in Mosul deny nonetheless witnessing a similar trend in their areas. Another possibility would be that some jihadists seek to rekindle an alliance with al-Qaeda to pursue their struggle, on the longer term, something that however may be hindered by ideological differences between al-Qaeda andISIS.

The restoration of its financial networks is the last important hurdle for ISIS that is blocking its rebuilding strategy. According to local sources in the Iraqi trade community, ISIS developed an efficient tax levy network prior to its surge in July 2014. Local companies had to pay taxes to the Islamic State and resort to their sharia court when a problem arose. “ISIS will likely go back to collecting taxes if corruption resumes in Mosul,“ says Iraqi expert Mouayed Jouhaych. By cutting funds to ISIS, the Iraqi government will impede attempts by ISIS to rebuild its former networks.

Iraqi forces need to keep in mind the shifting strategies of ISIS in the next war on terror. Yet the threat posed by the organization will remain significant in the absence of a solution in Syria, where the organization still controls large swaths of land stretching to the Iraqi borders. A military victory on ISIS in Iraq is therefore contingent to a capture of the organization’s stronghold in Syria.

Mona Alami is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Photo: Federal police members carry their weapons as they head to the frontline to fight against Islamic State militants, in Mosul, Iraq March, Iraq March 24, 2017. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal