By Dr Paul Burke
Following the allied invasion of Iraq in 2003, the interim solution for replacing the former government of Saddam Hussein was the establishment of the US-appointed Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), led by Paul Bremer. The attacks upon Coalition forces by former Ba’athists, former Iraqi soldiers and the Fedayeen Saddam continued into May 2003. In the same month, the CPA issued Order Number 1, which prohibited former Ba’ath Party members from working in the civil service, the Armed Forces and almost all public-sector jobs.
The move only served to reinforce the disenfranchisement of former Ba’ath party members, many of whom had only joined because it was strongly expected of all public servants under Saddam’s rule. Any chance of assimilating moderate, former Ba’ath party members into post-Saddam Iraqi civic society evaporated, as a result of Order Number 1. Alongside the de-Ba’athification order, the Iraqi Army was effectively disbanded, putting almost half a million armed men into immediate unemployment, many of whom took their personal weapons with them. These two factors, combined with the post-invasion ineffectiveness of the Iraqi Police, plus the unfeasibly low number of allied troops on the ground in Iraq, can be argued to constitute the drivers of the insurgency that rapidly unfolded after the US-led invasion.
The formation of the JAM in 2004, and their first major clash with coalition forces, added a Shia insurgency to the list of problems faced by the coalition. It did not take long before Sadr’s JAM were described as “the most dangerous accelerant” in the Iraq conflict, by the Pentagon. In Basra, the JAM carried out a campaign of attacks upon the British forces in charge of this Area of Operations (AOR), which steadily became more lethal as their levels of training were boosted, primarily by the Iranian Quds Force, but also by training from Lebanese Hizbollah. The flow of weapons and explosives from Iran into Southern Iraq increased, as did the flow into Iranian training facilities, of militia members from JAM and other groups. Iranian planning for these operations had begun as early as 2003 as the US-led coalition built up its forces in preparation for the invasion, and the attacks by the militias began less than a year later.
The complexity of the insurgency facing the coalition just one year after the end of the warfighting phase is difficult to portray, but Kilcullen’s assessment is probably the most accurate. He notes that in 2004, there were no less than six, distinct insurgencies underway in Iraq, which he classifies as follows:
- Communitarian militias (Shia)
- Iranian proxies (Shia)
- Sadrists and the JAM (Shia)
- Zarqawi and similar jihadists (Sunni)
- Secular nationalists rejecting the Iranian/Shia influence (Sunni)
- Former Regime Elements (FREs, almost exclusively Sunni)
Zarqawi continued to plan operations which his AQI group carried out, until he was finally killed in an airstrike in 2006. His favoured tactic of kidnapping foreigners and beheading them on camera was just one instance of his clear understanding of the importance of terrorising a civilian population, and of making many foreign companies and media outlets reluctant to send staff to work in Iraq. His group continued to operate after his death, under the leadership of Abu Ayyub al Masri, who made a concerted effort to realign the group with the traditional Sunni insurgency. Zarqawi’s brutality and notoriety had led to AQI being alienated and rejected among much of the Sunni tribal groups. It was thus important to al Masri that AQI remained relevant and in touch with the Sunni core. The Sunni Awakening in Anbar had resulted in AQI being targeted on two fronts: by the coalition forces, and by the group of tribes now supported by US forces, such as the Albu Mahal, the al Rashawi and others. AQI’s answer to this two-pronged assault was to form a fortified alliance with other Sunni insurgent groups.
Their umbrella organisation, the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC), was already in existence in early 2006, before Zarqawi’s death. In October 2006, the MSC announced the “establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq” (ISI) for the first time. Despite al Masri’s efforts to appeal to a wider Sunni baseline of support, the new organisation still continued its policy of ethnically cleansing the non-Sunnis from its areas of operations and control.
In an attempt to deny the insurgents the necessary degree of operating space, a US plan was put in place to bolster the existing coalition forces with an additional bulk of combat troops to allow for the saturation of Baghdad and other areas, especially Anbar province. The plan also coincided with some significant changes in the senior leadership relevant to the new plan. Donald Rumsfeld had become increasingly unpopular with the military leadership and in December 2006, Bush accepted Rumsfeld’s resignation and replaced him with Robert Gates. This freed Bush at the grand strategic level to get the new plan underway. At the strategic level, General Petraeus replaced General Casey, which provided the impetus for the new COIN strategy that the plan would be built upon.
This plan was officially referred to by the US Administration as “the new way forward” but it was also referred to as “the surge”, by members of the Administration and by the media. Announcing the plan in the President’s Address to the Nation, Bush explained that an additional 20,000 troops (five combat Brigades) would be deployed to Baghdad and Anbar, to help the Iraqi Security Forces to better contain and fight the insurgents; an additional 4,000 US Marines would also be deployed as part of the plan. The wider plan had six main policy pillars:
- Let the Iraqis lead;
- Help Iraqis protect the population;
- Isolate extremists;
- Create space for political progress;
- Diversify political and economic efforts; and
- Situate the strategy in a regional approach.
Kilcullen, who was a principal architect of the US counter-insurgency strategy, notes that the premise of the surge was aimed at protecting the local population, unlike the previous years where the main focus had been on physically atritting and defeating the insurgents (Kilcullen, 2009, pp. 129–130). Writing several years later, Kilcullen expanded on what he saw as the overall aims of the surge: “to protect the population; break AQI’s hold of fear over the Sunni community; stop the cycle of sectarian violence; force the Iraqi government to be more inclusive and less sectarian; reduce civilian casualties”.
As the surge was beginning to take shape on the ground by the summer of 2007, several new dynamics were affecting the conflict zone of Iraq. One of these was the “Sunni Awakening”, centred in Anbar province. When the Sunni tribes in Anbar launched their fifth attempt to negate the effects and influence of AQI in their traditional tribal areas, they were supported this time by US funding, weapons, training and combat support. AQI were now fighting a much more powerful, confident and capable opponent as well as having to contend with the ongoing disruptions of their operations by coalition forces.
In 2006, another new dynamic entered the conflict – the widespread use of the Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP) by insurgent groups. This weapon is a highly sophisticated explosive device usually constructed as an explosives-filled pipe, capped by a shaped copper plate. The explosive reaction initiated upon detonation changes the copper plate into a high-velocity slug of almost molten metal. By June 2006, 17 British soldiers had been killed by EFPs in Southern Iraq. A well-constructed EFP is capable of penetrating the armour of a modern battle tank. In 2007, four British soldiers were killed when a large EFP detonated against their WARRIOR armoured vehicle. By 2008, A US General in charge of the organisation established to defeat IEDS announced that EFPs constituted between just 5-10% of all roadside bombs per month, but their lethality is borne out by the fact that this small percentage was responsible for 40 percent of all IED casualties.
The Shia insurgency was also continuing at this point, but one large-scale tragedy led to a key political milestone in the progress of the cycle of violence. Clashes in August 2007 in the city of Karbala, between Sadrists in the JAM and rival supporters in the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC, formerly known as SCIRI), resulted in Iraqi Police firing into the crowd to break up the clashes, leaving more than 50 people killed. Moqtada al Sadr announced a 6-month ceasefire the following day, stating that the JAM would attack neither Sunni groups nor the coalition forces.Through a combination of the above factors, allied with the improved relations being built between the coalition and the Iraqi population in many areas, plus a more visible political will by the US administration to try to reduce the levels of violence, the death toll and the number of attacks began to decrease.
On 10-11 September 2007, General Petraeus briefed the US Congress on the progress of the surge, stating that since December 2006, civilian deaths across Iraq had declined by more than 45%, while the decline in Baghdad itself was around 70%. Opinion was, and still is, divided on how successful the surge actually was in reducing the death toll and the attacks, and a number of writers have reached different conclusions. Whether it can be attributed as the architectural pillar of the swift reduction in violence, or whether it was only one of several, symbiotic causes, violence decreased markedly several months into the surge. The slide Petraeus used as the overall snapshot was nicknamed “the waterfall slide” by his team, due to the sharp drop-off which the graphs demonstrated.
Figure 1: General Petraeus’ Slide 2, “Overall Weekly Iraq Attack Trends, 01 October 2004 – 07 September 2007” (Petraeus, 2007, Slide 2, p. 12)
By 2008, AQI was in disarray and captured internal documents showed the extent of the problems they were facing in some areas. One AQI commander described how his previous force of 600 men had melted away to just 20, with the majority joining the opposing Awakening movement, and with some having fled with the group’s funds and equipment. ISI had also been reduced to a hardcore of members, primarily former members of the Saddam regime and many of whom had considerable experience in Intelligence work and in planning and conducting covert operations. A law was passed in January which rescinded the previous law banning former Ba’athists from working in government posts or the civil service. Although the legal impediment was removed, it took time for the ban to be lifted in practice.
Much of 2006 and 2007 was used to train and mentor Iraqi Army units, in a massive capacity-building programme to increase the capabilities of the Iraqis to eventually take over the responsibility for the internal security of Iraq. The Shia militias were also undergoing their own internal feuds and Cochrane assesses that there were five distinct sub-divisions within the JAM alone.
In March 2008, a so-called “Spring offensive” was launched, to reclaim control of large areas of Basra from Shia militias. Dubbed “Operation Charge of the Knights”, it was a joint operation conducted by UK, US and Iraqi forces. Following bitter fighting in the heart of the city and in the outlying areas such as al Hayyaniyah, al Qibla and al Latif, the city was finally cleared of JAM and other militia strong-points and presence. A consolidation phase took place from May to November 2008, wherein relationship-building measures were engaged in by the UK/US/Iraqi troops, while at the same time reinforced bases began to be quickly built in the city, for the Iraqi troops to operate from (although the construction of these bases was beset by a raft of difficulties, resulting in them taking much longer than planned).
In 2009, the UK and Australia ended their combat operations in Iraq and formally withdrew from the Iraq, with the UK leaving at the end of April and Australia leaving at the end of July. Two key terrorist leaders, Abu Ayyub al Masri (leader of the rump AQI) and Abu Omar al Baghdadi (leader of ISI) were finally geo-located close to Tikrit. Both men were killed in April 2010 in the same joint operation by US and Iraqi troops. Two months after their leaders were killed, ISI was assessed as having lost 80% of its leaders, either by capture or through fatality. Al Masri was replaced by Nasser Abu Suleiman as the leader of AQI, while Abu Omar al Baghdadi was replaced by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi who later declared himself the Caliph of the so-called Islamic State.
The winding down of US troop numbers in Iraq began in 2010. The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki, ignited further tensions with the Sunni bloc, by revoking more than 500 applications from Sunnis to stand as candidates in the forthcoming elections. He also shut down funding for the Anbar Awakening groups, such as the Sons of Iraq, and the Iraqi government made widespread arrests of Sunni figures from the Awakening movement. By mid-August 2010, the majority of combat troops had left Iraq, although the Advise and Assist Brigades remained, which were a key facet of the US withdrawal plan, both in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the new leader of ISI, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi kept up the pressure of attacks on Iraqi government organs throughout 2010 and 2011, delivering a wave of car-bomb and suicide bomb attacks in the last stage of the US withdrawal.
In May 2011, Osama bin Laden was finally located, living in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. An operation by US Navy SEALs led to bin Laden being killed and his body being removed and buried at sea by the US Navy. Bin Laden’s death generated a power vacuum in Al Qa’eda that was eventually filled by his deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri. Unlike bin Laden, however, Zawahiri lacked the leadership, charisma and popularity to fill the shoes of his predecessor and the period from bin Laden’s death to the creation of ISIS resulted in a lack of direction and drive from the Al Qa’eda leadership. Baghdadi used 2011 and 2012 to expand the presence of ISI and to increase his control over the group’s sources of financing. In the Summer of 2012, he commenced “Operation Breaking the Walls”, a strategic plan to conduct multiple jailbreaks to free Sunni jihadist prisoners.
In April 2013, Baghdadi announced the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). The new group that was ISIS effectively co-opted a Syrian rebel group, Jabhat al Nusra, that was fighting against the forces of President Bashar al Asad. Baghdadi declared the Al Nusra group to now be the Syrian arm of what had been ISI. This announcement apparently came as a surprise to the leaders of the al Nusra group, who rejected the merger the following day, saying they were unaware of it. This caused a split in the al Nusra group, between the rejectionists who refused to join Baghdadi’s group, and the supporters who agreed with the integration of al Nusra into the newly formed ISIS.
Zawahiri stepped in to mediate in the disagreement and pronounced Baghdadi to have been wrong in announcing the formation of ISIS. Zawahiri ordered Baghdadi and his group to revert to being the ISI, crucially adding that Baghdadi had not asked for permission to create ISIS. Clearly, Baghdadi did not see any need to have his decision sanctioned by al Qa’eda’s centre as he continued with his plan, effectively making public Zawahiri’s perceived lack of ability to lead AQ.
The culmination of “Operation Breaking the Walls” happened after the announcement of the formation of ISIS, and this was the successful breaching of Abu Ghraib jail on 21 July 2013, which led to more than 500 prisoners being freed, many of whom had been incarcerated for terrorist activities. This operation was quickly followed by the next one, this time under the ISIS banner: “Operation Soldiers’ Harvest” had the twofold aims of reducing the effectiveness and morale of the Iraqi security forces, and of increasing and playing upon the existing sectarian fault lines and it was carried out with yet more attacks, kidnappings and killings.
Zawahiri continued to present the argument to the world that ISIS was indeed a sub-branch of AQ, emphasising at the start of 2014 that the leaders and foot-soldier of ISIS “pledge their loyalty to al-Qaeda … and their leader Sheikh Osama Bin Laden, may God rest his soul in peace…”. One month later, Zawahiri announced the expulsion of ISIS from AQ and the rift only became worse in the years after the expulsion, with Zawahiri even accusing ISIS of being an apostate organisation.
The Syrian war became a proxy battleground as Iran and Russia both provided military (and other) support. Iran provides weapons, ammunition and logistical support through an air-bridge it maintains with Damascus, via Baghdad. Iran also provides Hezbollah fighters, along with senior commanders and specialists from the IRGC, in particular the Quds Force. In 2015, Iran suffered the death of its most senior adviser in the conflict, when General Hossein Hamedan, the Deputy Chief Commander of the IRGC, was killed in a clash with ISIS fighters in Aleppo. Russia has provided crucial Close Air Support (CAS) air support, as well as advisers and other technical support, to bolster the Syrian Armed Forces, either in carrying out attacks or to assist them when under threat on the ground.
One hypothesis is that Baghdadi originally sent ISIS fighters into Syria due to negative situation which the groups was facing in Iraq, being pressured on all sides by the Iraqi government, the Sunni Awakening and the Shia militias such as the Jam. In relative terms, the early days of the Syrian conflict thus constituted a bizarre kind of safety zone for ISIS, in which they could pause for breath, regroup, re-arm and consolidate their combat capability, before re-entering Iraq to seize. Looking back, this certainly seems plausible, given the speed with which ISIS (and later, the so-called Islamic State) were able to spread their operational control over large areas of Iraq and Syria.
By January 2014, both Fallujah and Ramadi had been seized by ISIS, but perhaps more importantly from a military perspective, they were able to hold the territory. In early June 2014, ISIS embarked on a series of attacks against major cities in Iraq, including Mosul, Samarra, Tikrit and Kirkuk. Pitted against them in the first three of these cities were the Iraqi security forces, now devoid of US military assistance. The Iraqi opposition fell apart in the face of the ISIS advance.
First to fall was the Iraqi 2nd Division, followed by the Iraqi 1st Division which had already lost two Brigades in the fighting for Ramadai and Fallujah some months earlier. During the fighting in Mosul, the 1st Division lost a further two Brigades, rendering it almost entirely combat-ineffective. Two further Battalions from the Iraqi 3rd Division retreated, then fled, as ISIS advanced on their positions. The Iraqi 4th Division fared little better, with around half of them being assessed as captured and killed by ISIS.
Against this backdrop, Dodge comes to a harsh, but ultimately fair, conclusion about the fall of Mosul to ISIS and the abysmal performance put in by the majority of the Iraqi Army units in its failed defence, viz. that the ISIS capture of Mosul and its subsequent, rapid advance across Northern Iraq was “not caused by a century-old legacy of Anglo-French colonialism. It was the direct result of the contemporary flaws within the political system set up after the regime change of 2003”. Media channels provided ISIS with a major PR coup, as pictures were broadcast of long columns of HUMMVEEs and other government vehicles, captured from the fleeing Iraqi soldiers, and being driven in a parade by ISIS members.
One year later, the full extent of the rout became clear when Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al Abadi confirmed that ISIS had captured 2,300 vehicles. In Kirkuk, however, ISIS met with more determined resistance after they seizing the Western and South-Western suburbs of Hawija, Abbasi, Zab and Riyadh, probably due to the fact that the strategic installation of the Bayji oil refinery was under threat.
The official announcement of the creation of the so-called Islamic State came on 29 June, 2014. In a sermon on 05 July, Baghdadi also revealed to the Ummah that he was the “Commander of the Faithful” of the self-declared Caliphate, thus seizing for himself the politico-religious authority to rule. Less than four months later, a collection of more than a hundred of the world’s most esteemed Islamic scholars published an open letter to Baghdadi, in which they refuted every single religious edict of his so-called State, taking them to task for such transgressions as killing journalists (“Islam forbids killing of the innocent, emissaries, ambassadors, and diplomats; hence it is forbidden to kill journalists and aid workers”), Yazidis (“it is obligatory to consider Yazidis as People of the Book”) and Christians “(it is forbidden in Islam to harm or mistreat—in any way—Christians or any ‘People of the Scripture’ ”). Despite publicly challenging the interpretation of Islam employed by Baghdadi and his senior leadership, they still managed to entice a generation of young Muslims and/or their supporters to join their self-declared “Caliphate”.
As ISIS seized control of more and more territory inside Iraq, the nature of the conflict changed again, from one of a wider insurgency carried out by multiple factions, to a more organised and systematic seizure of the civilian population, the levers of civic control and the instruments of justice and public safety. As territory was captured, IS engaged in brutal measures to consolidate their control over the territories that constituted their fragmentary and non-contiguous, so-called State.
Non-Muslim sects such as Christians and Yazidis were targeted by massacres of males and forcible enslavement of females. In Kocho, close to the strategic town of Sinjar, more than 700 Yazidi males were executed by IS fighters. The UN assessed the number of Yazidis executed by IS to be in the thousands. Christians were subjected to similar treatment. More than 200,000 of them had fled IS attacks on Mosul and Christian areas in Nineweh province.
The IS doctrine prohibits any possibility of mosques and shrines becoming places of worshipping an historical figure, such as a prophet, and the group attempted to impose this view across its territorial holdings. Muslim shrines such as the 14th-century Jirjis mosque in Mosul have been destroyed, following IS claims that such shrines have become centres of what they consider to be apostasy. The contents of the Mosul museum were ransacked and the majority destroyed, while some artefacts have been sold by IS to dealers, to fund the group’s activities. By February 2015, the extent of the problem had become so severe that the Director-General of UNESCO declared it as “cultural cleansing.
Since Iraqi government forces re-took East Mosul and were engaged in heavy fighting to dislodge IS from West Mosul, the archaeological vandalism had still not stopped. On 21 June 2017, with Iraqi army troops just 50 metres away from the historic mosque of al Nuri, IS fighters triggered explosives which demolished the 800-year old building. The mosque has a special significance for IS, as it was from this mosque which Ab Bakr al Baghdadi announced the creation of the so-called “Islamic State” in 2014. IS claimed that the mosque was destroyed by an air strike, and it is possible that deliberately sacrificing the mosque by IS was considered as a worthwhile loss, if there was a chance that IS could use the loss as a publicity tool by blaming their opponents for its destruction.
In order to negate the ability of coalition airstrikes on their positions, convoys, key infrastructure or movements, IS frequently used the tactic of embedding human shields around areas, vehicles or key figures which they wish to protect from airstrikes. This tactic was observed in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
When IS overran Mosul, one of the institutions which fell under their control was Badoush prison, which held around 1,000 convicted prisoners. In June 2014, IS militants loaded al of the prisoners onto trucks and transported them into the desert. Using a similar methodology to the Nazi regime, they screened each inmate about their background and confessional status. The Sunni prisoners were subsequently released, while around 670 non-Sunni males were summarily executed. In 2015, IS militants conducted a wave of Sharia executions in Mosul, in just 48 hours. They threw three men from the top of a 100-foot building as a punishment for their suspected homosexuality. A woman was also stoned to death, having been accused of adultery, and 17 men were crucified for various offences. These types of punishments have now become common in territory held by Islamic State, not only in Iraq but other countries such as Libya and Syria.
Assessing the number of IS fighters is very difficult. In the space of just one year, assessments varied from 9,000 to 200,000. Another factor is that many foreigners have travelled to Iraq (and Syria) to take part in jihad, and have subsequently returned home. In 2015, one study of foreign fighters assessed that 20-30% of all foreigners how had travelled to Iraq or Syria to fight for jihadist groups had returned to their original countries. Whilst this could act as a reductionist factor in the overall numbers, it is more likely that these returnees were simply replaced by others wanting to participate in jihadist fighting. The returnees also pose a very serious problem for the Police and security services in the home countries of the returnees.
The reality is that even the organisation itself would have been unlikely to know the true figure of its fighting core. Adding to the complexity was the geopolitical arena in which the war against IS was played out. The Asad regime in Syria and the IS regime in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere are equally distasteful to many countries, especially to liberal democracies, yet both IS and the Asad regime claimed to be fighting an opponent, the removal of which would be an equally positive step for the international community. The group was not short of fighters and made large gains quickly, but they also lost territory quickly, especially when they became involved in battles with determined, well-trained and relatively well-equipped opponents such as the Kurdish Peshmerga.
Having captured (but also lost) swathes of territory inside Syria and then Iraq, the organisation posed a considerable conundrum to those opposed to its message: how to deal with the problem of IS, and what a post-IS future might look like. One problem was that no major power was prepared to commit meaningful troops to task, or putting “boots on the ground”. Following the departure of coalition forces from Iraq, there was little appetite for major ground offensives, as coalition forces had already exited Iraq several years before.
Huge amounts of money and resources were spent on bolstering Iraq’s own indigenous ability to counter the insurgent/terrorist threat, and this capacity-building programme had very mixed results. The specialised counter-terrorist units were intensely mentored and trained, and developed into an effective force capable of disrupting active cells and plots, but the standard across the breadth of the Iraqi security forces was diluted by the sheer scale of the task, by corruption and by deliberate interference from the executive.
In the pre-9/11 years of Al Qa’eda’s build-up of a core body of fighters trained in the terrorist camps of Afghanistan and elsewhere, one of the four operational paths available to a graduate of the camps was to return to his own country and form a “sleeper cell”, which could be activated quickly, when needed. These cells also had the standing task of providing support to any AQ operatives in transit through the country in which the sleeper call was based. The potential scale of the problem from returning foreign fighters is made clear by assessments of the number of people who have followed this jihadist path. In June 2014, the Soufan Group identified around 12,000 foreign fighters, from 81 countries, in Syria alone and by December 2016, they assessed that this number was now more than twice as great as in 2014. The returnees constitute a very sizeable recruitment pool from which operational and support cells can be created.
There were severe fluctuations in the territorial holdings of IS, since the declaration of the so-called Caliphate in June 2014. Following the rapid gains of Mosul, Tikrit and Ramadi, the map of areas controlled by IS in June 2014, when the so-called Islamic State was declared, looked as follows:
Figure 2: IS territory in June 2014, on the declaration of the so-called “Islamic State”.
The patchwork of cities clearly shows the difficulties in labelling such territory as a State. Supply lines would need to follow the territorial holdings, which themselves were clearly based upon major lines of communication in June 2014. The thin strips of territory such as the Ruthba-Ramadi highway, provided little security from being cut in two, potentially resulting in isolation and encirclement. Three months later, IS had expanded their influence over a larger area of Iraq, but the Iraqi areas under de facto control of IS were looking thinner.
Baghdadi’s influence had spread by 2015 across areas of North Africa (Algeria, Libya and Tunisia), West Africa (Nigeria), Egypt (Sinai), The Arabian Peninsula (Saudi Arabia and Yemen) Afghanistan and Pakistan. It had even spread as far as establishing a Wilaya in the Caucasus. All this expansion provided IS with a bridgehead, a military foothold, from which to expand influence, territory and income generation. By the middle of 2015, Baghdadi’s self-declared State was classed as the richest terrorist group on earth, with annual earnings of between $1.5 billion (Bolton & Krol, 2016) and $2 billion. The trajectory of IS ascendance was not a straight line, however, as coalition airstrikes combined with sustained pressure from Kurdish Perhmerga actions reduced their territorial holdings over the course of the calendar year. By the end of 2015, HIS Conflict Monitor assessed that the territorial holdings of IS had been reduced from 90,800 km2 to 78,000 km2, a reduction of some 14% 12,800 km2. In October 2015, the territory of the so-called Islamic State looked as follows:
Figure 3: IS Territory in October 2015.
IS lost a not inconsiderable amount of territory in Iraq in 2016 and by the end of December 2016 the group’s territorial holdings had shrunk by almost 25%. By May 2017, IS territory in Iraq had been reduced yet further, but at the commensurate cost of territorial gain within Syria. The following map shows the difference in IS territory by May 2017:
Figure 4: IS territory in Iraq as at May 2017.
Iraq’s security forces launched a major ground offensive in October 2016, to re-take Mosul from IS control. The fighting was intense, as IS elements had enjoyed the luxury of time to prepare well-constructed, defensive positions. By May of 2017, Iraqi government forces had regained control of East Mosul, including Mosul University, Hurriya bridge and Fourth Bridge. Following the demolition of the historic al Nuri mosque in June 2017, Iraqi army sources assessed that IS had only around 300 fighters in West Mosul compared to the 6,000 when the Iraqi army offensive against the city began in October 2014. The loss of Mosul to Iraqi government forces in late 2017 was a strategic, tactical and spiritual loss for IS, particularly as it was the location from which their self-declared Caliphate was announced. As Iraq’s second-largest city, the loss of Mosul was a highly public embarrassment for IS and resulted in one of the larger “ink spots” disappearing from the map of the so-called Caliphate. Tactically, it also further isolated the smaller ink spots of IS territory to the South of Mosul, effectively leaving the larger territory (centred around the IS HQ town of Raqqa in Syria) as the main territorial holding of IS in Iraq. By the end of 2017, the Iraqi government declared the war against IS as being over.
The IS group managed to successfully draw many of AQ’s core supporters to it since 2014 and at its peak IS had a larger brand awareness than AQ itself, while AQ struggled and failed to re-assert itself as the voice that speaks for the global jihad. At the height of its power, IS had around 88,000 km (34,000 square miles) of territory under its control, from eastern Iraq to western Syria, with more than 8 million people subject to its reign.
As early as June 2016, preparations were already being made by IS for a near future in which they control little or no territory and the strategy began to be trickle-fed through the IS propaganda machinery, probably in an effort to prepare IS followers for the loss of key areas such as Raqqa, Mosul and Sirte. An editorial piece in the IS weekly magazine “al Naba”, entitled “The Crusaders’ Illusions in the Age of the Caliphate”, delivered a relatively pessimistic prognosis of the group’s territorial control. The IS article asked: “Were we defeated when we lost the cities in Iraq and were in the desert without any city or land? And would we be defeated and you be victorious if you were to take Mosul, Sirte or Raqqa, or even take all the cities? Certainly not!”. The following map show the expansion and decline of IS territory in Iraq and in neighbouring Syria:
Figure 5: IS territorial holdings – the rise and fall
In 2014 when the so-called Caliphate was announced, a map proliferated online amongst IS supporters, showing the countries which IS planned to have under their control by the end of 2020. The map included several European countries including Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and even Austria. While the map was clearly nothing more than a piece of propaganda, it appears to have been well-received within the target audience. When the 2014 announcement of the so-called Caliphate was made, the land controlled by IS in Iraq and Syria amounted to an area almost equivalent in size to that of Great Britain. Instead, IS suffered massive losses to their territorial portfolio and the group’s 2020 vision, shown below, appears more like a fantasy than a strategic goal.
Figure 6: The IS Vision of the so-called Caliphate’s territory by 2020 (Hall, 2014)
Following their military defeat and ousting from Iraq in 2017 (and subsequently from Syria in 2019), IS has been unable to create any meaningful kind of “virtual Caliphate”, having little or no de facto control over actual ground. As organisations, though, AQ and IS are not yet spent forces, both have access to substantial funds and other resources and IS has gone deeper underground in a classic progression of terrorist group behaviour. Both organisations will continue to pose a threat to Iraq’s security for at least the near future.