Is this the reactivation of Daesh in Iraq?
Ending the city's three year respite from large-scale terror attacks, al-Tayaran Square in Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, was targeted by two suicide bombers on January 21, 2021. Daesh claimed responsibility for the bombings which killed 32 people and injured more than 110. Such a large scale attack, and one resulting in immense loss of life, has not been seen in Iraq since the January 2018 bombing of the same clothing market.
Despite Daesh’s absence in Iraq for the past three years, commentators are now speculating that this could indicate a resurgence of the terror group in the area and in Iraq more broadly. Current Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has reportedly reshuffled key military and intelligence personnel following the attacks, as well as signed off on numerous execution orders, providing a swift and telling response.
History of Daesh in Iraq
From having once held 40 percent of Iraqi territory, Daesh had lost the majority of its stronghold by December 2017. The group rose out of the ashes of al-Qaeda in 2004 and struggled to take hold in Iraq as a result of the United States’ occupation until 2007. By 2011, however, US withdrawal and a ripe climate of political instability has enabled Daesh to form and take hold in Iraq and Syria. Since this turning point, Iraq has been well accustomed to regular suicide bombings. A US-led coalition, with the help of Iraqi forces, eventually drove Daesh out of the region in 2017, with then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declaring Iraq free from the terror group.
During its peak in Iraq, Daesh would carry out regular suicide bombings targeting rural and low-income areas. Its presence was therefore centred in the Northern provinces of Dyala, Kirkuk and the Hamrin and Makhoul mountains. Further Daesh units reportedly operated in the Jazira and Anbar deserts in western Iraq. As research shows, hard terrain and mountainous landscapes provide safe havens where militants can openly roam.
Similarly, there is evidence that Daesh takes advantage of volatile political climates to further its expansion efforts by enhancing its presence or carrying out large scale attacks. This has been seen in its two main targets for building a Caliphate, Syria and Iraq. In Iraq specifically, Daesh advanced its front in 2011 when the country had just formed a new coalition government eight months after parliamentary elections in 2010. This period had created a power vacuum allowing militias and sectarianism to take root and catching the attention of Daesh as a potential site for establishing a Caliphate.
Having strengthened and dissipated since the peak of its power in Iraq in 2014, Daesh has remained active internationally, especially in the Middle East and Africa. Its continued international presence has allowed for the group’s resurgence since its fall in Iraq. In August 2020, Daesh claimed responsibility for over 100 attacks in Iraq alone. Despite these being low level attacks, they indicate the group's re-emergence as a regional and global concern. Further attacks by Daesh offshoots, including al-Shabaab, have also increased in poor and rural areas within Africa recently. The group’s continued coordination and strategic targeting show that it is still regrouping and re-emerging at times of political instability.
At present, Iraq is under the control of Prime Minister al-Kadhimi, who took office last May. Protests against the Iraqi government calling for an overhaul of the political system have remained constant since 2019, with some protest groups even forming political parties to contest national elections. The government has since called early elections to be held on October 10, 2021. Protesters continue to hold mass anti-government demonstrations as a result of a “lack of economic opportunities, endemic corruption and … malign influence of sectarian interests”. As in 2010-2011, Iraq is seeing another period of political instability, creating a climate that Daesh is able to use to their advantage.
What this means for Iraq
Throughout its history, the terror group has taken advantage of political sectarianism and the repression of Sunnis by governments throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Under the administration of former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq was characterised by a climate which fostered extremism as a response to the oppressive policies imposed by its government. Despite politics somewhat stabilising since then, enabling a strong fight against such extremism, upcoming elections and the withdrawal of coalition troops under the Trump administration has seen Daesh capitalise on the opportunity to reactivate in the region.
Prime Minister al-Kadhimi, a former intelligence chief of Iraq, knows all too well how important international support is, especially from the US. As he stated in the wake of last August’s attacks, Iraq “will still need cooperation and assistance at levels that today might not require direct and military support, and support on the ground” but will reflect the needs of Iraq today, in particular continued training and weapons support. Iraq’s Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein heeded Iraq’s cry for support from regional and global partners following the recent attacks.
As the International Crisis Group notes, Daesh “is down but not out.” Instability fosters terrorism and this must be combatted with a strong government, strong leadership and even stronger military force.
Elle Greaves is a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) and Bachelor of Justice (Criminology & Policing) graduate from QUT. She will be pursuing a career in national security and is interested in counter-terrorism, religious extremism and the use of modern weapons.