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July 3, 2012

From Rhetoric to Target: The Islamic State of Iraq

Robin Simcox examines ongoing Jihadism in Iraq

Robin Simcox

In June 2012, terrorist attacks in Iraq led to at least 237 deaths. This included a series of co-ordinated bomb attacks across Iraq on 13 June, which killed 75 and injured 300. Such attacks are now common in Iraq.

Most bombings are carried out by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI – and formerly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq). Already, July has seen another co-ordinated bomb attack – likely carried out by the ISI – which killed a civilian in Tikrit.

As opposed to the likes of Yemen and Somalia, the situation in Iraq is now largely an afterthought in the War on Terror. However, the al-Qaeda offshoot in Iraq remains extremely operationally capable. The following analysis looks at the group’s strategy and effectiveness in Iraq; the issues that are main focus of their public rhetoric; and those who they target for attack. 

The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was officially created in October 2006 out of the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). It carries out large bomb attacks every four to six weeks and is believed to have 800 to 1000 individuals as part of the network, ranging from fighters to financiers to media operators.[1]

Despite this, war with the US in Iraq has militarily weakened the ISI. As a result of ISI’s degradation in capability, it is now an underground group that focuses on high impact attacks.[2] It has shown no ambition in attacking Western targets and is regarded as an afterthought in terms of AQ franchises that carry a global threat.

For this reason, there has been little thought given to how ISI’s strategy has developed since the death of its former leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006. There is scarce data about the priorities of Abu Du’a, the ISI’s current emir, whose modus operandi even eluded Osama Bin Laden.[3]

This article therefore aims to understand what ISI’s priorities are and what its current overall strategy may be by statistically analysing ISI’s public statements released under Abu Du’a’s leadership as well as the intended targets of the attacks the group has conducted over the past year.


When Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was leader of AQI, he believed it would take civil war to unite the Sunnis into a Salafi jihadist force. Zarqawi’s strategy was to commit waves of attacks primarily against Shia targets and coalition forces.[4] Zarqawi’s terrorism had an international element, as evidenced by the AQI suicide bombing of a Jordanian hotel in November 2005. As well as becoming notorious for the brutality of his killings – especially beheadings – Zarqawi was creative. He began to use female suicide bombers, becoming the first known AQ affiliate to do so.[5] This use of female attackers saw Zarqawi – a man with Jordanian roots – borrow from tactics more closely associated with Palestinian militant groups.

However, Zarqawi’s attacks on fellow Sunni insurgents and tribal leaders inadvertently alienated AQI from regular Iraqis. As Iraq descended into a civil war he had helped create, AQI was not strong enough to deliver protection to Sunnis being targeted by Shiites in retaliation.[6] It was also not strong enough to hold territory and govern in the way it had aspired.[7] With Zarqawi’s strategy backfiring, two members of al-Qaeda Central’s (AQC) shura council intervened. Ayman al-Zawahiri[8] and Attiya al-Jaza’ri[9] wrote to Zarqawi on two occasions, in 2005 and 2006, to question his tactics and urge him to pay more attention to harnessing support for AQ within Iraq.

Zarqawi was killed in a US missile strike in June 2006 and the subsequent leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, weakened AQI’s strategic position further.[10] The Anbar Awakening of late 2006 coincided with the American troop surge of January 2007 to massively degrade AQI’s capabilities militarily and strategically, Abu Ayyub’s declaration of an Islamic State of Iraq – when it was patently clear no such state existed – was a significant misstep which one AQ member regarded as leading to ‘divisions among jihadis and their supporters inside and outside Iraq’.[11] A March 2007 document discovered in bin Laden’s compound described ISI as ‘extremists’, and the speeches of Abu Ayyub as ‘repulsive’ and ‘lacking wisdom’.[12]

Abu Ayyub was killed in a US missile strike in April 2010,[13] and replaced by Abu Du’a.

Abu Du’a is the first Iraqi emir of ISI.[14] He currently has a $10m bounty on his head making him, after Zawahiri, one of the most wanted terrorists in the world. Before becoming emir, Abu Du’a oversaw religious courts in Qaim, accusing local citizens of supporting the Iraqi government and coalition troops. He kidnapped and publicly executed individuals and even entire families; recruited fighters mainly from Saudi Arabia and funnelled fighters from Syria into local terrorist cells.[15] In October 2005, the Department of Defense announced that it had ‘likely’ killed Abu Du’a in an air strike (something specifically referred to in a President Bush speech).[16] Yet by December 2006, this assessment was deemed by the US to be faulty.[17]

Little is known about Abu Du’a as an individual, so his leadership can only be analysed by studying both ISI’s words and actions.


By analysing 46 ISI press releases posted to Ansar al-Mujahideen, a jihadist website, between May 2010 and May 2012, ISI’s rhetorical focus becomes clear.[18] The following selected examples are some of the most frequently used words.

Word Frequency
Explosive 449
Device, devices 448
Army 401
God, Allah 394
Apostate, apostates 379
Detonate, detonated 345
Destruction, destroy, destroyed 333
Iran, Iranian, Safavid, Safavids, Safavi 312
Kill, killing 282
Criminal 220
Police 212
Security 178
Assassination 176
Weapons 175
Wounding 174
Islam, Islamic 119
Hypocrisy 118
Mujahid, mujahidin, mujahideen 97
Military 91
Iraq, Iraqi 85
Baghdad 75
Mosul 63
Pagan 53
Muslim, Muslims 52
Green Zone 50
Antichrist, dajjal 49
Martyr, martyrs, martyrdom 35
Shiites, Shiite, Rafida, Rafidi, Rafidiyah[19] 30
Crusader, crusaders 24
Infidel, infidels 23
Jihad 20
America, American, Americans 8

In total, 31 ISI press releases (67%) focused on terrorist attacks. Unsurprisingly, the most commonly used words are practical ones that relate to bomb attacks.

At a more ideological level, the frequent references to apostasy are also unsurprising, as the phrase can be used by the ISI to refer to its perceived enemies throughout the country. It is also a demonstration of takfir – a way of legitimising killing other Muslims and a concept central to AQ ideology. That other common phrases – ‘God’, ‘Allah’, ‘Islam’ – are amongst the most used words is unsurprising for a group that says it acts in the name of religion. They are also used by every AQ franchise, and are not specific or unique to ISI.

More significant is the obsession that ISI has with Shia dominated Iran, a subject specific to this franchise. ISI describes the Iranians as Safavid in 284 (91%) of its mentions of Iran. This is a reference to the Shia Persian Empire that covered all of Iran and parts of Turkey and Georgia between 1501 and 1772; ISI is attempting to link this dynasty with modern day attempts by Iran to increase its influence in the region, seeking to persuade Muslims that Iran is attempting to recreate its empire. This is not solely an ISI worry within AQ. The perception of an increasingly influential Iran is something that Ayman Zawahiri has been warning of for several years.[20]

This focus on Iran is also interesting in relation to its concern with the US, which barely figures in the analysis. While this does not tell the entire story – references to the ‘Government of the Green Zone’ are by implication a reference to the US presence and involvement in Iraq – but in terms of official ISI press statements, it is clearly Iran that is the primary concern. This suggests ISI regards Tehran as a greater strategic threat than the US – perhaps another consequence of the early US withdrawal in 2011. It is also an attempt to create further divisions between Sunni and Shia in Iraq.


This is supported by analysis of intended targets of attacks over the past year, where operationally the Shia population were of primary concern.

The table below shows ISI’s most successful (in terms of losses of life) co-ordinated bomb attacks, suicide operations or shootings against state targets[21] or civilians[22] between May 2011 and April 2012.

Date Location Death toll Primary target of attack Sectarian focus?
5 May 2011 Hillah 24 State Shia
15 August 2011 Baghdad, Saadiya, Kut, Khan Bani Saad, Tikrit, Najaf, Hindiya, al-Wajehiya, Kirkuk, Iskandariya, Taji, Baquba, Balad, Mosul, Kanaan Over 70 State Shia
12 October 2011 Baghdad, Diwaniya, Shirqat, Daquq, Garma 28 State None
13 October 2011 Sadr City 16 Civilians Shia
27 October 2011 Baghdad 38 Civilians Shia
28 August 2011 Baghdad 28 Civilians Sunni
5 December 2011 Hillah, Baghdad 32 Civilians Shia
22 December 2011 Baghdad Over 70 Civilians Shia
5 January 2012 Nasiriya, Baghdad 78 Civilians Shia
14 January 2012 Zubair 53 Civilians Shia
23 February 2012 Mosul, Baghdad, Taji, Tikrit, Hillah, Baquba, Kirkuk, Balad, Tuz, Mandili 83 State/civilians Shia
5 March 2012 Haditha, Barwanah 27 State Sunni
20 March 2012 Baghdad, Balad, Bayji, Daquq, Dhulu’iyah, Hillah, Karbala, Latifiyah, Mosul, Muqdadiyah, Ramadi, Samarra, Tikrit, Tuz 52 State None
19 April 2012 Baquba, Baghdad, Fallujah, Balad, Kirkuk,  Mosul, Ramadi, Samarra, Taji, Tarmiyah 30 State Shia

In terms of terrorist attacks, civilians and government targets are almost equally at risk. Civilians have been specifically the main target in seven out of 14 major ISI attacks (50%). Government targets have been specifically the main target in six out of these 14 (43%). In one incident, the attack on 23 February, both the state and civilians were specific targets, as both were heavily hit (7%).

Of the 14 attacks, 10 (71%) have specifically targeted Shia majority areas, with two specifically targeting Sunni areas (14%). Two attacks did not have a specific Sunni or Shia focus, hitting both areas heavily. Therefore in total, in 12 out of the 14 attacks, at least some Shia areas were bombed (86%). Baghdad was bombed in 71% of these 14 attacks – often receiving multiple attacks on the same day.

Of those attacks that mainly focussed on civilian targets, nearly all (six out of the seven, or 86%) were focussed on Shia areas of Iraq. Only once were Sunni civilians targeted when Baghdad’s largest Sunni mosque was attacked on 28 August 2011.

When state institutions were singled out for attack, the sectarian focus was more evenly spread. Shia areas were overwhelmingly focused on in three out of the six major attacks (50%). Sunni areas were targeted once (16%), and a generally even mix of both Sunni and Shia in two out of six (33%). While Sunnis are more likely to be targeted in state attacks than they are in civilian attacks, this is little consolation to the Shia. Overall, in five of the major six attacks on state targets (83%), at least some Shiite areas have been targeted.

Therefore, while ISI targets all civilians, the vast majority of their attacks will have a specific sectarian focus. When civilian areas are being targeted, ISI will almost always attack Shia neighbourhoods. However, when ISI attacks the state, they are much less discerning about whom they kill, showing less willingness to discriminate between Sunni and Shia areas.


Ideologically, ISI views Shiism as a theological schism within Islam—making them disbelievers who can be legitimately killed. This ISI hatred of the Shia is certainly reflected in core AQC ideology. In AQ training camps in the 1990s, students were taught that there were four ‘enemies of Islam’ – heretics, America, Israel and Shiites.[23] However, in reality, bin Laden and other members of AQ advocated reconciling their difference with Shiite terrorist groups, sending fighters to Lebanon to receive training from Hizbollah.[24] Therefore AQC had a degree of flexibility that ISI appears not to possess.

This is an example of the ideological and tactical differences between ISI and AQC, of which the recent release of 17 documents discovered in bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound provides further insight. In May 2010 bin Laden tasked a key aide, Attiyah Abdul Rahman, with providing him with ‘detailed information’ on Abu Du’a.[25] He regarded this as a fresh opportunity for Sunni insurgents in Iraq to unite behind a fresh leadership, asking Attiyah to ‘put forward your maximum effort to achieve unity and resolve any conflicts between all of the Jihadi entities in Iraq’, a reference to how divisive ISI had proven to be within jihadist movements.

Despite bin Laden’s intervention, little progress was made in improving relations between ISI and AQC. If anything, they seem to have deteriorated. In a January 2011 letter found at the bin Laden compound and released last month, Adam Gadahn, the American AQ spokesman, went as far as to say that while the group was, ‘like it or not’, an AQ franchise, ‘it is necessary that [AQ] publicly announces that it severs its organizational ties with the [ISI]’. While a public split would have been a significant moment in fracturing public perception of cohesiveness and unity within AQ, it would have had little impact operationally on either organisation. Gadahn’s letter confirms that relations between AQC and ISI ‘have been practically cut off for a number of years.’[26]

While there may have only been nominal coordination between the groups, that did not stop bin Laden from requesting updates on ISI’s progress. On 26 April 2011, he was still requesting that Attiyah update him on why there was such a ‘scarcity’ of correspondence with the ‘brothers in Iraq’.[27]

Abu Du’a appeared to have been no more interested in taking direction from AQC than his predecessors. While ISI issued a public statement in support of Zawahiri after bin Laden’s death, there is no evidence that the two groups are more integrated.[28] ISI is focussing on stoking sectarianism via attacks in Iraq with no obvious ambitions beyond its own borders. This does not suit the AQC global jihadist model.  


ISI is overwhelmingly concerned with sectarian issues and subversion emanating from Tehran. Its rhetoric and the majority of its terrorist operations reflect this. In this regard, Abu Du’a has not progressed ISI at all since Zarqawi and Abu Ayyub’s leadership period. In fact, ISI has regressed – Zarqawi was able to launch attacks beyond Iraq, as the November 2005 Jordanian suicide bombing showed. There is no evidence that ISI is capable of doing so anymore, or that it even intends to. There is also no evidence that Abu Du’a has reconciled ISI with any of the Sunni jihadi groups alienated in previous years.

With the Shiite central government in Baghdad currently repressing Sunnis across Iraq, the Sunni tribes instrumental in AQI’s original downfall will be more inclined to give ISI a freer hand. However, the fact that the US has now withdrawn all combat troops allows ISI to focus its operations even more on the perceived ‘Safavid’ threat. The ISI are subsequently focussing their attacks on the co-religionists of those that they perceive as offering an external, existential threat.

If ISI is to become a genuinely global threat in the way that, for example, AQAP has become, it does not appear likely to do so under Abu Du’a. A group that has remained focussed purely on internal or solely regional issues for the amount of time ISI has can only be of limited use to AQC’s global ambitions.

From a Western policymaker perspective, such an operationally capable AQ franchise should be of great concern. However, while the ISI is so inwardly focussed, and unless it broadens its ambitions to attack targets outside Iraq, it is unlikely that Western policymakers will want to prioritise the issue. One legacy of the divisive Iraq war means that it is still an extremely toxic issue for Western politicians to involve themselves in. However, with violence in Iraq so prevalent and the ISI still so lethal, it would be a significant mistake to ignore the issue entirely.

[1] ‘Leaving Iraq, U.S. Fears New Surge of Qaeda Terror’, New York Times, 5 November 2011, available at

[2] Brian Fishman, ‘Redefining the Islamic State’, New America Foundation, 18 August 2011, available at

[3] Letter – Osama bin Laden (assessed) to Shaykh Mahmud, unknown date, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, available at

[4] ‘U.S. Says Files Seek Qaeda Aid In Iraq Conflict’, New York Times, 9 February 2004, available at

[5] Houriya Ahmed, ‘The Growing Threat of Female Suicide Attackers in Western Countries’, CTC Sentinel, 3 July 2010, available at

[6] Brian Fishman, ‘Dysfunction and Decline: Lessons from Inside Al-Qa’ida in Iraq’, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 16 March 2009, available at

[7] Fishman, ‘Redefining the Islamic State’

[8] Bill Roggio, ‘Dear Zarqawi: A Letter from Zawahiri, and a Constitutional Compromise’, Long War Journal, 12 October 2005, available at

[9] Bill Roggio, ‘Harmony: The Attyia – Zarqawi Letter’, Long War Journal, 27 September 2006, available at

[10] Bill Roggio, ‘Letters from al Qaeda leaders show Iraqi effort is in disarray’, Long War Journal, 11 September 2008, available at

[11] Letter – Adam Gadahn to unknown recipient, January 2011, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, available at

[12] Letter – Unknown author to Hafiz Sultan, 28 March 2007, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, available at

[13] QI.A.299.11. Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai, United Nations Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions1267 (1999) and 1989 (2011) concerning Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities, available at

[14] He is officially referred to as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Qurashi. Quraysh was Islam’s Prophet Mohammed’s tribe, symbolically linking Abu Du’a with ashraf, or noblemen. See Omar Ashour, ‘Al-Qaeda in Iraq: Eliminating Leaders Will Not Necessarily Cut Lifelines’, Carnegie Endowment, 30 June 2010, available at

[15] ‘Al Qaeda Facilitator Likely Dead in Coalition Air Strike’, US Department of Defense Information, 26 October 2005

[16] ‘Remarks By President George W. Bush On The War On Terror’, Federal News Service, 28 October 2005

[17] Iraq Operational Update Briefing; Briefer: Major General William Caldwell, USA, Spokesman, Multinational Force-Iraq; Location: Combined Press Information Center, Baghdad, Ira1, Federal News Service, 5 December 2006

[18] The press releases were filtered through a software utility that allows analysis of the most frequent phrases and words used. Words such as ‘a’, ‘and’, ‘of’, ‘the’, ‘in’, ‘to’, ‘an’ and which were excluded from the analysis.

[19] Rejectionists – a term used by Sunni jihadis refer to the Shia

[20] For example, see ‘Al-Qaeda in Iraq: Still Striving to Undo al-Zarqawi’s Damage to Mujahideen Unity’, Jamestown Foundation, 30 April 2008, available at

[21] State targets are defined as government buildings, political targets, soldiers, police, or military checkpoints

[22] Civilian targets are: marketplaces, commercial streets, mosques, shopping areas, cafes

[23] Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Knopf, 2006), p.303

[24] United States of America v Usama bin Laden et al. – Indictment, United States District Court – Southern District of New York, available at

[25] Letter – Osama bin Laden (assessed) to Shaykh Mahmud

[26] Letter – Adam Gadahn to unknown recipient

[27] Letter – Osama bin Laden to Attiyah, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 26 April 2011, available at

Robin Simcox

About Robin Simcox

Robin Simcox is a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, where he specialises in al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda inspired terrorism. He is the co-author of both editions of 'Islamist Terrorism: The British Connections' and several other reports broadly focussed on national security, terrorism and al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda affiliated movements across the world. Simcox has written for the likes of the Wall Street Journal, New Republic, Guardian, Weekly Standard, Spectator, Huffington Post and Daily Telegraph and regularly appears across a broad variety of media outlets, including the BBC, Fox News, Sky News, Channel 4 and al-Jazeera. He has spoken on a variety of platforms, including the British Parliament, US Special Operations Command and the European Parliament.

Full profile  |  See all of Robin Simcox's work