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The offensive to wrest the Iraqi capital of the Islamic State’s (IS) caliphate, Mosul, from the terror organization began on 17 October, led on the ground by Iraqi and Kurdish forces and supported from the air by the U.S.-led Coalition. While progress has been generally steady, IS has been able to mount a series of diversionary attacks, the most significant in Kirkuk City. Among those subsequently arrested for a role in planning the terrorism in Kirkuk is a cousin of Saddam Husayn, a micro-example of the influence of the fallen regime on the current situation in Iraq.
Islamic State Strikes Back
It was four days into the Mosul operation that IS launched its first massive counter-attack, choosing the flashpoint of Kirkuk. Beginning in the 1970s, Saddam’s “Arabization” program expelled more than 100,000 Kurds from Kirkuk, replacing them with Arab settlers, and after the regime collapsed in 2003 there was some counter-ethnic-cleansing by the Kurdish forces. An uneasy co-existence then set in until 2014, when, days after IS swept into public control of Mosul, the Peshmerga seized Kirkuk. The city is rich in oil, which is the primary grounds of dispute, though there is a tenuous, quasi-ideological Kurdish claim that the city is their “Jerusalem“.
The well-planned 21 October assault by IS, which took three to suppress and involved the redeployment of 1,000 Kurdish troops from Mosul to Kirkuk, was found to have included about 100 jihadists, some of whom slipped into the city in refugee streams and some of whom were already present as sleeper cells in the refugee camps. Roughly seventy jihadists were killed and the rest slipped back to Hawija, the other major urban centre IS still holds in Iraq.
On the same day as the Kirkuk attack, IS blew up parts of the Mishraq sulphur plant near Qayyara, the main base of the Iraqi government forces moving on Mosul from the south, and two days later, while still fighting in Kirkuk, IS seized major parts of the town of Rutba in Anbar Province. The day after that IS attacked the Kurdish-held Sinjar.
The sulphur smoke from Qayyara and the discovery of a stockpile of sulphur mustard rockets in the city likely fall under IS’s plans for using chemical weapons during the Mosul offensive. In Qayyara, the sulphur was the least of it. As IS was driven out of Qayyara, it ignited fifteen oil wells, just as Saddam did on his way out of Kuwait in 1991 and his way out of power in 2003. At one stage the fires in Qayyara were burning away 5,000 barrels per day (worth about £200,000). The Iraqi government still has not been able to put out all of them.
One reason the government could not put the fires out was that it was unable to get experts in place to do proper firefighting—or to hire technicians from abroad—because of IS’s continued harassing attacks around Qayyara and the nearby Shirqat, ostensibly cleared in August and September, respectively. This has left a noxious cloud over Qayyara that has caused a potentially destabilizing exodus of population after liberation, straining both the humanitarian resources in northern Iraq and the already-tense ethno-sectarian situation out of which IS might yet make its comeback.
The Old Regime’s Afterlife
There is no doubt IS’s state-building program has its roots in the jihadi-salafist universe—indeed it was planned by IS’s founder, Ahmad al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) with a senior al-Qaeda military official, Sayf al-Adel, in Iran (of all places) after the fall of the Taliban. The religious guidance for IS’s practice stretches through Muhammad Khalil al-Hakim (Abu Bakr Naji) and Muhammad al-Saghir (Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir), the latter a direct influence on al-Khalayleh. There are also less acknowledged sources. One is Issam al-Barqawi (Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi), al-Khalayleh’s mentor and in many ways the godfather of IS, but who has now turned on the organization. And the other is Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (Abu Musab al-Suri), whom IS personally revile. Nasar is a major influence on al-Qaeda as it charts its reinvention in Syria, too, despite a history of stormy relations with Usama bin Ladin and other al-Qaeda leaders.
There is equally little doubt that IS has benefited significantly from the ground being prepared for it by the Saddam Husayn regime, with its savage repression of the Shi’a uprising in 1991 and subsequent heavy-handed security measures that polarized Iraq along sectarian lines; its encouragement of a religious revival, partly as a means of shoring-up the regime under the sanctions; its restructuring of Iraq to empower tribes and clerics, who then resisted their loss of privilege after Saddam fell; its unwillingness and inability to curb the growth of a powerful underground Salafist movement that had deep links into the security architecture, military and intelligence officers who quickly put themselves at IS’s service; and its sponsorship of all comers in the aftermath of the regime who could challenge the Coalition’s plans.
That security officials from Saddam’s regime have played a significant part in IS’s leadership, especially since 2010, and been helpful as experienced men running an authoritarian regime, is uncontroversial now. The IS member who led the Rutba offensive, Abu Salah al-Zubay, was the intelligence chief in the town under Saddam, for example. There is an interesting personal aspect to this with several of Saddam’s relatives showing up in IS’s ranks.
Prominent cases are Saddam’s nephews, Ayman (b. 1971) and Ibrahim al-Ibrahim (b. 1983), the sons of Sabawi al-Ibrahim, a half-brother of Saddam’s who served as intelligence chief until the mid-1990s. All joined the insurgency soon after the regime came down.
Syria was the hub for the finance and logistics of the Iraqi insurgency. Bashar al-Assad’s regime hosted both the Ba’athi-Islamists, led by Saddam’s deputy, Izzat al-Duri and Muhammad Yunis al-Ahmed and underwritten with the looted treasury of the fallen regime, and the predecessors to IS. In early 2005, to placate Coalition pressure, Assad handed over Sabawi. Sabawi had been staying in Zabadani, the town near Damascus where the Assad regime met directly with al-Duri’s people and IS to plan terrorism against Iraq as late as 2009. Sentenced to execution, Sabawi died of cancer in 2013 before his appointment with the hangman.
Later in 2005, the U.S. sanctioned Ayman (who was by then in an Iraqi jail) and Ibrahim, noting inter alia that Ayman was associated with the Fedayeen Saddam, a paramilitary formation of the old regime that migrated into IS. Ayman was broken free in 2006 and remains at large.
Raad Hassan, a cousin of Saddam’s, has also allegedly attained some level of notability within IS’s ranks.
According to the Kirkuk Police Directorate, another member of Saddam’s family tree has now shown up: on 25 October, Nizar Mahmud Abdul Ghani, a cousin of Saddam’s, was arrested in Daquq, twenty miles south of Kirkuk. Ghani was, it seems, a member of one of the private militias Saddam set up in the 1990s—whether the Fedayeen Saddam or the Ba’ath militia or Jaysh al-Quds is not clear—to deliberately weaken the army as part of the Saddam regime’s coup-proofing. Ghani was a participant in last week’s Kirkuk attack.
Preparing for Rebirth
These diversionary attacks by IS draw resources away from Mosul, allowing a protraction of the battle, increasing the likelihood that what Hassan Hassan calls the “political and social IEDs” will be detonated. IS cannot win militarily in Mosul and it knows it. But IS, always been better at espionage and politics—the manipulation of people, in short—than it was at being an army, can win politically, which is far more important over the long-term for the kind of revolutionary war IS is waging than any short-term military setbacks. If IS prolongs this, inflicts extremely heavy casualties on its foes, and particularly if IS manages to draw in the Iranian-controlled sectarian militias, and they commit atrocities as they did in Fallujah and elsewhere, IS will have what it needs.
IS has already presented the impending loss of its statelet as merely one part of a cycle—the period of “trial” to which god subjects his believers before the inevitable victory. “One who does not have a scorching beginning will not have a shining end,” as IS put it in the second edition of their magazine Rumiyah. And IS has precedent. Despite declaring its state in 2006, IS was forced, after its defeat in 2008, to execute a “retreat into the desert” (inhiyaz ila al-sahra)—a phrase that has become increasingly common in IS propaganda. Though IS was mocked, even by other jihadists, for its “paper state,” it returned stronger than ever within five years.
The political circumstances for revival, with the instability and sectarian polarization, are even more favourable to IS this time. As is the military picture. There are not 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and the current U.S. administration has lexicography at breaking point explaining how the current 6,400 troops embedded in Iraqi combat operations are not “boots on the ground”. The West’s will has visibly collapsed; it just wants out as quickly as possible—which is a large measure of the problem to begin with.
Last time, with IS down and out of sight, the U.S. declared victory. But IS did not accept that the surge was the end of it, and, after a ruthless internal reassessment, moved, with considerable success, to counter its gains. The U.S. did not even seem aware that this was happening, that what the surge had achieved was a process rather than something set in stone and that the trends had turned in IS’s favour. The U.S. withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011, with IS’s recovery well-advanced, opening further space for IS.
“The coalition should not mistake the Islamic State’s reversion from overt semi-state to covert terrorist network, which is a deliberate strategic choice, for any sort of lasting defeat of the group,” wrote Patrick B. Johnston and Patrick Ryan recently, drawing partly on their extraordinary book on IS’s structure and operating methods, based on IS internal documents.
In Qayyara is the foreshadowing of what will happen when IS relinquishes overt control of Mosul, unless what Johnston and Ryan call the “enabling networks” are uprooted, something that can only be done if a legitimate government, capable of defending its citizens, takes hold. IS will retain its deep underground networks and deny the forces that displace it any room to breathe, continuing attacks—some indiscriminate, some targeted—to keep the area off-balance, exhausting and/or terrifying both security forces and population until they cease resistance against IS or are co-opted.