Iraq: A Bleak Future for the Islamic State of Iraq?

22 MINS READJun 29, 2010 | 14:27 GMT
Over the last 90 days, Iraqi and U.S. forces have eliminated more than 80 percent of the Islamic State of Iraq's (ISI's) top leadership, including its Egyptian chief of military operations and its Iraqi figurehead, according to the top U.S. commander in Iraq. These personnel losses are compounded by the fact that the al Qaeda-inspired jihadist group has been struggling financially and is reportedly having problems getting foreign fighters into the country. These setbacks will invariably complicate the ISI's efforts to continue its campaign. While it is unlikely that the ISI's propensity for violent attacks will wane, the group's diminished leadership, operational capacity and logistics infrastructure make the militant organization's future seem bleak.
Click here to download a PDF of this report During a Pentagon press briefing on June 4, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, said that over the last 90 days U.S. and Iraqi forces had captured or killed 34 of the top 42 leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the al Qaeda-inspired jihadist alliance in Iraq. This represents roughly 80 percent of the group's identified leadership. Commenting further on the misfortunes of the Iraqi jihadist franchise, Odierno said, "They're clearly now attempting to reorganize themselves. They're struggling a little bit. They've broken — they've lost connection with [al Qaeda senior leadership] in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They will attempt to regenerate themselves. They're finding it more difficult." Indeed, since January, Iraqi and U.S.-led multinational forces have zeroed in on the ISI, an effort made possible not only by the effective exploitation of battlefield intelligence, but also by a large shift in the way jihadists are viewed by Iraqi Sunnis. Today they simply are not given the same type of support they enjoyed at the height of the insurgency in 2007. According to Odierno, the recent string of successes began shortly after the ISI's headquarters in Mosul was raided in January and a number of leaders in charge of financing, operations planning and recruiting were arrested — and a great deal of actionable intelligence was recovered. The Mosul operation was the beginning of a chain of intelligence-driven operations during which the effective exploitation of intelligence gained in one raid was used to conduct the next. Perhaps the most publicized blow against the ISI to come out of the Mosul raid occurred in April, when Iraqi and U.S. forces killed the group's military leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri (aka Abu Hamza al-Muhajir), as well as Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (aka Hamid Dawud Muhammed Khalil al-Zawi, or Abdullah Rashid Saleh al-Baghdadi), the titular head of the ISI. In addition to taking out the apex leadership of the ISI, these raids also provided Iraqi and U.S. forces with a vast quantity of intelligence, including cell phones, laptops and a number of additional documents detailing the group's operations in Iraq as well as correspondence between the ISI and top al Qaeda-prime leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al-Masri, a native Egyptian and former member of Ayman al-Zawahri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad, was the group's replacement for the former head of al Qaeda in Iraq, the Jordanian national Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in June 2006. Al-Masri was considered the operational battlefield leader of the ISI, whereas al-Baghdadi played a more symbolic role by allowing the ISI to place an Iraqi face on the transnational jihadist efforts that had previously been personified by the foreign-born al-Zarqawi. From all indications, al-Masri provided the ISI with a high level of experience, professionalism and tradecraft and was the type of solid leader that is critical to actualizing a militant group's intent. He was also known for his role in facilitating the movement of foreign fighters to Iraq, providing them with training and assimilating them in with the local ISI cadre. Because of al-Masri's practical importance to the group, his death is considered to be a more devastating loss to the ISI's operational capability than al-Baghdadi's. However, the death of a single, competent leader is not necessarily a permanent and devastating blow to an organization like ISI. Indeed, at times, new leadership can be an operational windfall, as was seen recently in Yemen. The ISI survived the 2006 death of al-Zarqawi and actually increased its operational tempo in 2007. This increase was likely due to the solid organizational structure al-Zarqawi had established, which allowed a level of operational momentum to be maintained after his death. Nevertheless, the death of al-Masri did not happen in a vacuum. It occurred along with the elimination of more than three-quarters of the group's identified leadership, which, when combined with the changes in the environment in Iraq, will undoubtedly serve as a major setback to ISI's operations in Iraq. The downward trajectory of the al Qaeda franchise in Saudi Arabia from 2004 to 2008 provides an excellent example of the impact this sort of leadership depletion and environmental change can have on a jihadist group. The Saudi franchise officially began its protracted wave of violence in May 2003 with three coordinated car bombings in Riyadh. After an impressive counterterrorism offensive against the Kingdom's al Qaeda franchise, Saudi authorities were able largely stymie the momentum of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia in about 18 months. Key to their success was their ability to capture or kill 22 out of 26 (roughly 85 percent) of the group's leaders on the Saudi most-wanted list by April 2005, including three successive military commanders in the span of about a year, beginning in June 2004. Indeed, by January 2009, the Saudi al Qaeda franchise was so badly damaged that the remnants of the organization were forced to leave the Kingdom. Many ended up merging with jihadists in Yemen to form al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. While the Iraqi and Saudi operating environments are certainly different — with the former still in a de facto state of war — the parallels in the hits against top-tier leadership are worth noting. In May 2010, following al-Masri and al-Baghdadi's deaths the previous month, the ISI announced in a video message via its media outlet, the Al-Furqan Media, that Nasser al-Din Allah Abu Suleiman would be al-Masri's replacement as ISI "minister of war" and that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would replace Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as the group's leader. Appearing in the video, which was posted to extremist websites, Abu Suleiman threatened that the ISI would "wage a new military campaign directed at Iraqi security forces and the [Shia]" and that the fresh attacks would be carried out to avenge the deaths of al-Masri and al-Baghadi. At this point, little is known of Abu Suleiman or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, though these names are likely pseudonyms intended to protect their real identities, and more information will probably surface once their true names are learned. Despite the ominous nature of Abu Suleiman's message, the new leadership of the ISI is going to have its work cut out for it in the coming months if it is to hold the organization together and conduct significant militant operations. The loss of 80 percent of the leadership of any military organization is a difficult blow to overcome.

In Survival Mode

Al-Masri is gone. His replacement is a new, unknown and thus far untested leader. STRATFOR has long noted the importance of leadership for these types of militant organizations and how the quality of leadership directly correlates to a group's operational ability. Although it is still too early to accurately judge the impact al-Masri's death will have on the ISI, the case of his predecessor provides a helpful illustration of what can happen to a militant group under similar circumstances. Despite his reputation for ruthlessness, which alienated a number of Iraqi Sunnis, al-Zarqawi was still considered a charismatic and operationally adept leader who was conducive to the group's ability to carry out scores of terrorist attacks in Iraq — and beyond. He was also instrumental in developing the overall operational capacity of the ISI, creating a cadre of jihadist leaders who were able to bring in and train thousands of recruits and then deploy them in the Iraqi jihadist theater. Al-Zarqawi was able to capitalize on the anti-American sentiment in Iraq and the Muslim world that arose after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This anger resulted in calls for jihad — and for a robust flow of fighters and financial support. Saddam Hussein's Baathist supporters and other Sunni leaders in Iraq also saw the jihadist insurgents as convenient and zealous proxies to use against U.S. forces. Al-Zarqawi, though, was never an al Qaeda insider. In fact, correspondence between the al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan and al-Zarqawi revealed serious fissures between the two organizations. Nonetheless, al-Zarqawi saw the adoption of the al Qaeda name as beneficial for recruiting and fundraising. After al-Zarqawi's death in June 2006, the ISI officially named al-Masri as the organization's new "minister of war/defense." Al-Masri was a long-time al Qaeda insider who had been part of the Egyptian contingent that joined the group with Ayman al-Zawahiri. Under al-Masri's leadership, the ISI enjoyed a much closer relationship to the al Qaeda core. Despite al-Masri's links to al Qaeda, questions arose about the Egyptian's leadership and general competency and whether the death of the high-profile al-Zarqawi would cripple the organization. These doubts were largely eliminated a year later, after the ISI orchestrated a string of violent sectarian attacks in Shiite neighborhoods around Baghdad on April 18, 2007, which claimed the lives of almost 200 people. During the course of the year, more than 5,000 Iraqis were killed as a result of similar bombings. According to statistics provided by the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), there were 1,793 attacks involving vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) in 2007, compared to 1,409 in 2006. However, since the spike of violence in 2007, the number of individuals who have been killed as a result of large-scale bombings has dropped precipitously. For instance, in 2008 the number of deaths fell by about 50 percent, from an estimated 5,000 to 2,500. The following year, this number dropped to just over 2,000. According to STRATCOM, the number of VBIEDS deployed by the ISI has also sharply dropped, from 1,793 in 2007 to 641 in 2008 and 330 in 2009. Despite the drop in VBIED attacks and deaths in 2009, the run-up to the Iraqi election saw at least four devastating and coordinated bomb attacks claimed by the ISI. On Aug. 19, 2009, the ISI took responsibility for two simultaneous VBIED strikes at the Iraqi Foreign Ministry and Finance Ministry buildings that left some 100 people dead and more than 1,000 wounded. Two months later, in October 2009, the ISI claimed credit for a pair of similar simultaneous VBIED strikes near the Ministry of Justice building and the Baghdad Provincial Council building in downtown Baghdad that killed more than 100 people and wounded hundreds more. Strikes on similar targets were also carried out in central Baghdad on Dec. 8, 2009, and Jan. 25, 2010. During this string of attacks, the ISI demonstrated something of a resurgence, though as the campaign progressed the group was forced to target softer targets as security was increased around more high-profile sites like government ministries (the group was not able to strike at first-tier hard targets like the parliament building, the prime minister's office or the U.S. Embassy). Nevertheless, the ISI campaign did demonstrate that the group could still acquire ordinance, build reliable improvised explosive devices (IEDs), gather intelligence and plan and carry out spectacular attacks in the heart of Baghdad. Clearly, al-Masri and his team were regaining operational momentum. Indeed, the size and lethality of ISI's pre-election bombing campaign had not been seen since the April 2007 sectarian attacks in Baghdad. Overall, however, the casualty counts and the frequency of these attacks have continued to decrease in 2010. According to U.S. Central Command, there had been only 79 VBIED attacks and approximately 963 deaths as of June 28, and we anticipate that the group's lethality will continue to trend downward in the wake of the successful operations against it in recent months. (click here to enlarge image) The ISI will be fighting an uphill battle with the loss of so many leaders. And this battle will not just be for increasing its operational tempo or assuming control of Iraq. The group's No. 1 priority at the present time is sheer survival. It needs to focus on re-establishing some semblance of operational security so that it will have the breathing room to recruit and train new operatives. It will also need to find a way to pay for its continued operations, which, like those of militant organizations elsewhere, will increasingly be funded through criminal means.

Financial and Operational Losses

In addition to the crippling leadership losses, the ISI is also facing financial problems and has reportedly been in contact with al Qaeda prime in an attempt to secure more money. This is in stark contrast to July 2005, when al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri sent a letter to al-Zarqawi asking for $100,000 because a number of al Qaeda prime's financial lifelines had been cut off, and the Iraqi jihadist franchise was flush with cash (mostly from overseas donors). From all indications, this negative trend in the financial status of the al Qaeda core group has worsened, further limiting its ability to assist the now cash-strapped ISI. In October 2009, the U.S. assistant secretary investigating terrorist financing at the U.S. Treasury Department said al Qaeda "is [at] its weakest financial condition in several years." Also in 2009, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the former chief of al Qaeda's financing committee and then head of al Qaeda's operations in Afghanistan, repeatedly called for financial contributions to al Qaeda, saying that the group was in desperate need of funding. To compound the financial woes, al-Yazid was killed by a U.S. airstrike in late May. Clearly, the al Qaeda core group is in no financial shape to support the Iraqi franchise, leaving it up to the ISI to support itself financially. To be sure, the expense of an individual terrorist attack can be marginal for a group like the ISI. Obtaining the right supplies to fabricate and employ an IED may cost a couple hundred dollars, and in a place like Iraq, flush with military ordnance that can be purchased or stolen, it can cost even less. However, the process of maintaining a militant network over a long period, during and between attacks, is far more costly than just paying for individual attacks. The sizable infrastructure required to maintain such a network involves the costs of recruitment, travel, weapons, wages, food, a network of safe-houses, training facilities and materials and overhead expenses for things like fraudulent identification documents and the bribery of security and government officials. When added all together, these expenses require a serious financial commitment. And these costs rose considerably when Iraq's Sunni sheikhs turned against the movement and denied it much of the ideologically motivated support and sanctuary it once enjoyed. The ISI is now largely forced to buy this sanctuary. In light of the group's financial troubles, it appears that the ISI may be resorting to other, more criminal means of supporting itself through things like kidnapping, extortion and robbery. Criminal activity has always been part of the ISI method of operations since the group's inception, and the group has long been implicated in various forms of theft, kidnapping and smuggling in order to support its militant wing — such is the nature of an underground militant organization. This characteristic is commonly seen in even the most robust of militant groups around the world. However, ISI's criminal activities have become more exposed in recent months, and its militants have turned their weapons on jewelers, goldsmiths, bankers, money exchangers and other merchants. The trend can be seen across Iraq, in Baghdad as well as Basra, Kirkuk and Fallujah. Increasingly, the ISI has to devote a larger percentage of its manpower and operational capability to fundraising, which means it has fewer resources to devote to terrorist attacks. Most of these incidents go unreported, since they are considered lower priority than the more violent terrorist attacks. Also, much of the crime (especially the kidnapping and extortion) is carried out quietly and goes unseen by the casual observer. This means that the scope of the criminal activity being conducted by the ISI is likely higher than is being reported in the press, and this is supported by information from STRATFOR sources in Iraq. According to these sources, the ISI is particularly adept at using pressure tactics against local businesses in operating protection rackets. Merchants have to hand over a certain percentage of their monthly earnings to ISI operatives in order to preserve their businesses. One journalist in Mosul (Saad al-Mosuli) writes that some vendors pay as much as 30 percent of their earnings. Another area of criminal activity in Iraq is the theft and smuggling of oil. Iraq has hundreds of oil fields crisscrossed by hundreds of miles of pipelines carrying oil to terminals where it is either trucked or shipped for export. Oil is vulnerable to theft at any stage in this process, and militants in Iraq are known to tap pipelines or steal tanker trucks in order to get their hands on the oil and sell it. All manner of criminal activity can thrive in a country where the security environment remains fluid and authorities have to decide whether to divert more resources to preventing major VBIED attacks or to preventing robberies. Obviously, the former generates more attention. Below is a brief timeline of criminal activities either known or suspected to be the work of ISI operatives just in the past several weeks: The ISI is not the first militant organization to integrate criminal activities into its method of operations. Groups such as the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front in El Salvador, the Irish Republican Army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the New People's Army in the Philippines are just a few examples of groups that started with an ideological justification for their violent activities and turned to crime when their funding dried up (many Marxist groups lost funding when the Soviet Union dissolved). Some of these groups, such as the FARC, are now almost exclusivity criminal, with only a thin ideological facade used primarily for recruiting and justifying their activities. Other jihadist organizations have also used fraud, extortion, kidnapping and other illegal activities to finance their operations. For example, the jihadist cell responsible for the March 2004 Madrid train bombings financed its operations by selling narcotics. Currently facing financial problems, the ISI is using its highly trained and organized manpower, along with its weapons caches — resources that were once reserved for ideologically motivated attacks — to collect operating funds. With ample examples of the Prophet Mohammed and his companions raiding the caravans of the enemies of Islam, groups like the ISI believe they have religious justification for engaging in such activities and that they do not tarnish their reputations as Muslim movements. This is not to say that the group's activities have any legal precedent under Islamic law; it is more likely a reflection that its members are willing to twist religious and legal doctrine to benefit their operational needs. However, such activities have certainly caused many more moderate Iraqis to become skeptical of the ISI and to distance themselves from the group. On the other hand, government accusations of robbery could be a tactic to discredit the ISI and must be weighed carefully. Nevertheless, when Iraqi authorities blame the group for an incident like the May 25 jewelry store robbery in Baghdad that left 15 people dead, the fact that the robbers used rocket-propelled grenades, suppressed pistols and assault rifles lends credence to the claim, as does the speed, accuracy and general professionalism of the operation.

Decline in Foreign Operatives

In addition to the leadership losses and financial troubles besetting ISI, there are also indications that the group is struggling to carry out suicide attacks as frequently as it used to. One reason could be that the ISI is running out of foreign volunteers to participate in such attacks. According to Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, intercepted messages and prisoner interrogations indicate that ISI commanders are complaining about the lack of foreigners for suicide missions. "The shortage of suicide bombers is because Islamic fundamentalists are more interested in Afghanistan and Pakistan these days, the Americans are withdrawing from Iraq and al Qaeda's networks have been disrupted by ourselves and the Americans," Zebari said in an interview with the Associated Press in late May. While Iraqis can certainly carry out suicide attacks, a significant percentage (estimated by the U.S. military to be as high as 80 percent) of the suicide attacks in Iraq since the U.S. invasion have been perpetrated by foreign-born jihadists. In 2008, we began seeing an indication that the ISI was recruiting Iraqis who were mentally ill or addicted to drugs to serve as suicide bombers. There are a few possible explanations for the apparent paucity of foreign travelers to Iraq to carry out such operations. First, as Zebari mentions, U.S. troops are pulling out of Iraq, and many radical Muslims would rather attack "infidel troops" than fellow Muslims. As of May 2010, there are more American troops stationed in Afghanistan (94,000) than Iraq (92,000) for the first time since major combat operations began in Iraq in 2003. These numbers are only expected to continue to fall in Iraq as the Obama administration puts a greater focus on Afghanistan. Naturally, if jihadist operatives are eager to take the fight directly to Americans and other Westerners, they would more likely head to an area where there are more American and other Western troops. While its cooperation has been sporadic, the Syrian regime has also helped crack down on the established smuggling networks that have been an instrumental gateway to Iraq for foreign fighters. According to jihadist recruiting records found in the Syrian border town of Sinjar by U.S. troops in 2007 and released by the U.S. government in 2008, there were approximately 700 foreign nationals who illegally entered Iraq between August 2006 and August 2007. Indeed, the Iraqi government claimed in 2007 that more than half of the foreign fighters were arriving in Iraq via Syria. U.S. defense officials also remarked at the time that coalition operations helped cut the flow of approximately 60 to 80 fighters a month in half. This reduction was at least partly due to the killing of Abu Osama al-Tunisi in Iraq by U.S.-led forces in September 2007. As his name indicates, al-Tunisi was a Tunisian member of the ISI's inner circle who was chiefly responsible bringing foreign fighters into Iraq. Most of the illegal entries into Iraq, according to the Sinjar documents, were facilitated by four members of a terrorist finance and facilitation ring running out of Syria known as the "Abu Ghadiyah" network, named for its leader, Badran Turki Hisham al-Mazidih (aka Abu Ghadiyah). However, on Oct. 26, 2008, U.S. forces, reportedly with the assistance of the Syrian government, conducted a cross-border raid against the group that resulted in the death of Abu Ghadiyah. Because smuggling is a long-practiced trade in Syria, a replacement for Abu Ghadiyah has most likely stepped into place, but the flow of fighters from Syria has clearly dropped since 2007. Of course, the simple fact that U.S. and Iraqi forces continue to capture or kill senior ISI members at a heretofore unseen rate has had a noteworthy impact on the ISI's ability to recruit, train and run foreign fighters. This success has been due not only to the increased intelligence capability of U.S. and Iraqi forces but also — significantly — to the fact that a number of Iraq's Sunni sheikhs have turned against the ISI. The group's decline has also been a result of the length of the struggle. A large number of jihadists have been "martyred" in Iraq and a substantial amount of money has been sent there over the past seven years. It is hard to maintain that type of commitment over time — especially when the effort is producing diminishing returns and other theaters such as the Afghanistan/Pakistan region, Yemen and Somalia have grabbed more of the worldwide media spotlight.


The year 2010 appears to be a banner year for U.S. and Iraqi troops in the fight against the ISI. Their combined efforts, with local assistance, have severely damaged the group's finances, leadership and ability to recruit. To be sure, the ISI's intent to establish an Islamic caliphate in Iraq has not diminished. But even before the most recent coalition successes, the ability of the group to return to its 2007 glory days was seriously in doubt, and today its overall operational capacity appears to be severely crippled. And as U.S. and multinational troops continue their steady withdrawal from Iraq, there will be less incentive for transnational jihadists to travel to Iraq to fight U.S. forces. Ongoing pressure on the ISI may also serve to fracture it into smaller disjointed entities, which could even lead to infighting. Pressed for cash, the motivations for violent attacks are likely to continue to devolve into political and criminal acts, the frequency and lethality of which will depend on the ability of Iraqi forces to handle the situation.

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