Iraq: US-Iran Tensions Inflaming Divisions Already Being Exploited by Islamic State
Brian M. Perkins
Tensions between the United States and Iran have continued to escalate in recent weeks amid concerns regarding the persistence of Islamic State (IS) fighters in Iraq. IS cells had remained in Iraq despite the country declaring defeat over the group in December 2017, and their numbers have almost certainly increased significantly following the fall of Baghouz and subsequent exodus of remaining IS fighters. The group is already exploiting divisions amongst Iraqi civilians and Iraqi security forces and continued US-Iran tensions could only fuel the divisions.
IS fighters are particularly active in Nineveh and other northwestern regions of Iraq but have conducted attacks much further from the Syrian border, including in Kirkuk, which experienced a series of six bombings that killed three people on May 30 (Rudaw, May 30). IS has quietly been rebuilding its smuggling networks. They are operating in plain sight as well as out of remote caves, emerging to conduct bombings, kidnappings, and more recently, to set crops on fire.
Continued attacks by IS have deepened internal divisions and suspicion among neighbors, particularly in areas that were once IS strongholds where people suspect each other of retaining allegiance to the group. Similarly, the attacks have raised concerns regarding the effectiveness and priorities of Iraqi security forces. Various communities claim that the military or local militias responsible for the security in their area are not protecting their interests due to ethnic or sectarian differences, particularly in disputed areas. For instance, the Kakai Kurds have accused the Federal Police and Army of ignoring IS crop burnings near Kirkuk and in Nineveh (Kurdistan24, May 30). While it is unclear if all of the fires have been set by IS, the group has claimed responsibility for crop fires in the 183rd issue of its weekly newsletter, al-Naba (Jihadology, May 23). In addition to tensions and divisions between official Iraqi forces and minority communities and those in disputed territories, there are also sharp divisions among the more informal security forces. Many of the diverse militias that provide security in Iraq are those aligned with Iran, and they are being drawn into the ongoing spat between the United States and Iran.
Already in a precarious position, Iraq is finding itself in a position between the United States and Iran that could have serious implications for its own internal security. On May 15, the United States withdrew personnel from Iraq due to the alleged threat of Iran-backed militias attacking U.S. personnel. Just days later a rocket reportedly struck the Green Zone about a mile from the U.S. Embassy. Though it is unclear where the rocket was fired from or who was responsible, suspicion has fallen on Iran-backed militias. Whether this is the case or not, incidents like this only deepen divisions between U.S.-aligned groups and Iran-aligned groups while inflaming tensions on a broader scale. With the volatile environment, U.S. corporations have also begun withdrawing personnel, a move that could burden local workers and cause anger within local communities. While the government is attempting to remain neutral, even offering to mediate between the United States and Iran, militias will only become more entrenched as the spat continues and local civilians are likely to experience the brunt of the impact. With IS already exploiting inter-security and inter-community tensions, further local and global divisions will only create additional opportunities for the group.
Local Vs. Global—Al-Qaeda’s Strategy for Survival
Brian M. Perkins
Islamic State (IS) continues to dominate headlines around the world for the rebranding of its official branches, the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka, and its expansion in Africa, but it is still imperative not to lose sight of al-Qaeda and its long-term strategies for survival and growth. While IS has shifted its operations to portray itself as a more global organization, al-Qaeda and its branches have shifted from prioritizing expansion and targeting the West to maintaining and building its affiliates on a much more local level, and still managing to instill anti-Western sentiment. Unlike IS, al-Qaeda has also seemingly selected partners that provide a more diverse local network as well as increased longevity.
The localization of al-Qaeda’s efforts can be seen in the tactics and composition of almost all of its affiliates. While Islamic State continues working to create loose ties to fledgling jihadist groups across the globe, al-Qaeda is focused on shoring up its roots in the territories it has long operated—and it is working. Al-Qaeda is very much alive, and while not seeing significant expansion beyond its traditional areas of operation, it has still managed to persist and in some cases, grow, despite the tendency of pundits to downplay its strength in the face of IS.
This shift toward local insurgencies is particularly evident when looking at al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), long considered to be among the group’s most potent branches and the most significant threat to the West. AQAP and the late Anwar al-Awlaki were the pioneers of the lone-wolf tactic, encouraging any able-bodied person to carry out attacks against the West through its English language magazine, Inspire. While al-Awlaki’s death, as well as the death of the editor of Inspire, Samir Khan, undoubtedly created a setback for the group’s Western outreach, there was a conscious tactical shift toward a more local approach that occurred outside the context of these deaths. It is, however, also a sign of the leadership’s mentality and foresight to avoid spreading itself too thin and to focus on what has worked for the group in Yemen—focusing heavily on hyperlocal issues and rallying recruits against known local enemies rather than abstract, distant ones.
In Africa, AQIM has similarly focused more heavily on local issues, growing organically by absorbing local groups, which provide them more longevity as well as ethnic diversity. AQIM brought Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM—Group of Supporters of Islam and Muslims) into its fold in March 2017 (See Terrorism Monitor, April 21, 2017). JNIM was a merger of Ansar Dine, the Macina Liberation Front, al-Mourabitoun and the Malian branch of AQIM, effectively drawing together leaders from key ethnic groups and tying itself to local communities. In doing so, al-Qaeda has ensured a partnership that will likely extend for generations. JNIM has seen significant growth over the past several years, gaining a foot-hold in Burkina Faso and Niger with the threat increasingly spreading west.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda has maintained its incredibly tight partnership with the Taliban, and through the Taliban’s surge over the past few years, is once again operating throughout the country (Tolo News, May 21). There has been very little written on al-Qaeda’s continued operations in Afghanistan, largely due to its lack of public claims or operations that draw attention to itself. This tactic has allowed the group to remain under the radar as coalition forces focus more heavily on the burgeoning Islamic State-Khurasan group, which has conducted spectacular attacks against US and Afghan forces. Meanwhile, prospects of peace talks with the Taliban raise concerns over the group’s relationship with al-Qaeda and the implication of a troop withdrawal.
While IS has entered its new global phase in an attempt to preserve itself, al-Qaeda remains firmly within a more local phase to strengthen its networks and persist, as it has for well over a decade. This local phase has kept the West out of the group’s crosshairs for some time, but it is almost certain that at some point, when its ranks are shored up, the group could pivot back from the near enemy to the far enemy.