Iraq: External Actions Against PMF Threaten Delicate Balance
Brian M. Perkins
Iraq remains in an extremely precarious position after declaring victory over Islamic State (IS) in December 2017, and regional tensions continue to upset the local balance of power. Iraq relies heavily on the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)—a coalition of paramilitary groups—to supplement the capabilities of the formal Iraqi military and keep a seemingly resurgent IS at bay. Among these paramilitary groups are several with close ties to Iran, making them a source of suspicion for Sunni groups across the country as well as Israel, the United States, and other Western nations. While the strength and influence of the PMF has caused turmoil in Iraq, they do serve an essential security function at a pivotal time for Iraq when increased instability could have dire consequences.
The PMF’s role in Iraq has left the country delicately balanced on the verge of regression, and external meddling by those seeking to pressure Iran threatens to push the country back to the brink. Suspicious airstrikes against PMF bases—purportedly conducted by Israel, but also blamed on the United States—have further soured U.S. relations with the PMF and the formal Iraqi bureaucracy. The strikes have also stressed the relationship between the latter two groups, which need to maintain a strong partnership to maintain Iraq’s internal security (Aljazeera, August 21).
Despite Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s efforts to rein in the PMF and integrate them into the formal Iraqi security establishment, the PMF has continued to chart its own path, with unconfirmed reports regarding the alleged formation of its own air force. Additionally, the Fatah Coalition, which represents the PMF in Parliament, has called for the withdrawal of U.S. forces (Radio Farda, September 6; Aljazeera, August 27).
The increased tension among the various internal and external forces responsible for preventing IS from resurging has come amid increased activity by the international terrorist group. Iraqi forces have continued to detect and disrupt substantial IS cells and have destroyed countless tunnels used for smuggling across a significant number of provinces. Meanwhile, IS has claimed responsibility for countless bombings in Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Mosul, among others (Kurdistan24, August 22; Iraqi News, September 9). Many of the arrests and successful strikes against IS have stemmed from U.S. intelligence or involved the PMF (Iraqi News, September 2; Kurdisatan24, September 9).
While there is understandably a need to limit Iranian influence in Iraq, there is a delicate balance that must be struck. Unilateral actions taken by foreign militaries undermines security partnerships between the formal Iraqi security apparatus and external powers, while also undermining the Iraqi government and their essential partnership with the PMF. Meanwhile, military actions taken against the PMF hinder their ability to help secure Iraq, inflame preexisting local tensions, and risk retaliatory attacks against key Iraqi allies.
Bangladesh: Islamic State Claimed Attacks and Video Highlight Continued Threat
Brian M. Perkins
The threat of terrorist attacks in Bangladesh has remarkably decreased following a massive crackdown by security forces after the Islamic State (IS) launched a series of deadly attacks in Dhaka in 2016. Security forces have largely managed to disrupt terrorist organizations or at least force them into hiding. However, the government seems to have been lulled into complacency by the sharp reduction in terrorism over the past few years despite evidence that IS-affiliated or inspired actors have grown increasingly active in the country and are making a broader regional push.
Despite its noticeable successes, Bangladeshi security operations have not entirely removed the threat. Instead, it has displaced the terrorist group Jamaat al-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) to neighboring India while forcing smaller less cohesive groups, including IS-inspired individuals, underground. Simultaneously, government policies have continued to increase radicalization and foster anti-government sentiment.
IS had not claimed responsibility for an attack in Bangladesh for almost three years, but over the past several months the terrorist group has conducted multiple attacks. While the attacks have not been particularly devastating, they indicate a noticeable shift from the group’s previous operations in that they have primarily targeted police forces, rather than civilians. The latest attack occurred on August 31, when an explosive device detonated near police vehicles assigned to a Bangladeshi minister’s security detail in Dhaka, injuring two police officers (Daily Star, September 2). An investigation is underway, but authorities have yet to identify the assailants. The attack and targeting of police officials follows the August 9 release of a video depicting Bangladeshi IS fighters vowing to attack security officials and renewing their pledge to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The video was released as part of the ongoing series “The Best Outcome is for the Pious” in which IS branches around the world have renewed allegiance to the IS leader.
Government officials seem sharply divided regarding the IS threat. Many officials have used the fact that the attacks have been relatively low-tech to deny an IS presence in the country, with Information Minister Hasam Mahmud stating, “there is nothing called IS in Bangladesh. IS claims responsibility when a tire of a vehicle explodes” (Dhaka Tribune, September 1). Meanwhile, other government and security officials feel that the recent incidents are likely test cases for larger, more sophisticated attacks in the future, noting that militants are very much still active throughout the country, though they are keeping a low profile.
The disconnect between government policymakers and Bangladesh’s security forces is particularly concerning as security officials have noted a rise in radicalization and are still regularly dismantling cells operated by the IS-aligned Neo-JMB. Unlike the terrorist attacks prior to the government crackdown, recent attacks have highlighted a shift toward less coordinated attacks, which security forces have noticeably had trouble disrupting. With the obvious decentralization of militant cells occurring in the country, particularly in Dhaka, it is likely only a matter of time before a more notable attack takes place.