The Islamic State’s Strategic and Tactical Plan for Iraq

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 16

Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi giving a sermon in Mosul

Since the announcement of the Islamic State, Iraq’s Sunni jihadist movement has been obsessed with controlling geographical space in order to declare an Islamic caliphate, a move that, in addition to its symbolic importance, would help raise recruits and secure the movement’s logistics. The group was shocked by the armed opposition of the Sunni Awakening Councils in 2007 and started planning for the post-U.S. occupation era in Iraq in 2010, when Iraq’s jihadist movement published an important booklet with direct relevance to the strategy and tactics used by the Islamic State today: Khoutah Istratigya li Ta’aziz al-Moqif al-Siyasi al-Dawlat al-Islamyiah fi al-Iraq (A Strategic Plan to Improve the Political Position of the Islamic State of Iraq).

The booklet was published in a time when the Iraqi jihadists were in difficulty, appearing only months before Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s successor as leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq) and the movement’s defense minister, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, were killed in April 2010. The contents of Khoutah Istragiya outlined a strategic plan to “improve the position of Islamic state; therefore it will be more powerful politically and militarily… so the Islamic [State] project will be ready to take over all Iraq after the enemy troops withdraw.” [1]

The Islamic State is a linear descendant of al-Zarqawi’s Tanzim Qa’idat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (The Organization of Jihad’s Base in the Country of the Two Rivers – more commonly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq), formed in 2004 to fight the American invasion of Iraq.

The group, which is a splinter of al-Qaeda as a result of differences over practices and ideology (especially in Syria), has built its legitimacy around a number of concepts and ideas such as al-shawkat (power, intensity) and al-taghloub (overcoming), components of the belief that if a group has the power, it will have the legitimacy to rule.

Since 2005, the movement has engaged in a sectarian war considered by the Sunni jihadists as being as important as fighting the invading kafir (infidel) forces, most specifically the Americans (al-Hayat, July 3). The war has been justified by presenting Iraq’s majority Shi’a population as a “fifth column” for the Americans or the Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad. After 2007, the jihadists began to present themselves as an alternative to the existing Sunni leadership in Iraq. Their attempt to announce an Islamic State proved premature, with the Sunnis of Anbar governorate forming the anti-jihadist Majalis al-Sahwat (Awakening Councils), whose subsequent military campaign forced a jihadist retreat.

Iraq’s jihadists noted in the 2010 booklet that the state they are aiming to create should not bind itself with international commitments: “Creating an Islamic state which has no commitments towards the international community is not a fantasy, dream or illusion as some might imagine or fancy, rather it’s a clear-cut issue built on an obvious strategy.” [2]

In order to establish an Islamic state that controls Iraq, the jihadists set out a clear five-point agenda served by their tactics and strategies:

· Unification: This agenda urges jihadists to unify their efforts in Iraq and prove that the Islamic state is a reality. Efforts by the jihadists to run day-to-day management of the cities of Fallujah and Mosul after the Islamists took control may be considered as part of attaining this goal. [3]

· Balanced Military Planning: This agenda is divided into three tactics:

1. “Nine Bullets against Apostates and One against Crusaders,” referring to a campaign to “increase the rate of fear amongst Iraqis who join the army and security forces”;

2. “Cleansing,” in which the movement aims to occupy places where the Iraqi army and security forces are located and keep them busy trying to retake these places. [4] To achieve this goal, jihadists in Iraq resort to a tactic involves holding hostages, killing dozens of them and then engaging in an open clash with security forces. This kind of attack has been dubbed “Mumbai-style” after the storming of the historic Taj Hotel in Mumbai by the Kashmiri jihadist group Lashkar-e-Taiba in 2008. Although the preferred jihadist tactic in Iraq is suicide bombings, mostly due to the damage they cause, their lower cost, the ability of the perpetrators to bypass security checks and the increased media coverage they attract. [5] Although they are not cheap compared to suicide bombings, Mumbai-style attacks achieve other goals in addition to media coverage. Most importantly, they undermine confidence in the security services in the targeted country, according to the assessment of the jihadists themselves. In October 2010, jihadists used a Mumbai-style attack on Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, killing more than 50 worshippers (National Iraqi News Agency, November 1, 2010). The group used the same tactic five months later at the provincial council building in Tikrit, where another 56 people were killed (al-Shorfa, May 30, 2011);

3. Targeting influential military and political leaders by assassination. [6]

· Formation of jihadist “Awakening Councils”: Jihadists admit that the formation of Awakening councils in Anbar was a “clever idea,” therefore, they have urged local Sunnis to form groups to protect their areas from the army and security forces, take control of day-to-day security in those areas and implement Shari’a. According to the jihadists, the aim is to integrate locals into the project to establish Shari’a and avoid the alienation of local people. All these groups are to be overseen by a jihadist religious amir. [7] Progress towards these goals was seen in the increasing numbers of Iraqis joining the jihadists as well as the alliance created with some local tribes in Fallujah in January. [8]

· Political Symbolism: The jihadists believe that advancing a political and religious leader is an essential step in establishing an Islamic state. [9] At the time of the booklet’s publication, jihadists thought it would be difficult to find such a symbol, but when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) several months later, it was clear he was assuming this symbolic role by combining the necessary political and religious credentials. This symbolic role was displayed when al-Baghdadi delivered the Friday sermon at Mosul’s Great Mosque of al-Nuri (built 1172-1173), which was traditionally used by the early Muslim Caliphs.

· Assuring Non-Muslims: This refers to a just ruling by the Islamic State to assure non-Muslims that the jihadists are able and willing to protect them and their interests, a stance the jihadists view as important in light of ongoing efforts to misrepresent jihadists in the media. [10] However, after the jihadists took the city of Mosul in June, hundreds of Christian families fled after the jihadists demanded they convert, submit to their rule and pay a religious levy (jizyah) or face death by the sword. The Islamic State does not see this as a contradiction since their concept of justice involves implementing Shari’a as the group understands it.

Since it started to operate in Syria in 2013, the ISIS/Islamic State organization has been obsessed with controlling geographical space to support its plans to establish a caliphate. To achieve aims such as securing the border between Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has actually engaged in more fighting with Kurdish militants, the Free Syrian Army rebels and even other jihadists than with the troops of the Assad regime. The announcement of a caliphate has benefited the Islamic State in terms of attracting fighters from all over the world. European citizens are reported to have carried out suicide attacks and even jihadists in Jordan who once opposed ISIS have now changed their position in support of the caliphate (al-Ghad [Amman], July 23). [11] These developments reflect the ideological foundations presented in the plan presented in 2010.

Murad Batal al-Shishani is an Islamic groups and terrorism issues analyst based in London. He is a specialist on Islamic Movements in the Middle East and in the North Caucasus.


1. Khoutah Istratigyia li Ta’aziz al-Moqif al-Siyasi al-Dawlat al-Islamyiah fi al-Iraq (A Strategic Plan to Improve the Political Position of the Islamic State of Iraq), January 2010. The booklet can be accessed at: See also Terrorism Monitor, April 23, 2010.

2. Ibid.

3. Author’s interview with an eye witness who fled from Fallujah in Erbil, Iraq, June 30, 2014.

4. Khoutah Istratigyia li Ta’aziz…, Op. Cit.

5. According to the ISIS released statistics for its attacks in Iraq for 2012-2013 for example, suicide bombings as tactic was used more than 230 times. For full access to the ISIS military report (2012-2013), see

6. Khoutah Istratigyia li Ta’aziz…, Op. Cit.; see also the ISIS military report, Ibid.

7. Khoutah Istratigyia li Ta’aziz…, Op. Cit.

8. Author’s interview with a source close to Sunni tribal forces in Iraq in Erbil, Iraq, June 30, 2014.

9. Khoutah Istratigyia Li Ta’aziz…, Op. Cit.

10. Ibid.

11. The ISIS announced the first Norwegian suicide bomber in Iraq in June 2014 (al-Hayat, July 3).