The Advancement of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant


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The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has made significant territorial gains over the past month as it has moved toward Baghdad. Leveraging the Sunni populations’ disenfranchisement with the central government, the ISIL has successfully taken strategic cities in Anbar, Nineweh, Salah al-Din, and Diyala provinces. This report will analyze the ISIL’s military strategy and offer suggestions as to how the Iraqi government can successfully combat this extremist group.

In 2006, a hand-drawn map was found on the body of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The map revealed AQI’s goal to obtain strategic terrain surrounding Baghdad. This area, known as the Baghdad Belt—including cities, roads, and waterways—would give AQI the logistical capability to launch major attacks inside Baghdad and take control of neighborhoods within the city. The current operations conducted by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant suggest that ISIL is implementing the same strategy today and is attempting to gain control of the Baghdad Belt. However, this offensive was years in the making, and is part of a long term strategy developed by ISIL to carve out an Islamic state.

Map outlining Al Qaeda in Iraq's strategy found on the body of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006. Image from Long War Journal.

Map outlining Al Qaeda in Iraq’s strategy found on the body of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006. Image from Long War Journal.

2012 and 2013 were preparatory years for ISIL as it conducted a chain of operations designed to weaken the Iraqi military, expand its fighting capacity, and build name recognition. It did this through campaigns such as “Breaking the Walls” and “Soldiers’ Harvest”. Through these time-oriented offensives, ISIL liberated thousands of prisoners from jails across Iraq and killed thousands of Iraqi soldiers, policeman, and civilians through small arms attacks and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Attacks were designed to exacerbate the divides between Sunni and Shia, and portray the central government as an ineffective and unreliable source of security. The tempo of these operations notably increased in mid-2013. The average monthly death count for civilians in Iraq before May 2013 was around 400. Since that time, the average civilian death count per month has risen to around 1,000. This reveals an increased operational capacity fuelled by recruits, funding, and equipment from the Syrian front.

At the beginning of 2014 ISIL took control of Fallujah, a mere thirty miles west of Baghdad. This signaled the beginning of what Zarqawi’s 2006 map called the “Battle of the Baghdad Belt”. On June 10, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant successfully gained control of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. The Iraq Security Forces (ISF) were quick to surrender or abandon their posts, leaving behind weapons, ammunition, and vehicles. The ISF’s quick retreat further reveals the sectarian divides in the country. A predominantly Shia military was not motivated to defend a Sunni majority city. The Iraqi military fell back to defend areas of significant religious importance to the Shia.

ISIL will target Shia holy sites such as the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra. This mosque is the mausoleum of two Shia imams and is one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Shi’ites. Since ISIL has not been able to take control of Samarra, it has opted to attempt to hit the mosque through mortar attacks. If the ISIL is successful in damaging or destroying the mosque, the violence between Sunni and Shia civilians would increase dramatically. ISIL’s attempt to destroy the al-Askari Mosque demonstrates how closely it is following AQI’s playbook from 2006. Al-Qaeda in Iraq successfully bombed the mosque in February of that year. In response, tens of thousands of angered Shia men and boys reported to their clerics, awaiting instructions. The ensuing violence led to attacks on at least twenty Sunni mosques. ISIL hopes to reproduce the conflict of 2006 to further pit Sunni against Shia. ISIL will also target Shia holy sites in Karbala and Najaf south of Baghdad, where ISF and Shia militia will be heavily concentrated.

The ISIL’s advance has slowed significantly since the initial push. It is unlikely that ISIL will be able to gain complete control of Baghdad. However, it may not have to in order to achieve its goals. ISIL’s primary objective is to create an Islamic caliphate. Maintaining pressure on the Baghdad Belt will enable the ISIL to consolidate its gains in Anbar, Nineweh, and Salah al-Din provinces. Continued IED attacks and skirmishes will ensure that the Iraq Security Forces place most of its effort in defending holy sites and the cities it currently holds, instead of attempting to go on the offensive against ISIL. Keeping the central government focused on Baghdad is important while the ISIL stabilizes its gains in Sunni territory, and gaining control of the Baghdad Belt is the best way to do this.

A convoy of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Image from Al-Alam.

A convoy of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Image from Al-Alam.

It is important to recognize that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is not the only force at work among the Sunni population. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s administration has been negligent to the needs of the Sunni population of Iraq for years. Because of this, a strong feeling of disenfranchisement from the central government is a common sentiment in Sunni regions. ISIL has been able to capitalize on this and gain the allegiance of some Sunni tribes. However, many of the tribes that are working with ISIL to expel government forces have expressed disdain for ISIL’s harsh interpretation of Sharia law. It is likely that some of the tribes are only aligning with the terrorist group in the short term, and will eventually clash with ISIL for control of Sunni areas.

As the level of violence increases, the possibility of a rapprochement between Sunni’s and the Iraqi government decreases. Because of this, it is in the central governments interests to begin discussions with Sunni leaders and implement policies that reach out to the Sunni community. Winning over Sunni tribal leaders is the only way that the central government will be able to obtain lost territory. They must make an inclusive Iraq a more attractive outcome. The reason that concessions and policy changes are the only option is because the Iraq Security Forces do not have the capability of uprooting ISIL and its allies from the areas they have gained control of. When al-Qaeda in Iraq took control of similar terrain in 2006, 130,000 US troops, in tandem with Iraq Security Forces and co-opted Sunni tribes, were required to push AQI out of the Baghdad Belt. Without strong international support like it had previously, the Iraqi government will not have the resources necessary to remove ISIL.

The Iraqi government’s best course of action to combat extremist groups has always been the implementation of inclusive policies. Since the Iraqi government is not likely to receive significant resources from the international community during its current plight, this remains its only option.




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