The Islamic State’s Zombie Phase Has Arrived

By Rasha al Aqeedi

The Islamic State isn’t dead, but it has lost its once-vast leverage. Wise security policies alone can stop its re-emerging networks from growing into a full-blown insurgency.

On a cold evening last November, masked assailants gunned down four young men in the sub-district of Hammam Al-Aleel, about 60 kilometers south of Mosul. The assassination was not random. The victims were members of what is referred to as the “tribal units” — an official Sunni affiliate of the Popular Mobilization Forces. The tribal units in Hammam Al-Aleel have been accused by activists groups of violating human rights. The fighters and their leaders publicly boast about extrajudicial killings of suspected Islamic State militants, but the assassination was not mere vigilante or vengeance; it signifies what experts and analysts saw all too clearly: the Islamic State is returning to underground operations.

In an article for Al Mesbar last month, Sara Brzuszkiewicz assessed that the Islamic State would most likely return to an Al-Qaeda modus operandi following rapid defeats in Iraq and Syria which resulted in massive territorial losses. While the “caliphate” is no longer, the Islamic State is survived by small yet active networks. The recent wave of assassinations reflects growing confidence and, perhaps, an ominous reality that recently liberated areas in Iraq and Syria will have to confront for the foreseeable future.

For Iraq-watchers, this is hardly new or surprising. The years between 2006 and 2012 saw the former Al-Qaeda insurgency evolve into a gang-like operation. In Mosul, for example, the “soldiers” of the Islamic State continued to carry out their missions: death threats to public workers; “protection money” demands from shop owners, doctors, pharmacists, and anyone with a revenue stream; assassinations of political activists; planting IEDs on the roads to target Iraqi and Coalition forces; and incessant threats to religious and ethnic minorities.

Government checkpoints, present in almost every street, corner, office, and school, failed to stop the execution of such threats. The same scene recurred frequently: Attackers manage to penetrate a checkpoint, do their deed (assassinate, kidnap, suicide bomb, and so on), and disappear (in all cases). Security forces then randomly shower the skies with ammunition, innocent people are injured, security forces randomly circle any young man within a three-kilometer radius of the incident, and some are never seen again. The people soon forget the now-invisible terrorists and express more anger toward the flesh-and-blood security forces who injured bystanders, took innocent people into custody, and again failed to protect them. The militants win. Let 72 hours pass, and repeat.

Back to the aforementioned attack that targeted Sunni Hashd figures last month. The targets, as noted, were no saints; a choice reminiscent of the Islamic State’s previous strategy in and around Sunni areas: attacking controversial figures with blood on their hands to portray themselves as the vigilantes of unaddressed grievances. Though the victims were indeed Sunni themselves, they were nonetheless, from the Islamic State’s perspective, traitors and agents of the heretical Shi’a–led security apparatus that rampantly oppresses the Sunni population. The Islamic State, however, has remained in denial of a basic, simple fact: all grievances pale in comparison to what the Sunni population endured under its brutal three-year rule. Despite legitimate concerns of violations committed by Iraq’s ever-complicated armed forces — whether the army, federal police, or PMU — the horrors of the Islamic State made the latter a reference point for all that is evil. Every other armed group compared favorably.

It remains unlikely that targeting Iraqi government–backed armed forces will result in a popularity swing for the underground IS networks. This fact does not in any way exonerate the Iraqi government. Public memory tends to be short if the PMU-related violations continue. So far, they are believed to be sporadic and limited, but normalization of such acts without holding the parties accountable could — and will most likely — result in renewed mistrust and discontent of Baghdad. The Islamic State networks, like Al Qaeda before them, are masters of incitement, and have in the past employed local resentment and grievances to their benefit. While the odds this time around are not in their favor, the Islamic State networks have no options but to patiently anticipate violations by the Iraqi security apparatus to exploit. The ball is now in Baghdad’s court to cut these opportunities off for the radicals.

There will, however, always be fringe support for the Islamic State. Iraq in this context is hardly different from any other country in the world. No amount of freedom, democracy, stability, and cutting-edge security has been able to shield states from ISIS activities. Iraq is definitely more vulnerable than other states, for numerous reasons. It should meanwhile be acknowledged that the wars of ideas, ideologies, and competing grievances have not been won. The Islamic State can still persuade followers of its supposedly righteous cause — especially in war-ravaged territories that have not recovered from destruction, with limited services and exhausted populations.

One fact does, however, play in our favor ,and we would be unwise not to fully exploit it: the Islamic State’s practical networks are in their early stages. Amputating said networks at this phase is achievable with sufficient international cooperation and advanced security technologies that stifle recruitment, money laundering, kidnappings and extortions, and even assassinations.

The Islamic State is not dead and may not die for generations, but it is certainly in the gravely ill stage. With wise security policies, it could stay that way for a long time.