Alan Lis: ISIS’s continuous presence in Iraq

The Islamic State (also known as the IS, ISIL, ISIS, or Daesh), despite triumphant announcements made by the Iraqi government and the US President Donald Trump, has not been truly defeated – neither in Iraq, nor in Syria. Since the victory over the IS was declared, Jihadists of this very organisation perpetrated numerous attacks in both those countries, in which many people lost their lives.

Reasons for ISIS coming into existence were multiple and complicated – it was a process that did not happen overnight. The IS emerged from Al Qaeda (AQ), which claim has been corroborated by many analysts of terrorism and international security. Similarly as in the case of fighting AQ, quite a substantial number of countries united their efforts in combating Daesh, though this struggle, unfortunately, turned to become an element of political clashes for influence in the Middle East between the US, Russia, as well as other powers including Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. The fact is that despite depriving the IS of its physical Caliphate, international efforts remained short of actually defeating the organisation.

ISIS in Iraq – how it may use the country’s internal chaos to its advantage

The IS has regularly been proving that the victorious declaration of the Iraqi government in 2017 was nothing but premature. ISIS was never fully defeated and still presents a considerable threat to Iraq. It is said to have been gradually reconstructing its networks in some parts of this country, such as the Anbar province – where the city of Fallujah, which used to be one of the ISIS’s strongholds, is located – adhering to the tactics of low-level insurgency to spread fear, chaos, and violence. Indeed, the IS turned into a guerrilla movement waging over a few months a campaign of suicide attacks, ambushes, assassinations, and kidnappings, aimed at undermining the authorities in Baghdad in the eyes of average citizens and showing that they are unable to protect civilians and effectively govern. 

The latest round of anti-government protests indicates that Iraqis do not approve of their ruling elite. Amongst the main reasons for the protests to erupt were unemployment, poor level of public services, food insecurity and poverty of parts of the population, as well as widespread corruption that indeed weakens the Iraq’s political leadership legitimacy and alienates average citizens from the elite in Baghdad.

Corruption is an issue protested rather often in Iraq, with previous protests taking place, for instance, in 2015 and 2018. The death toll of this year’s protests, which turned violent, exceeds 100 with thousands injured. Reportedly, security forces used live ammunition against protesters and the government, led by Adil Abdul-Mahdi, introduced curfews and limited access to the internet in an attempt to control the situation. Some government officials admitted that the nature of the response to the protests was indeed too aggressive.

ISIS may use the de facto over-aggressive and deadly response on the Iraqi government’s part to its advantage and capitalize on yet again another wave of destabilization in Iraq, and further chaos that came in as a result. Repressive response further angers people and turns them even more against the Iraqi authorities, which creates a space for ISIS to swoop in and present itself as an alternative to the rule of corrupt politicians lacking the ability to effectively govern. Moreover, the government’s inability to protect civilians makes them vulnerable to seek such protection elsewhere. Terrified people, seeing no other choice, may even join the IS’s ranks just for the sake of ensuring safety for themselves and their families. That was the very reason some of ISIS’s members joined the organization when it was building the Caliphate a few years ago.

What is needed to prevent ISIS from re-establishing its position in Iraq?

There is a couple of things that come to mind, which ought to be done in order to prevent ISIS from re-building its position and regaining power in Iraq. First of all, the Iraqi government must take some steps to tackle corruption, unemployment and other things protested recently in order to calm the situation in the country. Corruption is a serious and deeply rooted problem in Iraq and will certainly take time to be solved, if that actually ever happens, but average Iraqis need to see that the government tries to act in this matter.

Dealing with corruption is important as it would show politicians’ willingness to reduce the sense of alienation between them and the masses. Average Iraqis must feel that those in power, aside from caring for their personal wealth or career, give a thought or two for the fate of their fellow citizens, in whose name they govern the country. Dealing with those problems would reduce peoples’ dissatisfaction and vulnerability to be recruited by ISIS. 

Furthermore, the government in Baghdad needs to understand that after years of military conflicts and internal insurgency that have devastated the country, average citizens want to finally live the way people in other countries do – without fearing for their safety and with uninterrupted access to healthcare and education. So far, the level of public services provided by Baghdad (public transportation, healthcare, education) proves to dissatisfy people. Politicians must try to increase the level of public services and comprehend that responding to protests with violence and limitation of peoples’ rights is an easy way for Jihadists to gain momentum again as protectors of the civilians. 

Building on that, average Iraqis must not be left without any other choice but to join ISIS to ensure safety for themselves and their families. The government needs to increase the presence of the military in regions particularly endangered by re-emerging ISIS and do more to protect men, women, and children in war-torn regions. Leaving them vulnerable for the attacks of the IS’s dispersed cells makes them simultaneously vulnerable for joining its ranks, as explained before.

Civilians from areas that were captured by ISIS shall feel that they are of equal importance to fellow citizens living in other parts of the country and that they are welcome to live in Iraq. In order to dismiss the Jihadists’ argument that the government does not care for people that used to live under its rule and that it labels them all as terrorists too, destroyed towns, cities, and villages need to be rebuilt.

Finally, deradicalization programs for captured ISIS fighters and their families, as well as a popular deradicalization program for those that lived under ISIS’s rule may be of great importance. Along with such, there ought to be a national program teaching tolerance and explaining why it is necessary, especially in a country where a number of distinct religious and ethnic groups live together. Though essential, considering the history of Iraq and the dynamics of internal conflict, the last claim seems to be somewhat utopian.