This essay highlights indicators that post-ISIS insurgencies are forming and that al Qaeda is present in Iraq. ISW (Institute for the Study of War) forecasted on November 30, 2016 that Iraq will likely face a renewed Sunni insurgency as military operations diminish ISIS’s hold in Mosul. The U.S.-backed Coalition has been focused only on eliminating ISIS, not other insurgent groups or the conditions that grow them. Political conditions therefore permit an insurgency to take root. Iraqi insurgent groups that predated the rise of ISIS remain active, even though ISIS has tried to suppress them. These groups have publicized their intent to revive a resistance movement against the Iraqi state. It is too soon to assess whether these insurgent groups will operate under a national umbrella.
ISIS, nevertheless, continues to be active and capable of conducting spectacular attacks in Iraq and will remain so for months, despite its losses elsewhere in the country. ISIS launched a series of deadly attacks in Baghdad over the New Year holiday and has demonstrated its ability to attack disperse areas of Iraq, including Kirkuk, Tikrit, and Samarra, since operations in Mosul began in October 2016. ISIS, however, may begin to alter how it carries out attacks in Iraq as the group transforms from a governing to a guerrilla style terrorist organization. This shift will make attribution of attacks difficult, especially if signature capabilities erode or attack patterns change.
Recent anomalous attacks, therefore, need to be assessed equally as possible indicators that non-ISIS insurgents are already conducting attacks in Iraq and as indicators that ISIS is changing tactics or losing capabilities.
AQ (al Qaeda) is likely to build upon or co-opt already present insurgent groups. AQ did so in Iraq between 2004 and 2006, and in Syria from 2011 to today. It may try to unify disparate Iraqi insurgent groups, as it did in 2006 under the Islamic State of Iraq. It has likewise been trying to unite groups in contemporary Syria by establishing military councils and merging with local groups. The current insurgent elements in Iraq may be too ideologically and geographically dispersed to create a national movement in the wake of ISIS; their attempt to do so in January 2014 after the fall of Fallujah to ISIS likewise failed. This vulnerability could accelerate AQ’s cooptation or establishment of an affiliate in Iraq more quickly than did ISIS in 2013 or AQI in 2004. Iraqi insurgent groups’ residual antipathy to AQ or ISIS, dating from the Awakening in 2007 and the current situation, may dampen AQ’s success, however.
AQ’s efforts to rebuild its networks in Iraq will occur at a local level. We should expect AQ to interfere in local politics, especially as provincial and parliamentary elections approach in 2018. It may try to establish an assassination campaign against local politicians or tribal leaders, undermine the electoral process, or portray it as an ineffective method to address grievances. AQ and Sunni insurgents are likely to attack campaign rallies and voting stations. Changes in Sunni tribal relations and alliances may also indicate that AQ is leveraging its tribal connections and know-how to revive networks and increase its position. It may try to play tribes against each other, as it did in al-Qaim in 2007, or it may use inter-tribal disputes, such as the ongoing rivalry within the dominant Jubur tribe in northern Iraq, to eliminate resistance.