ISIL sleeper cells in Iraq are a warning sign the extremist group is already reforming

To secure the future of the country, different Muslim communities must not give in to divisive narratives

Iraqis pass destroyed buildings in the old city of Mosul on March 14, 2018, eight months after the Iraqi government forces retook the city from the control of the Islamic State (IS) group. / AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE
Powered by automated translation

For observers focusing on Iraq, the following argument often made in Washington’s policy circles about the future of the country might be a familiar one: the political system in Baghdad, put in place by the United States in 2003, has finally a real chance to be consolidated, resulting in more stability than at any other time over the past 15 years.

According to those advocating the argument, the war against ISIL has created a reality in which the Shia majority is now more able than ever to control all of the country. The argument attributes instability in Iraq over the years to Sunni rejectionist politics. Sunni rejectionism, to proponents of the idea, has created space for groups such as ISIL throughout Iraq and led to political stagnation in Baghdad.

Today, they argue, the situation has changed dramatically. Sunni rejectionists, often used as a shorthand for any person opposed to the Shia dominance in Baghdad, have been crushed. Sunnis, according to the argument, lost the bet they had placed on the rise of ISIL in the summer of 2014 to reclaim a larger place for themselves in Iraqi politics. The result is an empowered majority that could potentially take its rightful place as the leaders of Iraq.

The implication of the argument, which has been cited to the author by officials in Washington as an idea often advanced by Iraqis, is that the US must focus on supporting the historic chance rather than instating demands for political reforms that could only add to the stagnation. The idea also appeals to the basic political instincts of any official who wishes that the moment of a true “mission accomplished” is finally in the horizon.

But this is a dangerous argument. The narrative is based on a flawed logic as well as a tendency to overstate the ability of the Shia majority to sustain order beyond the relative calm that naturally follows extreme violence. It is simply a shortsighted and incomplete view that mischaracterises the situation in Iraq.

First, the argument oversells the military victory against ISIL, echoing pronouncements of victory in Baghdad that have proven premature in recent weeks. Generalisations based on often temporary calm that follows major battles, which result in one side losing militarily, are frequently made in Iraq. An obvious example were the years that followed the defeat of ISIL’s predecessor in 2008, the Islamic State of Iraq, when similar statements were made by American and Iraqi officials: that the group was widely discredited, had broken apart and would not be able to find sanctuary within Iraqi communities.

As ISIL lost Mosul and Anbar, ordinary Iraqis were led to think that the group was finished, only to see a surge of attacks or signs of recovery in the early weeks of this year. The popular backlash led Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi to accuse his political opponents of amplifying terror attacks to score gains in the upcoming election.

As per ISIL's own publications, initial periods of inactivity in areas liberated by government forces usually include what the group refers to as a process of "rasd", or scoping. Militants or sleeper cells who remain in the area would attempt to familiarise themselves with the terrain after pro-government forces have seized it. They would look for gaps and learn the habits and routine of these forces before they launch their well-advertised campaign of attrition, referred to as "nikaya".

This process is already in place in much of Iraq. It can be discerned in areas from which the group had been expelled early on, such as in Diayala and Salahaddin, or where security gaps have been created, such as in Kirkuk. Senior officials in Washington recognise that militants still operate in areas officially announced as liberated, such as in the Syrian city of Abu Kamal in Deir Ezzor province.

These patterns are expected to increase, not decrease, with time. Indications suggest the group is overcoming the disruptive period that accompanied the military momentum, with hundreds of its fighters reportedly moved to safe areas in neighbouring countries as well as other parts of Syria and Iraq. It will be a matter of time before the militants, having learned the patterns of their enemies, will begin to return to vulnerable areas to reconstitute themselves.

Politically, much of the argument about an ascendent majority and a crushed minority is speculative. Advocates of this narrative cite as evidence the desperation of Sunni civilians who merely wish to return to their areas and find a corner in their destroyed house to sleep. This is sometimes undeniably true. But desperation to return to one’s home, to bury the dead or to open a shop to make a living should not be mistaken for acceptance of those in charge.

In an interview in late 2016, former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki echoed this argument. He said Shia people should now manufacture a new political class of Sunnis, consisting of those who worked with the Shia during the campaign against ISIL and should reject the return of other Sunnis who traditionally opposed their rule in Baghdad. To him, only those who accept being political subordinates to a majority should be welcome in the system.

The narrative also overlooks the pivotal role of the US air force in the defeat of ISIL. Iraqi security forces have come a long way since the embarrassing defeat in 2014 and are better prepared to repel attacks against key places like Baghdad. But they are far from being able to secure all of Iraq. This shortcoming will undoubtedly become more apparent with time.

Fifteen years after the invasion of Iraq, shortsighted arguments that mischaracterise and simplify the upheavals that Iraqis of all stripes have gone through only promise to perpetuate the suffering. Policymakers in Washington would do better to favour the lessons of history over wishful thinking based on temporary impressions.

Hassan Hassan is co-author of the New York Times bestseller ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror and a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Washington DC