At the peak of ISIL’s military momentum in 2014, the Iraqi city of Haditha was in the middle of it all. From its northwestern tip, ISIL had seized areas that stretched to Aleppo. The group’s territorial depth east of the city extended to the Jordanian border. The militants also seized Tikrit, west of the city, and Baghdadi to its south. The group enforced a siege around the city that would last for two years.
Haditha’s remarkable resistance is even more impressive given that ISIL saw the city in western Anbar as a vital prize. In September 2014, ISIL tried to take control of the Haditha Dam, Iraq’s second largest hydroelectric facility after the Mosul Dam. In May 2015, ISIL’s takeover of Ramadi deepened Haditha’s isolation from the south.
But Haditha still survived the pressure from ISIL. In an audio statement released one month after ISIL took over Ramadi, ISIL’s former spokesman specifically mentioned Haditha as a top priority for the group. In particular, he singled out the Jaghayfa tribe that led the effort to protect the city.
“If we do overrun Haditha before they repent, we won’t spare anyone until it is said that there used to be Jaghayfa here and homes for Jaghayfa,” said Abu Muhammad Al Adnani, who was killed in an American attack in August.
Attempts to take the city further intensified after Adnani’s speech. As the operation to expel ISIL from Mosul enters its second month and the campaign to isolate Raqqa enters its third week, the story of little-known towns such as Haditha deserves attention. ISIL swept through cities such as Mosul and Raqqa with relative ease but, despite all odds, failed to take ones such as Haditha.
Since the group swept through Mosul and Raqqa in 2014, the question of how disadvantaged local resistance in towns such as Haditha managed to stop ISIL is rarely asked. But the question is the right one to ask today, if the full lessons from the past two years are to be learnt.
“Local” is the key word. Haditha suffered its share of bloodshed over the years since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Local fighters were also involved in the postwar insurgency but they later joined the American-backed Sunni movement to expel Al Qaeda in Iraq from Sunni towns. The town has since become a staunch opponent of the group.
Other Sunni areas went through a similar process. Ramadi, for example, was one of the centres of Al Qaeda when it announced, along with its allies, the Islamic State in Iraq in 2006. But after the Sunni uprising against Al Qaeda at the time, much of Ramadi developed an antibody against the group, which struggled to control it even though it tried incessantly for a year. Ramadi, however, fell in May last year after the local resistance was depleted amid reports that infighting with pro-government militias contributed to the collapse. In February, Iraqi authorities declared the city to be liberated.
For the people of Haditha and Ramadi, the fight against ISIL was theirs. They wanted to protect their areas from a group they knew very well. They also knew the social terrain and prevented ISIL from establishing influence within their society. Individuals who helped ISIL are discreetly named and shamed. Any presence for the group in their midst, however small, is seen as a threat. Since the Mosul operation began, ISIL again tried to enter the city as it did in adjacent Rutbah last month.
Haditha is just one example of local heroism. In Syria, for example, ISIL waged a relentless campaign since its rise in the country in 2014 to control Marea, a town in northern Aleppo. Like Haditha, Marea was besieged in May by ISIL after two years of frequent attacks to control the area, a gateway into Aleppo and not far from two key ISIL strongholds at the time, Al Bab and Dabiq. “During the siege, we were hit with 50 [ISIL] car bombs,” a local commander told the Daily Beast after the rebels broke the siege in June. “Each car was filled with 10 tons of explosive.”
Haditha and Marea were within ISIL’s field of operation at the peak of its military momentum in 2014. The two towns present a timely reminder about what it takes to defeat this organisation. There is no doubt that ISIL did its best to take these areas. It had the military advantage and territorial depth for several months to do so.
In Mosul and Raqqa, ISIL faced little or no local resistance. The failings of the Iraqi government and the behaviour of the police and military in Mosul are well known. The expulsion of the Syrian regime from Raqqa was made possible by rebels who were largely from outside Raqqa, which was a key factor that enabled ISIL to control the city and prevent the return of the rebels to it. The common thread in the stories of Haditha, Marea, Mosul and Raqqa is the local factor. The war against ISIL can only be won if locals feel invested in filling the void after ISIL and guard their areas against the return of a group they view as their enemy.
Hassan Hassan is a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror
On Twitter: @hxhassan