IRBIL, Iraq – The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an al-Qaeda splinter group with a goal of creating a new country based on a radical interpretation of Islamic law, has launched a major campaign to establish control of territory in several provinces of Iraq.
For more than a year, the group, known as ISIS, has shown a rising determination to undermine the Iraqi state while building its military capacity through jailbreaks and recruiting drives. The organization began in Iraq, but fueled by the civil war in neighboring Syria, it has expanded its ambitions to encompass both countries.
The militant group has claimed responsibility for many, though not all, of the hundreds of attacks that have claimed more than 6,200 lives this year in Iraq, the worst violence since 2008.
Now the group appears to be entering a new phase of its evolution. In some parts of Syria, it already claims to be setting up the rudimentary elements of government — including courts, schools and civil bureaucracies — and it appears to be making a bid to do the same in Iraq.
“We’re seeing sustained gun battles with Iraqi security forces,” said Jessica Lewis, research director of the Institute for the Study of War, who has studied the resurgence of the group that began by calling itself al-Qaeda in Iraq. “This shows they want to stay, to stake out their turf. If you’re moving in on a territory, this is what you do.”
The group’s latest major attack, in downtown Kirkuk this past week, lasted more than 12 hours and left at least 10 people dead, according to several local security officials, who insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the news media. The operation, for which ISIS has claimed responsibility, showcased extensive training, ruthless motivation and tactical sophistication.
The assault began at midday Wednesday, when an operative drove to the entrance of an intelligence headquarters and blew up his explosives-laden car. A second attacker followed on foot, spraying gunfire and then detonating a suicide vest.
As snipers fired from the roof of a nearby shopping mall, at least six attackers managed to breach a security cordon and enter the headquarters. The overwhelmed local police failed for several hours to gain control of the situation; televised footage showed officers peering around the corners of buildings and firing at the snipers without aiming.
When the fighting was finally finished, about 1 a.m. Thursday, the mall was engulfed in flames. In addition to those killed, at least 54 security personnel and 52 civilians were wounded.
The militant group refers to its would-be territory in Kirkuk as part of the “Daash Emirate,” which also includes neighboring Salahuddin and Diyala provinces. The campaign for the Daash Emirate has featured not only attacks on hard targets, such as the intelligence directorate in Kirkuk, but also a systematic program of intimidation against Iraqi security forces, government officials and their families.
Through late October and November, for example, militants launched several attacks against Iraqi army and police personnel in their homes around Kirkuk, according to Iraqi officers who declined to be named for security reasons. ISIS operatives have often spared their targets’ lives, the officers said, but have blown up their houses and warned their colleagues to leave the security forces.
Such attacks are part of a broader initiative that the group has dubbed “Soldiers’ Harvest,” Lewis said.
“Their goal is to get people to abandon the security forces,” she said. “Using their existing battalions, they can intimidate a lot of people with just a few bombs.”
As a result, some soldiers have left their posts and morale has suffered. With fewer men to guard checkpoints and patrol the provinces, militants from the group have been able to increase the pace and size of their attacks — and not just around Kirkuk.
Iraq’s western desert in Anbar province, which has a long and porous border with Syria, has been dubbed the “Jazeera Emirate.” Militants have launched an especially relentless wave of attacks on the city of Fallujah over the past two months, including the assassination of its mayor, Adnan Hussein, who was shot Nov. 13 by a rooftop sniper.
“Al-Qaeda controls 40 percent of the desert area of Anbar province,” said Sabah Karhout, the chairman of the Anbar Provincial Council.
Iraqi security forces have struck back, but — in a stark contrast to when they were working in concert with U.S. Special Forces — they have far less technological capacity to gather signals intelligence and less analytical capacity to assemble different bits of information into clear pictures that would help them plan operations.
Instead, they often appear to be relying on blunt tactics that threaten to alienate the local population. After the killing of Fallujah’s mayor, for example, police arrested about 400 people and held many of them for more than two weeks without charges, according to families of several of the detainees.
In Kirkuk, the security response has also been complicated by a long-standing dispute among several ethnic groups, including Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, that lay competing claims to the same land. The deployment of security forces is influenced not only by imperatives of public safety but also by the political and territorial aspirations of their commanders.
On Wednesday, as it became clear the local police were overmatched, the Arab-majority 12th Division of the Iraqi army, stationed at the nearby Kirkuk air base, offered to respond, according to a member of the division. But Kirkuk Gov. Najmaldin Karim, a Kurd, declined, opting instead to bring a Kurdish special forces team from Sulaymaniyah, which had to travel about two hours to reach the scene.