The Islamic State’s Stalled Offensive in Anbar Province
In September, the Islamic in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) launched a devastatingly effective offensive in Iraq’s Anbar province that for a time masked the losses the group was experiencing elsewhere (see two previous WOTR reports on ISIL’s Anbar campaign). Beginning in late October, ISIL garnered even more headlines through its horrific slaughter of hundreds of members of the Albu Nimr, a Sunni tribe. However, there are signs that ISIL’s attempts to crush the Albu Nimr under its boot have backfired, instead stiffening the tribe’s resolve to fight the jihadist group. ISIL’s campaign in Anbar now appears stalled.
This report, which primarily draws from Arabic-language sources, provides a granular examination of how ISIL’s ongoing campaign in Anbar has developed since mid-October, when the last installment in WOTR’s series on the Anbar offensive was published.
Mid-October: ISIL on the March
Following the killing of Anbar provincial chief of police Ahmad Siddiq al-Dulaymi on Oct. 11, ISIL managed to swiftly overrun Camp Hit after the 300 remaining members of the Iraqi security forces (ISF) at the base undertook a “tactical retreat.” Faced with the prospect of ISIL control of Hit district, about 180,000 people fled en masse for areas that remained under control of the government of Iraq. The only exception was the al-Furat suburb on the eastern side of the Euphrates River, which remained under Albu Nimr control until Oct. 22.
Shortly after ISIL completed its seizure of Hit on Oct. 13, the group moved to secure the outlying villages of Bustamiyah, Sahliyah, Kassarah, Khazraj and Dulab along the western and southern ends of Hit district. ISIL’s move into these western areas was not simply opportunistic, but rather a critical part of the group’s designs to eventually stage a large-scale attack against Baghdad.
ISF responded to these losses by bombing Fallujah with barrel bombs, rockets, and heavy artillery, which at this point was more a sign of the Iraqi government’s anger at ISIL’s advances than a legitimate strategy to counter the group’s gains. The situation had deteriorated so significantly that Ali Hatim al-Sulayman, the emir of the Sunni-dominated Dulaymi tribal confederation, called for an “Arab intervention by land” to fight ISIL (almost certainly meaning a Saudi or Jordanian intervention). Meanwhile, the Sunni-dominated Anbar Provincial Council had grown so desperate that it openly pleaded for all available assistance, even from Iranian-backed Shia militant groups, such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, Badr Organization and the “Peace Brigades” (the most recent incarnation of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi). Such calls for help from Shia militant groups would have been inconceivable just months ago. There were also calls for U.S. military intervention, to include an American troop presence in Anbar.
ISIL also attempted to take the town of Baghdadi on the Euphrates River from Oct. 15-20, only to have its attacks repelled. ISF made another ground incursion into Fallujah on Oct. 15, likely as part of a continued effort to keep ISIL off-guard and unable to mount a ground attack into eastern Anbar.
The fall of Hit also corresponded with the movement of 3,000 ISIL fighters into the province from Syria after ISIL concluded ceasefires with major Syrian jihadist groups. These ceasefires allowed for a large-scale movement of fighters without jeopardizing ISIL’s holdings in Syria. During the early part of ISIL’s Anbar offensive, the field commander Umar al-Shishani utilized a small and light force. The influx of larger personnel numbers can be interpreted as ISIL reacting to the need to garrison its new holdings. It also represented a shift away from the hit-and-run guerrilla attacks that Shishani had been employing in Anbar, and a return to the conventional combat tactics that ISIL had been using elsewhere in Iraq and Syria.
But ISIL wasn’t the only actor attempting to react to the situation. An Oct. 16 meeting between ISF and two Sunni tribes (the Jughayfi tribe in Haditha and the Ubaydi tribe in Baghdadi) provided a framework for the intended establishment of a 3,000-strong brigade of local tribesmen. This brigade would be trained by U.S. advisers and have a common mission to defend the remaining free or contested villages of Hit district. The same day, 100 U.S. military advisers arrived at the Al Asad airbase and Camp Habbaniyah to begin training local tribesmen. This alliance among the ISF, the Jughayfi and the Ubaydi was spurred at least as much by necessity as it was altruism: Baghdadi was the last line of defense before the Haditha Triad.
ISIL Focuses on Capturing Amiriyah
On Oct. 16, ISIL began a large-scale assault southeast of Fallujah into Amiriyah. This assault was followed the next day by a multi-pronged attack against Ramadi, hitting Anbar Operations Command, Jazira, Tamim district and the Albu Ali Jasim tribal areas. ISF reinforcements backed by U.S. air support managed to defeat this latter ISIL advance and also relieve Amiriyah. This ended the immediate threat of ISIL overrunning Ramadi and also resulted in the recapture of the Albu Dhiyab tribal area. Part of ISIL’s failure may have been due to the penetration of its intelligence organization by Sahwa agents, as suggested by ISIL’s subsequent execution of members of an alleged spying cell.
On Oct. 20, ISIL assassinated Brigadier General Qays Turki, the commander of the First Brigade in Amiriyah, in a bid to decapitate and demoralize the town’s defenders. However, Shaykh Hamid al-Issawi readily assumed command of the anti-ISIL forces in the greater Fallujah area.
ISF’s efforts were able to significantly stabilize the situation in Ramadi, while the Albu Nimr tribe in al-Furat – supported by ISF – launched an attack back into Hit on Oct. 21. The Albu Nimr likely assumed it would receive the same kind of U.S. support that had been provided in Ramadi, as military advisers and four Apache helicopters had by that time arrived at the Al Asad airbase. This aid didn’t materialize. ISIL moved to attack al-Furat in force and sent 1,000 Albu Nimr militia members fleeing to Barwana. By Oct. 23, ISIL had taken complete control of al-Furat and Zuwayrah after local tribesmen found that their ammunition had run low. ISIL was, yet again, launching large-scale attacks against Amiriyah.
Why did ISIL throw so many of its troops at Amiriyah? The group was likely aware that the city and its adjacent location of Ferris Town was intended to serve as the centerpiece of a U.S. training and assistance campaign to essentially rebuild the Sons of Iraq under the framework of the new National Guard force. Despite ISIL’s efforts, by Oct. 28 the situation in Amiriyah had at least somewhat stabilized, and around 300 ISIL fighters had retreated back toward Fallujah. ISIL had failed for the time being. A measure of the growing confidence that Anbari tribal leaders felt in their situation can be seen in the fact that they rescinded their earlier request for Muqtada al-Sadr to send the Peace Brigades into Anbar.
The Massacre of the Albu Nimr
The first indications of ISIL’s decision to begin massacring the Albu Nimr emerged on Oct. 27, when press reports indicated that ISIL had rounded up the entire remaining civilian population of 1,500 families in Zuwayrah following its Oct. 23 capture of the village. These reports were followed by multiple grisly mass executions, stretching over a sustained period, of Albu Nimr captives.
The executions began on Oct. 29, when ISIL fighters first paraded more than 40 captured Albu Nimr fighters through the streets of Hit, then shot and killed them in the city’s central square in front of residents. The following day, ISIL publicly executed another 75 Albu Nimr tribesmen, forcing dozens of residents to watch as they shot the captives in their heads. In a separate incident from Oct. 30, a mass grave was uncovered in the Albu Ali al-Jasim area with 150 bodies of Sunni tribesmen and local police.
On Nov. 1, ISIL initiated a hunt for 500 Albu Nimr tribesmen with the intention of executing them – a sign that the group’s bloodlust was undeterred. The same day, the jihadist group executed around 50 civilians in Ras al-Maa and killed another 85 in Hit, while an additional 35 bodies were found in a mass grave in Hit. On Nov. 2, ISIL publicly executed 50 Albu Nimr tribesmen in Hit, and killed 67 more tribe members as they attempted to flee from the village of Al-Tharthar (which is located near Baghdadi). On Nov. 3, ISIL publicly executed 36 Albu Nimr civilians, including women and children, on the outskirts of Hit. On Nov. 4, ISIL executed 25 more tribesmen, shooting them at close range and dumping the bodies in a well. On Nov. 9, ISIL executed 70 Albu Nimr tribesmen in Hit district, then executed 16 more members of the Albu Nimr tribe on Nov. 13. ISIL killed another five members of Albu Nimr on Nov. 16, indicating that the massacres haven’t yet ended. In addition to these massacres, ISIL also confiscated the homes and property of the Albu Nimr tribal leadership in al-Furat. In total, ISIL massacred over 700 members of the Albu Nimr tribe in less than twenty days—and there may be further atrocities against the Albu Nimr that went unreported.
ISIL’s Campaign Loses Momentum
Despite ISIL’s attempt to break the Albu Nimr tribe’s fighting spirit by carrying out repeated slaughters, there is no evidence that they succeeded. To the contrary, one of the main results of ISIL’s atrocities seems to be a growing popular mobilization of support for the National Guard, with 2,000 tribesmen enlisting in Baghdadi, 400 in al-Asad, 3,000 in Ramadi and 500 in Amiriyah. The all-female Banat al-Haqq militia was also formed, an unfortunate necessity given ISIL’s treatment of the women it takes prisoner.
Rather than the tribes being beaten and broken, one of the current controversies between the U.S. and the Iraqi government is America’s perception that Iraq has been too slow in arming Anbar’s Sunni tribes—a sign of the tribes’ desire to return to battle. On Nov. 8, ISF from Baghdadi managed to recapture the villages of Yarzah, Jammalah, Shabaniyah and Albu Shatb on the outskirts of Dulab. By Nov. 14, ISF had successfully retaken Camp Hit and was moving toward Kubaysah.
The Nov. 7 U.S. airstrike against ISIL leadership in al-Qa’im is also worth noting. The strike occurred against an ISIL convoy of 40 vehicles in the Ramana section of al-Qa’im and was enabled by local intelligence provided to U.S. forces by anti-ISIL tribesmen. The confirmed dead included Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s top aide Abu Mus’ab al-Iraqi, ISIL administrator for al-Furat Abu Zahra al-Muhammadi, mufti of al-Qa’im Ahmed Awad and regional administrators Kanaan Abboud Mehidi and Walid Diab al-Ani.
ISIL made successful use of guerrilla tactics under Umar al-Shishani, but once these tactics proved successful the group shifted back to brute-force conventional onslaughts. Such onslaughts included human wave attacks that have cost it a significant amount of manpower, failed to achieve appreciable gains and in fact eroded some of the group’s advantages. ISIL’s mass slaughter of the Albu Nimr has not meaningfully curbed resistance to the group, and in fact seems to have persuaded a significant number of Anbari tribal leaders to put aside their sectarian prejudices out of fear for their lives.
ISIL has not in any way given up, but the view of the group as having overtaken Anbar and standing at the gates of Baghdad needs to be ratcheted back.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. FDD’s Oren Adaki contributed to the Arabic-language research for this article, while Bridget Moreng created the maps.