War, Interrupted, Part I: The Roots of the Jihadist Resurgence in Iraq


Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series.


A popular narrative holds that the surprising recent events in Iraq can be attributed mainly to the unraveling of Syria. The story goes something like this: beleaguered in Iraq since 2008, the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq moved into Syria once the rebellion against Assad started. They grew to dominate the eastern part of the country, where they developed expertise in conventional fighting with heavy weapons captured from the Assad regime. They then turned back to Iraq with a small army that took Mosul and other major cities in June of 2014. This ability to transition from Syria to Iraq was enabled by the mismanagement of sectarian relations by Nouri al Maliki, whose abuse of power as Prime Minister drove Iraq’s Sunni population into the arms of the Islamic State. This narrative affirms global concerns about the effects of allowing ungoverned spaces, as well as regional concerns about the sectarian divide between Shia and Sunni that the Syrian conflict has exacerbated.

While there are elements of truth in this narrative, it is just part of a picture, one constructed by connecting the dots from events that we can observe, rather than from a careful analysis of the group known as the Islamic State. Consider another possibility: the Islamic State’s resurgence since 2010 in both Iraq and Syria is the result of a carefully crafted plan. The Islamic State counteroffensive in Iraq, conducted under the noses of a waning U.S. presence in the country, created conditions for the Islamic State to establish a new political coalition that remains intact to date. The high-level of military excellence achieved by the Islamic State in their campaign as much as any political factor, has influenced their return and creates a host of challenges for the military, intelligence, and diplomatic professionals tasked with their defeat.

The idea that military excellence at the tactical and operational level can have a large impact has become slightly controversial. It certainly does not reflect the experiences of the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan, where tactical and operational adaptation and excellence did not translate into durable strategic success. Salvation only arrived when U.S. commanders aligned and bolstered a grass-roots movement – the Awakening –among the political minority – the Sunni Arabs – that committed to securing its neighborhoods, and killed, captured, or drove jihadist fighters out of the populated areas they thrived in. Well described in a recent book called Fallujah Redux, a key to this success was recruiting high-quality local leaders to fill the roles of mayors, police chiefs, army commanders, and auxiliaries willing to risk all to fight the Islamic State. It is not an exaggeration to say that by 2006, the American military learned how to balance military objectives with adeptness in local politics in order to produce the security that is so necessary for a political solution.

By 2010, a competitive election with high Sunni turnout and non-sectarian voting patterns coincided with the killing of the top two leaders of the Islamic State in Iraq, Abu Hamza al Muhajir and Abu Omar al Baghdadi. These achievements fueled the belief that while there was still work to be done, a tipping point had been reached. Security incidents were at an all-time low, and this fed a weakness in the American way of war – the grasping for a tidy ending. The shock of sudden success encouraged the United States to move quickly and decisively toward the door without deep consideration of several important issues: What would be the fate of the Sunni leaders who fought the Islamic State? How would they integrate into their government, and how would the enemy react? Their opponents, the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq, had a much different perspective about military efficacy and a better appreciation for the ebb and flow of warfare.

The Return of the State

How long are you [Awakening members] going to live in fear?  No one among you dares to leave his house, travel, or even sleep peacefully in his own home.  When will you enjoy peace again?  How long are you going to stay alert day and night?  Do you think we will go away?  Do you think we will cease to exist or get bored?  No! – Abu Mohammed al Adnani, spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq, 1 August 2011.

In Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy, WOTR contributor Steven Metz described strategy as a contest between antagonists that are seeking every advantage over the other. What seems like a simple path to success will be countered and frustrated at every turn by the opposing side, and this is what makes strategy formulation difficult. The American change in strategy that led to the “surge” was able to generate great success in the short term. This success, like all, was temporary and subject to a reaction by our opponents. The tactic of using local Sunni tribes to secure their local areas and reconcile with the Iraqi government was effective in reducing violence, but how did the Islamic State deal with this setback, which was nothing less than a major military, political, economic, and psychological defeat? Their identity as the vanguard of the Sunni nation was discredited, and their soldiers in the field were hunted and displaced from areas that had been under their control since 2004.

The Islamic State constructed a new military campaign dedicated to defeating America’s Sunni allies, and undercutting the leadership of the security forces with the most successful assassination campaign since the Viet Cong’s attack on the Diem government in 1959-1960. To paraphrase political scientist Stathis Kalyvas, successful insurgents use discriminate violence in contrast to the indiscriminate techniques often used by their government opponents, and the Islamic State understood this imperative. The purposes of the Islamic State’s campaign were to punish those that worked against them, to deter those who would take up arms against them (whether Sunni or Shia), and to recruit a political base from the Sunni community that would work with the Islamic State willingly or unwillingly. Key to achieving those objectives would require: 1) establishing sanctuaries in their former core areas after careful elimination of Awakening members, 2) recruiting experienced fighters that could contribute immediately, and 3) a slow rollback of Iraqi security forces to allow the “state” to expand its governing functions on behalf of the Sunnis of Iraq.

Repent and Reform

As for those who were misled by chieftains and members of our tribes and thus sided with the ranks of the Crusader United States and became servants and stooges of the Safavid government, I tell them that I swear to God you will not be harmed if you follow the truth and support the religion of God, just as you fought against it. Thus, repent and reform your mind because God will forgive you and replace your sins with good. – Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, emir of the Islamic State of Iraq, 21 July 2012

At first, the message the Islamic State had for the traitors among the ranks of the Sunni was an unwritten one: death at the hands of its assassins as it crept back into their former base areas. A multi-year campaign – from 2007-2010 – to kill key leaders of the Awakening and the Sunni Islamic Party members was eventually successful enough for the emir to moderate the message, and offer an opportunity for repentance for tribe members willing to confess their crimes and swear allegiance to the “State.” During this time period, Islamic State propaganda included this carrot-and-stick approach, showing repentance ceremonies of large groups of Sunni tribesmen and other video clips of confession/executions. The latter often contained pictures of the Awakening members with American benefactors of the past.

In the Sunni areas where the Iraqi government had little control, it did not take long for the Islamic State to slowly and methodically eliminate resistance one person at a time. For example, in the small but strategic town of Jurf ah Sakhar south of Baghdad, and on the Sunni-Shia fault line, there were 46 Awakening members reported killed between 2009 and 2013, in 27 different incidents. Most were shot singly or in pairs in the first three years of the campaign, and four were Sheiks from the local Janabi tribe and leaders of the council. By my count, 1,345 Awakening members across Iraq have been killed since the beginning of 2009, and this is a massive undercount as the data is only based on confirmed media reports of killings. More importantly, there are obvious patterns of activity that focus on the contested areas that the Islamic State wants to control.

While the killing of one of the founders of the Awakening, Abdul Sattar Abu Risha in late 2007, attracted some attention, most killings were barely noticed by the Iraqi government or in the media. This is despite the fact that the Islamic State proudly claimed such kills, albeit several months later, in their periodic operational reports. One example is the assassination of Samir Safwat al Hadithi, an elected official and member of the Sunni Islamic Party. The Islamic Party was considered by the Islamic State to be a group of Sunni collaborators working with the Iraqi government and in the same category of enemy as the Awakening. Unknown gunmen opened fire and killed Samir as he left his house the morning of February 18, 2009. His relatives thought it was sectarian: that Shia militias opposed to reconciliation killed him. An Iraqi political analyst opined that it was part of the rough and tumble politics among Sunni politicians, which seems extreme even by Iraqi standards. These guesses, as you probably have surmised, were wrong – the real culprit went unmentioned in the wide-ranging list of possibilities in the NPR piece. Weeks later, and apparently unnoticed, the Islamic State proudly claimed responsibility in a May 2009 statement posted on jihadist websites, naming Samir as a collaborator who deserved death – along dozens of other killings that took place in greater southern Baghdad during February and March.

By 2012, the highly discriminate campaign by the Islamic State to systematically weaken the Iraqi government’s police and intelligence services and its Awakening presence in Sunni areas was gaining rapid momentum and seeing excellent results. The influx of foreign fighters coming through Syria and an increase in local recruiting in Iraq requires a new influx of middle management. In Part II, the Islamic State comes up with a creative solution to this problem.

Note: The author uses the Islamic State in place of the various names of the organization that dates back to the founding of the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006. The forefathers of the Islamic State made their first presence known in August, 2003.


Craig Whiteside is an associate professor for the Naval War College, Monterey. The Iraqi Awakening partners of his former unit, 1-501 Parachute Infantry, are gone. He will defend his dissertation, “The Smiling, Scented Men: The Political Worldview of the Islamic State of Iraq, 2003-2013,” at Washington State University in November 2014. You can contact the author at cawhites@nps.edu with questions about the research above or on Twitter @CraigAWhiteside