Iraq's Relentless Insurgency

By Michael Knights

Last Monday, terrorist groups affiliated with al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) struck seven cities with 15 separate car bombings and attacks against security forces, civilian markets, and religious pilgrims. This strike was the first such large-scale coordinated attack in Iraq since August 2010, when AQI hit 12 cities across the country. Last week's attacks are undoubtedly worrying, because they signal that disparate insurgent cells spread across central and northern Iraq can, on occasion, coordinate their actions for added impact.

AQI's own national-level command disintegrated following the deaths in April 2010 of AQI leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and AQI minister of war Abu Ayub al-Masri. Since then, groups such as Jaish Rijal Tariqah al-Naqshabandi (JRTN), an insurgent movement led by former Baathist officers and officials, have filled the void. These groups play coordinating roles, commissioning attacks by AQI and nationalist cells across the country, boosting the number of attacks across north and central Iraq.

Yet a closer look at the phenomenon of car bombings in Iraq shows that facilitating groups such as JRTN are carrying out few spectacular, headline-grabbing strikes, and instead are focusing mainly on larger numbers of smaller attacks to position themselves for the post-U.S. era in Iraq.

To be sure, attempted mass-casualty attacks have increased this year, with the number of attacks averaging 13 a month in the first half of 2011, rising to 33 in the month of July alone, compared to 20 in July 2010. August's total such attacks will reach more than 40.

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But the attacks are becoming less lethal, with the number of suicide car bombs plummeting since the heyday of AQI. Only one in seven devices was detonated by suicide bomber in 2011. The use of unattended car bombs (in other words, those detonated by remote control) reduces lethality, as the explosives may not be detonated at the optimal location or time. Far more of these devices are discovered prior to detonation and disarmed, yielding valuable forensic intelligence. Moreover, the explosive yield of car bombs is much smaller than in previous years due to the difficulty of passing large devices through Iraq's numerous vehicle checkpoints. On August 25, 2010, each of the bombs accounted for an average of 9.6 fatalities; on August 15, 2011, the bombs killed an average of 4.2 people per device.

Coordinated attacks such as last week's bombings allow terrorist groups to attract international attention for a brief moment. The lethality of the bombings is of secondary importance; what these groups care about most is demonstrating their relevance, assuring their place in the post-U.S. pecking order of militant movements, and attracting funding. It appears that the August 15 bombings were the result of extensive planning to carry out a high-profile attack to coincide with the religious month of Ramadan, meant to highlight the breadth and cohesion of the insurgency.

Yet the vast majority of mass-casualty attacks in Iraq are not meant to attract international attention; they are local strikes by disparate cells. The choice of targets demonstrates how inward-facing political violence in Iraq has become. With some exceptions, most car bombings strike soft targets that are easy to attack, such as exposed Iraqi Security Force checkpoints, municipal buildings, and civilian markets. Whereas AQI, as recently as early 2010, tended to attack highly visible national targets such as hotels, government ministries, and media headquarters, most car bombings are now directed against Iraqis active in local politics, executed by terrorist cells based nearby. Insurgents are now focused squarely on the struggle for dominance of the neighborhood police force, the sub-district council, the district courtroom, or vital pieces of terrain with local significance. They are fighting to dominate local communities while the dysfunctional government is in flux, unable to appoint all its ministerial posts or pass vital legislation, and while the United States is in the middle of its withdrawal.

With the exception of anti-U.S. attacks carried out by Iranian-backed groups such as Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq (splinters from the Sadrist movement and the Badr political party with ties to Iranian intelligence services), the vast majority of violent actions in Iraq are no longer targeted against U.S. forces. Indeed, most violent factions are already looking well past the U.S. drawdown; the U.S. withdrawal will probably not unleash more violence because to many Iraqis, particularly insurgents, the U.S. military has already been gone for months, or even years in some areas.

The main event in Iraq, which was postponed for many years due to the U.S. presence, is the struggle among Iraqis to control the country. In today's Iraq, the most common forms of low-profile attacks -- far more numerous than the headline-grabbing bombings -- are drive-by shootings and bombs attached to the underside of personal vehicles. These attacks are largely contained within sectarian communities (Sunni against Sunni or Shia against Shia) and reflect the ultra-local struggle for dominance that is broiling throughout Iraq. Such attacks are by definition low-lethality: they are intended to intimidate as much as they are to kill. They are also the inevitable epilogue of a violent and protracted civil war in which some members of each community sided with the Iraqi government and the U.S.-led coalition while others backed the insurgency. Now the scores must be settled.

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Michael Knights is a Lafer fellow with The Washington Institute.

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