Late in June 2014, the spokesman of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) issued a video footage announcing a name change, from the widely used the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” to only the “Islamic State”. With the announcement of the “Islamic Caliphate”, Abubakar al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself a “Caliph and supreme” of such a state. However, the state reduced to only some pockets of land without controlled a population or resources in a matter of four years.
ISIS has reemerged once again, in the disputed areas between Erbil and Baghdad this time, Kirkuk in its core. The revival might be only a retaliatory measure against its losses of 35 welayats (provinces) in Iraq and Syria, while it was claiming to “stay and expand” at first.
The return of ISIS, and similar groups as “White Caps” to the disputed territories has taken multiple forms: checkpoints, abduction, bombing, especially in Kirkuk which suffers from lack of coordination between Baghdad and Erbil after the withdrawal of peshmerga on 16 October 2017. The revival came as a shock for security observers and analysts, as they were expecting to see some revival from Anbar and the desert, which ISIS has kept a foothold on both sides of Iraq-Syria border as the last formally-controlled area of their state.
ISIS actively exploits the crises, as the region suffers from a deep constitutional and ethnic dilemmas, which causes a further rift among divided components
However, some analysts suggested a new capital for ISIS, Kirkuk, after their moves in the suburban areas and the mass displacement of Kakaiyis. ISIS actively exploits the crises, as the region suffers from a deep constitutional and ethnic crises, which causes a further rift among divided components. Others believe ISIS wants to reach the security belt of Samarra through south and west of Kirkuk, an area which prevented ISIS from reaching Baghdad in 2014. Another view is that ISIS wants to take hold of the sacred Shia shrines in Samarra, to escalate sectarian strife as it failed to do so in Salahadin.
The former governor of Ninewa Atheel al-Nujaifi claims to have intelligence that 700 ISIS militants are present in Iraq, in the provinces of Ninewa, and Salahadin. The militants are said to be scattered around different bases and headquarters in these two provinces, with having communication with their Syrian comrades, along with their sleeper cells in other Iraqi cities.
al-Nujaifi, accused by parliament to have had a partial responsibility in the fall of the city, claimed that ISIS is waiting for the development of the current crises, to exploit them once again. Both al-Nujaifi and some extremist experts view the disputed areas as a new platform for the ISIS to grow, right after losing the sectarian card in the Sunni regions due to the unifying voice of Iraqi people in those areas to confront ISIS.
Hisham al-Hashmi, an expert in extremist groups, claim that these areas are Sunni Arabs, living along with other components, Kurds, Turkmens, Yazidis, Shabaks and Kakaiyis. The urban areas are populated with open middle-class societies, with merchants and professionals. However, suburban areas are populated with tribal and semi-feudal communities and religiously conservative communities, with their dependence on agriculture. As change makes a slow pace in these areas, Sunni extremism has emerged, which attempts to retrieve caliphate through its extremist interpretation and narrative, inspired by the other extremist experiences throughout the region since 2003.
The Iraqi government plan to end ‘the triangle of death’, where ISIS militants have emerged once again, is at best controversial
The reemergence of ISIS coincided with a delicate period for PM Haidar al-Abadi, as he approaches the end of his tenure. The developments turned to a huge embarrassment for him, as he took part in the elections of 12 May 2018 with the motto of “Victory”. The abduction of six people on Kirkuk-Baghdad road was a security challenge with political connotations for him, with later developments of bombings in Kirkuk, all with a trademark of ISIS. Amidst such confusions, he called for calm and “not amplifying” ISIS activities, as he accused his rivals of “fragility” right before the decree of the judicial body to execute 13 people on terrorism charges. As a retaliatory measure, his government coordinated with the international coalition to attack ISIS in Hamrin hills, which was a mere imitation of the Egyptian style, by a series of executions and retaliatory attacks in Sina desert. The following airstrikes in and outside of the country, was another case of imitating Egypt, as the latter conducted such operations in Libya when some ISIS affiliates attacked a bus full of Copts in June 2017.
The Iraqi government plan to end ‘the triangle of death’, marking an area from Salahadin to Kirkuk, Baiji, Hamrin and their environs where ISIS militants have emerged once again, is at best controversial. Such a move requires the support of the local population and coordination between Baghdad and Erbil. After the withdrawal of peshmerga, Kurdish component may well feel abandoned, while they were in control for years until October 2017.
While security was the major pillar of a-Abadi’s campaign, decrease in oil price, and sporadic attacks could make these regions even more unstable, preventing him from returning to power in a duration needed to make a move. al-Abadi also backtracked from the significant concerns of corruption and better services, due to political rivalries, in an extent where Najaf clergymen expressed discontent. However, some attempt to use all of it against al-Abadi and his return to power.