The Islamic State continues to show very significant resilience inside Iraq, undertaking a surge in attack activities in the second half of 2019 and the first quarter of 2020. According to the authors’ dataset, the number of reported Islamic State attacks increased from 1,470 in 2018 to 1,669 in 2019, with 566 reported attacks in the first quarter of 2020 alone.1 These national-level figures, supported by detailed qualitative and province-by-province breakdowns in the following sections, paint a picture of a militant organization that is reestablishing itself in Iraq, possibly drawing (in the authors’ assessment) on a cadre of experienced tactical leaders and bomb makers that returned from the Syrian battlefields in 2019.2 a As prior articles in CTC Sentinel have noted,3 the movement has undertaken an agile, fluid, and pragmatic shift back to insurgency in every area of Iraq where the group has lost physical control of populations and resources. In areas such as Diyala province, which this publication identified in 20164 as the likely future locus for Islamic State operations,5 the insurgency has been continuously operating since 2003 and is now recovering strongly, becoming the most active Islamic State wilaya (province) in 2019 and 2020.b
This article extends the metrics-based analysis used in two prior CTC Sentinel pieces in 2017 and 2018,6 adding a further year and a half of Islamic State attack metrics in Iraq, picking up from October 2018 (where the last analysis ended) to the end of March 2020.c As in the prior study, this article looks at Islamic State attacks in Anbar, Salah al-Din, Baghdad’s rural “belts,”d Nineveh, Kirkuk, and Diyala. To maximize comparability, this analysis used exactly the same data collection and collation methodologye as the December 2018 CTC Sentinel study. Attacks were again broken down into explosivef or non-explosive events, and also by the four categories of high-quality attacks (effective roadside bombings,g attempts to overrun Iraqi security force checkpoints or outposts,h person-specific targeted attacks,i and attempted mass-casualty attacks).j Like any set of attack metrics, this analysis is drawing on a partial sample, which probably favors more visible attacks types (explosions, major attacks) over more subtle enemy-initiated actions (such as kidnap or intimidation). Nevertheless, much can be learned from the immersive, manual coding of thousands of geospatially-mapped attacks.
In the following sections, the authors will look at national attacks trends, then proceed governorate-by-governorate to view the variegated nature of attack trends in different tactical environments, and finally review qualitative trends in attack quality and discuss the possible factors behind the Islamic State’s partial recovery inside Iraq.