Examining the Causes of the Islamic State’s Resurgence in Iraq


Originally written for Tahrir Souri – Hasan Mustafa

You can also download the report here.


ISF = Iraqi Security Forces

ISI = Islamic State of Iraq

ISIS = Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham

JAN = Jabhat al-Nusra

JRTN = Jaish Rijal al-Tariq Naqshbandi (Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Way)

JSOC = Joint Special Operations Command

VBIED = Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (colloquially known as car-bombs)

Examining the Causes of the Islamic State’s Resurgence in Iraq

In 2011 an article in the New York Times confidently asserted that the Islamic State of Iraq was “unlikely to regain its prior strength,” in reference to its peak in the Sunni insurgency of 2006 [1]. Analysts who subscribed to such thinking are being forced to eat their own words today as the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) has surpassed its prior strength and is among the most powerful militant groups in the world. Indeed, ISIS now controls vast swathes of territory and runs a pseudo-state in north-eastern Syria and western Iraq.

On June 9th 2014, fighters belong to the ISIS launched an attack on Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. By midday June 10th, the ISIS was in control of much of Mosul as resistance from Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) seemingly melted away. Tikrit was also reportedly seized on June 11th. In addition to these prizes, the ISIS has seized control of the entirety of the Nineveh Governorate, large parts of the Anbar Governorate including Ramadi and the infamous city of Fallujah, as well as parts of the Salaheddin and the Kirkuk Governorates. Under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, there is no doubt that the Islamic State has made a stunning comeback in Iraq. In its nadir in 2010, the organization had dwindled to only 200 “hardcore” fighters [2]. A far cry from the situation today where ISIS is able to control territory and exercise effective denial of area against the ISF. The Islamic State’s meteoric rise is not without explanation as many competing factors have contributed to this reinvigoration. Most prominent among these factors is Sunni marginalization by the Iraqi government, the extreme incompetence of the Iraqi Security Forces and a major change in ISIS operational tactics.

Origins and Resurgence:

The organization was originally created as Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Group for Monotheism and Jihad) by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and was dedicated to establishing an Islamic State in Jordan (where Zarqawi hailed from). The group eventually moved operations into Iraq and in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion, developed a powerful militant network. In 2004 Zarqawi pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden and changed the group’s name to Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (Organization of Jihad’s Base in the Land of Two Rivers), more commonly referred to as Al-Qaida in Iraq. In 2006 the group joined with a number of other insurgent brigades to form the Mujahideen Shura Council. In the same year, they declared the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) along with four other insurgent groups and Sunni tribes. At the height of the insurgency in 2006-2007, the ISI enjoyed powerful capabilities and was a dominant force among Sunni militant groups. However the group was dealt a blow with more refined counter-insurgency operations by the United States and the ISF. Much of the group’s leadership was annihilated in the years following 2007 by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). 34 out of 43 of the group’s leaders had been killed off [3]. An American troop surge along with a Sunni tribal uprising against the ISI (termed the Anbar Awakening) effectively defeated the Islamic State of Iraq. By the time US forces in Iraq withdrew in late 2011, the ISI had broken down into isolated cells and local units with no centralized command structure. The group’s VBIED network also had dwindled down, and there was a nearly 50 percent decrease in the number of ISI attacks in Iraq from 2007 to 2008[4].

However as seen today the group eventually reformed its capabilities, rebuilt its VBIED network and established a centralized command structure. In 2012, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the “Breaking the Walls” campaign, a year-long series of prison breaks that greatly increased jihadist ranks. With the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War the group expanded operations and once again changed its name, now known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham. Flush with weapons and recruits from Syria, the ISIS spearheaded a major offensive in Anbar in early 2014. The ISIS now enjoys a considerable level of support and numerous Sunni tribes have pledged their allegiance to the organization. Furthermore, the ISIS split with Al-Qaida’s central leadership over its dispute with Jabhat al-Nusra, and has now become the foremost jihadist organization in the world. A comeback that defies belief in the span of a few short years has numerous underlying and intertwined causes.

Factors for Resurgence:

Incompetence of Iraqi Security Forces:

More credit should be granted to the incompetence of the ISF than to any particular strategy on part of the ISIS. However one should not wholly disregard the strategic genius of the ISIS leadership or the zealous dedication of their fighters. In an interview with the Musings on Iraq Blog, analyst Alexandre Massimo stated that in the wake of the US-led Coalition pullout, the Iraqi Government failed to continue the highly successful counter-insurgency programs that decimated the power of the ISIS in Anbar [5]. US troops no longer provided an “advise and support” role, and as such the ISF resorted to ineffective tactics such as reactionary search and raid operations, inefficient clearing operations on large-scales and static defense of fixed points. Iraqi Security Forces failed to absorb effective counter-insurgency doctrines into their military culture, and instead began relying on obsolete counter-insurgency tactics typical of Middle-Eastern militaries. Namely utilizing brute force operations to clear areas of insurgents. The ISF were quite capable of driving insurgents out of an area; however they were unable to hold their gains effectively as insurgents quickly re-infiltrated, as was witnessed in Ramadi and Fallujah.

Without American forces providing aid through joint operations or aerial reconnaissance/surveillance, the ISF was unable to carry out the population-centric counter-insurgency engagements that were effective in securing both Anbar and the rural Baghdad belts in 2007. Furthermore they lacked an effective aerial strike component, relying on a small force of ground-attack aircraft and attack gunships. This lack of air superiority by the ISF has allowed the ISIS to operate with extreme liberty in much of Iraq. Without air cover, fire support, and efficient intelligence gathering, the ISF was unable to execute the rapid-response operations that had allowed JSOC to grind away much of the ISI command.  The ISF failed to synchronize airstrike and fire support with ground operations and lacked the capability to carry out special operations raids that had decimated the VBIED network [6]. With no further pressure from JSOC attacks, the ISI was comfortably able to reconstruct its militant network across Iraq.

Massimo further states that the ISF logistics system broke down after the American withdrawal and that ISF units in Anbar reportedly suffer chronic ammunition shortages. This has led to numerous desertions and extremely low morale among the Iraqi army.  In a series of interviews with the New York Times, ISF officers and soldiers had reported that desertion had become widespread with thousands leaving their posts [7]. Deserting soldiers left behind weapons, uniforms and warehouses full of heavy weaponry. Before the Fall of Mosul, the ISF was reportedly losing 300 soldiers a day due to desertions and death. ISIS has also taken thousands of Iraqi soldiers captive in Tikrit. According to an Iraqi source close to Tahrir Souri nicknamed Mohammed, Iraqi intelligence knew of the attack on Mosul but nothing was done about it. As such when the ISIS did attack, they took the ISF by total surprise. Some units attempted to fight back but were ineffective and ended up taking the ISIS’ offer of a retreat, provided they left behind all equipment. Panic has spread among the officer corps leading to ill-advised retreats on almost every front, allowing ISIS forces to bear down upon the capital Baghdad. There appears to be total disarray within the Iraqi Security Forces and within all levels of the Iraqi defense establishment.

It is evident that the incompetence of the ISF, the ineptitude of its counter-insurgency doctrine and massive morale and desertion problems have all contributed greatly to the ISIS’ resurgence in Iraq. The lackluster and dismal performance of the Iraqi army may perhaps be the biggest factor allowing the ISIS to seize such vast swathes of territory. American attempts to provide Hellfire missiles and F-16 fighter jets will do little to improve the situation. Until an effective counter-insurgency doctrine is developed and implemented, the ISIS network will continue its operations unabated. If America does not wish to see Iraq fall apart on sectarian lines, more will have to be done in terms of direct support to the ISF. American airstrikes remain an option, however the Islamic State would have prepared for such an eventuality. Journalist Michael D. Weiss tweeted on June 13, 2014, “ISIS know how to hide from US airstrikes already. Remember when they all disappeared in Halab when they thought Obama would bomb [Syria]?” ISIS reportedly pulled units from Aleppo and dispersed its targets when America threatened airstrikes against the Syrian regime. In Iraq, America has understood the root of the problem, and the United States has asked Iraq to carry out political reform before any intervention takes place [8].

A Change in Tactics

While the Iraqi Security Forces moved from one blunder to another, the ISIS underwent a total revolution in their tactics and strategy. Analysts agree that the ISIS has developed a sophisticated and centralized command structure [9]. A shift in tactics has occurred, from armed attacks to assassinations and IED bombings. ISIS has carried out targeted killings with silenced weapons, a technique that was used to devastating effect against the Awakening Councils. They have also begun tailoring their mode of operation for each individual province and have made a number of changes to their nation-wide network. Furthermore, evidence has shown that the ISIS’ operational tactics adapt to different environments or even against different foes. Once again this is evidence of a top-down command structure with a coherent leadership. Instead of waging a protracted insurgency, the new tactics of ISIS include destruction of buildings, establishment of checkpoints, takeover of urban areas and complete control of territory. ISIS has begun effective denial of area against ISF, allowing it to set up its pseudo-state in earnest.  ISIS has also learned from its 2007 mistakes and welcomed former Awakening members who show repentance. Many tribes who have joined forces with ISIS previously fought against them. To add, many fighters within their ranks are hardened soldiers with years of combat experience in Iraq and Syria [10]. Several top commanders within ISIS were former Ba’athists who fought the US-led Coalition, such as Haji Bakr who was killed by the Syrian rebels.

A report in May by the Institute for the Study of War pointed out that while the media has focused on the ISIS’ successes in the Anbar Governorate, data collected shows that there is a ‘particular focus of activity’ against the Nineveh Governorate indicating a ‘designated main effort.’ Several weeks after the publishing of the report, ISIS captured the city of Mosul in the Nineveh Governorate.  The report concluded that the ISIS’ attacks are indicative of a phased campaign to wrest control of Iraq from the ISF on a ‘tactical and operational level.’ The shift in tactics is evidence of this as assassinations and target killings are an effort at attaining greater control, and control of checkpoints and cities is indeed another step in that direction[11].

The report further pointed out that this strategy is an ISIS version of the classic counter-insurgency tactic of ‘Clear-Build-Hold.’ Namely, ISIS wishes to clear territory of Iraqi forces, establish control of cities and implement their version of Sharia and governance. As such this shows that the ISIS is more than simply a terrorist-network but rather a sophisticated military organization that aspires to control territory and build a state.  The Islamic State fields a functioning army that now has taken control of a massive arms windfall. This evolution from a network of insurgent cells to the ISIS of today is one of the most important factors facilitating their rise. Evident to most, classic counter-insurgency doctrines will have little effect against the ISIS and the fact that the group is now a transnational ‘State’ will have to be taken into full account. Indeed, The ISIS has now begun taking steps to establish their State with social works and civilian services in their Syrian territories, even operating a Consumer Protection Authority to regulate markets [12]. This was however disputed in a Tahrir Souri interview with Raqqah-based activist Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi, who claimed ISIS has done little for the people of Raqqah.

Marginalization of Sunnis:

The root of the problem lies in the Nouri al-Maliki Administration’s failure to include Sunnis in the political process. In fact, the Iraqi government has continually sidelined and marginalized the Sunnis of Iraq (around 35% of the population) which has led to a feeling of alienation among the minority community. Such alienation has continually been on the rise since the US-led Coalition toppled Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime and facilitated its replacement by a Shia-dominated government. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made promises to include Sunnis and Kurds in a number of important government positions; however he failed to follow through on such promises and instead moved to dismiss Sunnis already in his cabinet[13]. This has been compounded by Nouri al-Maliki’s highly sectarian and militant rhetoric and policies. Sunni Arabs claim anti-terrorism laws are abused in order to detain Sunni leaders and the process of de-Ba’athification is a cover for further Sunni repression [14]. While the Sunni Awakening Councils played a large role in defeating ISI, many Awakening members feel they have been neglected by the Iraqi government and prevented from joining the Iraqi Security Forces. The government failed to integrate the Councils into the Iraqi Army as promised, and moved to repress them out of fear they would form a parallel military structure that would present an armed opposition. Bereft of funding and resources, Sunni tribes developed great animosity towards the central government and felt alienated. Multiplied by anger against corruption and a general disdain for the ineffective policies of the government, a total Sunni uprising is now building.

Protests first broke out when Maliki ordered the arrest of Sunni Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi. Many saw this as an attempt to further isolate Sunnis from the government. As a result protest camps were set up in Anbar cities demanding the resignation of Maliki and an end to what they feel are oppressive policies. Protests soon spread throughout Iraq, followed by clashes between the ISF and Sunni tribes. A reinvigorated ISIS took advantage of this security vacuum and reasserted itself. Alongside the ISIS, a number of Sunni insurgent groups such as the Sufi-Ba’athist Jaish Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshbandi (Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Way) began attacks against the Iraqi government. As such, what began as a protest movement against the marginalization of the Sunni minority quickly morphed into a full-blown insurgency in many parts of the country.

Meanwhile some claim that Maliki is allowing the extremist threat to fester in order to solidify his Shia support base. Regardless, the ISIS has taken advantage and is riding a wave of popular discontent with the Iraqi government. Their stunning success is simply a product of this, as many tribes have pledged their allegiance to ISIS and formed Tribal Councils with the intention of fighting the government. Many in Mosul even celebrated the takeover by ISIS and other insurgent groups, claiming that, “ISIS freed our women, innocents from prison. Maliki never did that[15]” When the ISIS stormed Mosul, local Sunni tribes immediately joined them. The Iraqi source close to Tahrir Souri, nicknamed Mohammad, reported that the tribes considered the Shia-dominated army “sectarian” and the government to be “racist.”

As such, much of Iraq’s current problems stem from the 2013 protest movements. The movement itself derived from the perceived persecution of Sunnis by the Iraqi government. Many see Maliki as a puppet of Shia Iran, an accusation that is increasingly spreading. Even amongst Shias, Maliki has faced opposition for his policies. Other groups like JRTN have formed convenient alliances with ISIS despite wildly differing ideologies. While ISIS fighters may be few in numbers, their ranks have been bolstered with reinforcements and auxiliaries from Sunni tribes. These tribes may be using the ISIS as leverage to negotiate a deal with the central government even if they themselves have little love for the ISIS. Either way, in order to rectify this conflict the Iraqi government will have to look at the root of the problem and include disenfranchised Sunnis in the political process, address the grievances of the Awakening Councils, and seek to placate the tribes.

The Appealing Ideology of ISIS

ISIS has develop its prowess in a more global sense through the appeal and clarity of its Islamist ideology. Al-Qaida previously disavowed any ties with the ISIS; however the latter has still come out as the most powerful jihadist group in the world. While the leadership of Al-Qaida Central is stuck hiding in Pakistani caves, ISIS is in the business of establishing the long-awaited Islamic Caliphate. All Al-Qaida franchises seek to establish the Islamic State, but the ISIS has already laid the foundations of one in northern Syria and western Iraq. Their current pseudo-state is one that Muslims from all over the world can join, fight for and attain martyrdom for [16]. Indeed, the ISIS has taken the bulk of foreign fighters wishing to wage jihad in Syria including thousands from the Western world. In the Syrian context, many in jihadist circles feel JAN has betrayed Islamic principles by allying with secular and democratic groups such as the Free Syrian Army. Most of JAN’s foreign fighters defected to the ISIS in the early days of their dispute and even today there are reports of constant JAN defections towards ISIS.

The Iraqi source close to Tahrir Souri nicknamed Mohammad, reported that “fearless Tunisian and Yemeni” foreign fighters spearheaded the assault on Mosul. Within ISIS ranks are hardened veterans of jihad from Afghanistan and Iraq, and the ISIS’ policies have sparked great debate among Islamists worldwide. Many feel that peaceful methods espoused by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood or Hizb-ut-Tahrir have failed and armed struggle is the only way to achieve the establishment of a Caliphate. As such the ISIS has attracted rich donors that share their puritanical version of Salafism, and who wish to back a state already in establishment. This influx of foreign fighters and donations has aided in the ISIS resurgence, allowing it to become the foremost jihadist organization in the world.

Compared to the modest goals stalwart jihadists such as Osama Bin Laden or Abdullah Azzam espoused, the ISIS represents a revolutionary new step in the global jihad. Al Qaida sought a gradual approach to the Caliphate and this was a point of dispute between Al-Qaida and the ISIS. This new generation of jihadists has proven to be the most skillful and dedicated. The ISIS has attracted the attention of young and budding supporters of jihad from the entire world with their sophisticated media network. Even if the ISIS is defeated militarily, they have sowed the seeds of an Islamic Caliphate that subsequent groups will continually attempt to establish.


From its defeat in 2007 at the hands of the JSOC and the Anbar Awakening Councils, ISIS has been resurrected from the ashes stronger than before. ISIS fighters have begun attacking the Iraqi capital of Baghdad and risk sparking another sectarian civil war. As the ISF has proven incapable of dealing with this threat, Shia militias are being reactivated while neighboring Iran is considering taking a greater role in the conflict.

The factors for the ISIS’ resurgence are many, and include incompetence by the Iraqi Security Forces, a feeling of Sunni marginalization and a general uprising against the Iraqi government, a shift in tactics used by the ISIS, and finally its appeal among jihadist circles. Ultimately all factors will have to be considered if the Iraqi government wishes to reassert control over their own country. However until then, the ISIS will continue operating with impunity and Iraq will continue its descent into sectarian chaos.


1Eric Schmitt and Michael Schmidt. Leaving Iraq, U.S. Fears New Surge of Qaeda Terror. The New York Times. www.nytimes.com. November 5 2011.

2 Schmitt and Schmidt.

3 Stephani Sanok Kostro and Garrett Riba. Resurgence of al Qaeda in Iraq: Effect on Security and Political Stability, Center for Strategic and International Studies.www.csis.org. March 4 2014.

4 Kostro and Riba.

5 Joel Wing. Iraq’s Deteriorating Security Situation Interview With Alexandre Massimo, Musings on Iraq. www.musingsoniraq.blogspot.it. June 4 2014.

6 Wing.

7 Kareem Fahim and Suadad Al-Salhy. Exhausted and Bereft, Iraqi Soldiers Quit Fight. The New York Times. www.nytimes.com. June 10 2014.

8 Karen Deyoung. U.S. won’t intervene in Iraq in absence of political reform by Iraqis, Obama says. The Washington Post. www.washingtonpost.com. June 14 2014.

9 Alex Bilger. ISIS Annual Report Reveals A Metrics-Driven Military Command. Institute for the Study of War. www.understandingwar.org. May 22 2014.

10 Wing.

11 Bilger.

12 Aaron Zelin. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Has a Consumer Protection Office. The Atlantic. www.theatlantic.com. June 13 2014.

13 Kostro and Riba.

14 Liz Sly. In Iraq, a Sunni Revolt raises specter of civil war. The Washington Post.www.washingtonpost.com. January 6 2014.

15Inside Mosul: Why Iraqis are celebrating Islamic extremists’ takeover of their city. Niqash. www.niqash.org. June 12 2014.

16 Hassan Hassan. Political reform in Iraq will stem the rise of Islamists. The National. wwwthenational.ae. June 11 2014.

Works Cited:

Bilger, Alex. “ISIS Annual Report Reveals a Metrics-Driven Military Command.”Institute for the Study of War. N.p., 22 May 2014. Web. 11 June 2014. <http://understandingwar.org/sites/default

Deyoung, Karen . “Obama says he will not send troops to Iraq but is considering ‘other options’.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, n.d. Web. 13 June 2014. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/kerry-says-us-will-act-soon-on-iraq-but-at-request-of-baghdad-government/2014/06/13/53ddc5f0-f2f9-11e3-9ebc-2ee6f81ed217_story.html&gt;.

Fahim, Kareem, and Suadad Al-salhy. “Exhausted and Bereft, Iraqi Soldiers Quit Fight.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 10 June 2014. Web. 14 June 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/11/world/middleeast/exhausted-and-bereft-iraqi-soldiers-quit-fight.html?ref=world&_r=0&gt;.

Hassan, Hassan. “Political reform in Iraq will stem the rise of Islamists | The National.” Political reform in Iraq will stem the rise of Islamists | The National. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 June 2014. <http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/political-reform-in-iraq-will-stem-the-rise-of-islamists&gt;.

“inside mosul: why iraqis are celebrating islamic extremists’ takeover of their city.”Niqash. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2014. <http://www.niqash.org/articles/?id=3458&gt;.

Kostro, Stephanie Sanok, and Garrett Riba. “Resurgence of al Qaeda in Iraq: Effect on Security and Political Stability.”Center for Strategic and International Studies. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2014. <http://csis.org/publication/resurgence-al-qaeda-iraq-effect-security-and-political-stability&gt;.

McGurk, Brett. “Al-Qaeda’s Resurgence in Iraq: A Threat to U.S. Interests.” U.S. Department of State. U.S. Department of State, 5 Feb. 2014. Web. 12 June 2014. <http://www.state.gov/p/nea/rls/rm/22127

Schmidt, Michael, and Eric Schmitt. “Leaving Iraq, U.S. Fears New Surge of Qaeda Terror.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 5 Nov. 2011. Web. 14 June 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/06/world/middleeast/leaving-iraq-us-fears-new-surge-of-qaeda-terror.html?pagewanted=all&gt;.

Sly, Liz. “In Iraq, a Sunni revolt raises specter of civil war.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, n.d. Web. 14 June 2014. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/in-iraq-a-sunni-revolt-raises-specter-of-new-war/2014/01/06/280f9216-7714-11e3-b1c5-739e63e9c9a7_story.html&gt;.

Wing, Joel , and Alexandre Massimo. “MUSINGS ON IRAQ.” : Iraq’s Deteriorating Security Situation Interview With Alexandre Massimo. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2014. <http://musingsoniraq.blogspot.it/2014/06/iraqs-deteriorating-security-situation.html&gt;.

Zelin, Aaron. “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Has a Consumer Protection Office.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 13 June 2014. Web. 15 June 2014. <http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/06/the-isis-guide-to-building-an-islamic-state/372769/&gt;.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s