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keys to extremist victory in Iraq
sleeper cells, host networks and elite units

Daoud al-Ali
At the end of June, the Sunni Muslim extremist group that took control of parts of Iraq declared that it had founded a new Islamic nation, based on their own, hard line version of the religion. It's part of a long…
10.07.2014  |  Baghdad
The IS group's black flag on a Mosul overpass after they overran the city.
The IS group's black flag on a Mosul overpass after they overran the city.


On June 6, Sunni Muslim extremist fighters began to attack the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in revenge for the killing of a senior member of their organization, an offshoot of Al Qaeda then known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. By the early morning hours of June 10, the group, which has since changed its name to the Islamic State, or IS, was in control of a city of almost 2 million.

Since then the extremist organization has been described as disciplined, strategic and well organized by military analysts.

According to Iraqi analysts who have studied the group, in Iraq, the IS group relies heavily on an elite fighting force of around 1,800 men known as the Shield of Islam. It seems likely that the around a thousand fighters who entered Mosul to avenge the death of Abdul Rahman al-Beblawi, who headed the group’s military council and who was considered to be the IS group’s second in command, were part of that unit.

Most of the thousand or so men who entered Mosul city were known for their fighting prowess, their sophisticated weaponry and their extreme loyalty to the organisation and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Many of them are highly experienced fighters, having seen battle in Syria, and particularly around the Syrian city of Aleppo.

Once the city looked likely to fall to the IS group fighters, a further 800 or so militants emerged from inside Mosul. So-called “sleeper cells”, these militants had already been active in Mosul previously – the city is well known as a base for the Sunni Muslim extremist group in Iraq – and their job had mostly involved extorting protection money from local businessmen and anyone else who looked like they could afford it.

“Al-Baghdadi supervises this force directly and guides its movements around the clock,” senior forces in the Iraqi security service say of the Shield of Islam unit. “On June 10, the day that the Iraqi army withdrew completely from Mosul, the Shield of Islam forces got orders from al-Baghdadi that they should occupy Mosul and announce a new wilaya [or city council] for Mosul.”

“The strike force belonging to the IS group also relies heavily on another network,” explains Hisham al-Hashimi, a researcher into armed militias in Iraq who also advises the Iraqi government. “It’s called Madafat [guest houses] and it’s an institution that provides fighters with accommodation, food and all of the documentation they might need to facilitate their movement. The IS group believes this network of hosts plays a big part in their victory.”

Often the individuals facilitating the Madafat network have also fought for the IS group in other areas, al-Hashimi says.

According to al-Hashimi there are three different parts to the IS group’s fighting force. There are the suicide bombers – although they wouldn’t be called this as a group because suicide is anathema in Islam – and they go by numbers, rather than names. The numbers are drawn in a deadly lottery to decide which bomber will carry out any particular mission. Then there are the elite fighters and then the more traditional infantry-style militias.

Much of the IS group’s recent strategy in Iraq has involved their elite strike force entering a city and occupying it for a short time, before passing the reins to members of the sleeper cells already inside the city. “Waking up” the sleeper cells must be done at exactly the right time and can be dangerous – this gives the first attackers more impetus.

After this, locals in the sleeper cells apparently take over; for example, a few days after the IS group entered Tikrit, a number of armed factions met at a city mosque to pledge allegiance to IS leader al-Baghdadi. It is well known that while the sleeper cells are important, they do not have total control of IS’ territory – this role remains in the hands of IS insiders.

However it also seems that the IS group is trying out a new strategy in the areas it now controls in Iraq. The group seems to want to keep locals on their side and to encourage them to pledge allegiance to al-Baghdadi rather than force them to.

Unverified reports say that the IS groups’ most recent move may have been to issue their own version of a passport. At the end of June, the group announced that it had formed its own state in the areas it controlled, and that it was now in charge of a new Islamic Caliphate. Anyone living in this area may be able to get a passport – in fact, some may already have them, if the rumours are proven true. The passports come with State of the Islamic Caliphate written on them, along with a picture of an eagle and an inscription: “If the bearer of this passport is harmed, armies will move to avenge him”.

It is hard to say whether the passports exist. Apparently they are being printed at a facility in Mosul. However the head of the Iraqi Interior Ministry’s passport department says that there has been no communication between his office and offices in the areas held by the IS group for some time now.