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An Agile Opponent:
Extremists Change Tactics in Baghdad

Ibrahim Saleh
Recent extremist bomb attacks in Baghdad indicate that the IS group has adapted its methods and become more mobile. But they also show that fixed bases inside the city no longer seem viable for the extremists.
19.01.2017  |  Baghdad
An army checkpoint in action in one of Baghdad's northern suburbs. (Source: Iraqi Ministry of Defence) (photo: وزارة الدفاع العراقية)
An army checkpoint in action in one of Baghdad's northern suburbs. (Source: Iraqi Ministry of Defence) (photo: وزارة الدفاع العراقية)

In a reflection of what is happening to the extremist group known as the Islamic State in Iraq in general, one of the group’s key activities – making improvised explosive devices and launching attacks – is also changing.

Over the past decade or so, the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group has used various methods to provide bombs suitable for use in booby trapped cars or by suicide bombers, in its attacks on civilians. Before the IS group took its current name and philosophy, its predecessor was known as Al Qaeda In Iraq.  

And the first bomb-making workshops, from where attacks were often launched, may best be described as fixed. These tactics were used regularly from around 2009 until 2014 and would involve residential houses occupied by the group’s members or by members of their sleeper cells. The Baghdad houses would be rented for a shorter period of time for the use of, for example, suicide bombers and their families. Once the attacks had been launched, the families would leave.  

 It is becoming clear that the IS group is starting to rely on children and teenagers, who have been living in areas under IS control.

The second generation of these kinds of workshops or “attack incubators” evolved after the IS group took control of the northern city of Mosul in mid-2014, and more specifically after Iraqi security forces started pushing back against the group. At this stage, the organization began to rely on secret tunnels, trenches and temporary encampments in the outer suburbs around Baghdad.

The most recent changes have been noted by local security forces only a few weeks ago. The IS bomb-makers have gone mobile, making it very difficult for security forces to discover the bomb-makers beforehand or to find any evidence with which to convict them after an attack. Attackers come from outside the city as do the explosives.

It is thought that mobile “incubators” were used in the recent attacks on Baghdad’s Sanak and Sadr City areas.

In the Sadr City bombing at a fruit and vegetable market, in which around 39 people were killed, the perpetrator had apparently driven his car around for some time asking where the entrance to Jamileh market was. He was clearly a stranger to the area and ended up detonating the bomb at the market exit.

Security forces say that the vehicle that was blown up was first driven to another location in Sadr City, then the bomber picked the vehicle up and took it to the site of attack. They believe the vehicles used in the attacks are often stored in auto repair workshops or markets before they are delivered by IS members to the individual who carries out the attack.

Those individuals are often also imported into the city.

“In these operations it is becoming clear that the IS group is starting to rely on children and teenagers to carry them out, who have been living in areas under IS control,” local security analyst Fadel Abu Raghif told NIQASH. “That just shows that it can no longer find any suicide bombers willing to carry out attacks in areas that are not under its control.”

Bringing perpetrators and materials in from outside also exploits the security gaps in the Iraqi capital. While local forces may have better knowledge of what is happening in the various neighbourhoods they patrol, it is much harder to detect attackers coming from outside the city.

“Up until now Iraqi security forces have not been able to work out how these groups manage to move around without detection, where they hide and how they counterfeit the necessary IDs [for passing through checkpoints],” adds Hisham al-Hashimi, a researcher into armed militias in Iraq.

Despite the dangers presented by these new terrorist methods, there is also an upside. It shows that the IS group can no longer find any suitable, fixed locations inside the capital. Despite the damage and death the IS group has managed to inflict on Baghdad lately, some see this as a small sign of hope. 

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