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Governing the ‘ungoverned’: Suppressing the Islamic State’s insurgency in Iraq

Governing the ‘ungoverned’: Suppressing the Islamic State’s insurgency in Iraq
Iraqi Policeman in Kirkuk. Photo: U.S. Army / Flickr.

As the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) launched an operation to target the Islamic State in the Hamrin mountain range in Iraq on the 11 April 2019, it is pertinent to examine the importance of the Iraqi state’s involvement in governance and sustainable security in such isolated spaces.

Long before the territorial defeat of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq there were signs that the group was returning to its insurgency roots, as fighters retreated out of the cities and into rural areas. From Boko Haram in Nigeria to al-Qaeda in Yemen, violent extremists have long taken advantage of spaces where the central state’s control has receded and weakened in order to build a base for operations. IS is no different, and as the organisation has previously done, it is once again taking advantage of such spaces in Iraq in order to strengthen its infrastructure and launch attacks. Although IS’ attacks have decreased, security analysts, such as Michael Knights, argue that IS is focusing on higher quality targets as it restructures from a territory-holding to insurgency-focused entity. Nonetheless, in the first ten months of 2018, Knights documented 1271 attacks by IS in Iraq.


‘Ungoverned’ spaces in Iraq

Spaces are never truly ungoverned and some form of local or informal governance generally occurs, no matter the space. ‘Ungoverned’ spaces in this sense refers to parts of a state’s territory into which the state does not reach, or where its reach is weak. In Iraq, one such space is the Hamrin mountain range, which extends across Diyala, Kirkuk, and Salah al-Din provinces (see figure 1). Moving its operations into this region has allowed IS to build its network and carry out attacks that further damage the limited governance in the area. This is a vicious circle: when government involvement decreases, IS’ strength and hold increases. Tactically, IS’ attacks are currently focused on targeted assassinations of tribal and village leaders seen as cooperating with the government and key Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) personnel, as well as attacks against checkpoints just outside of its zone of operations. The lack of security in the area allows IS to operate freely at night when all state security actors return to their bases, which in turn further weakens the local faith in the central government’s capacity to provide security. Moreover, IS is able to take advantage of their night time hold on the territory in order to finance its operations through kidnappings, carjackings, extortion, and robberies.

Hamrin mountain range
Figure 1. The Hamrin mountain range in Iraq extends across Diyala, Kirkuk, and Salah al-Din provinces and lies between Baghdad to the south and Erbil to the north. Image: Google Maps.

IS has long fed on this type of isolation, taking control of areas where the central government has failed to provide security and governance. Moreover, the state’s inability to provide governance to the whole country and the resulting disconnect from society strengthens IS’ offering. Government failures to provide security allow those who share IS’ ideology an easy way to support or join the group, whilst also failing to protect those who do not share IS’ ideologies from being forced to provide support to the group against their will. Additionally, chronic insecurity damages the central government’s control of (and connection to) local governance, as local actors working with the central government are easily assasinated. This creates a bitter spiral where the local population is further isolated from the central government, once again building IS from the ground up, as witnessed in Iraq before. Tackling this type of spatial marginalistaion through the provision of governence and services is imperative, however, protection of locals and resources are key in order to operationalise the process.


The provision of security

Sustainable security that protects the population's needs in these ungoverned, and territorially difficult, spaces needs to involve a nexus of security actors in what has become a highly politicised issue connected to competition for territorial control. Firstly, the pushing out of the Kurdish Peshmerga following the failed Kurdish independence referendum in September 2017 has negatively impacted security. In order to enhance security in these areas, collaboration between the Peshmerga and ISF needs to return. Secondly, and most importantly, Sunni-based local security needs to be re-established. The Awakening, a collection of US and state-sponsored Sunni tribal fighters, were intrinsic in bringing al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to near defeat in 2008, however, as the Prime Minister at the time, Nouri al-Maliki, saw the Awakening as a threat, it was largely disbanded and not integrated into the ISF as initially promised. Iraq has come a long way since the authoritarian practices of Maliki and as IS returns to the insurgency tactics of its predecessor, AQI, localised forces such as the Awakening should be involved. The current state security policies of zero security at night and dawn raids taking people away with scant evidence does nothing but create resentment towards state security forces—something IS has long fed on. Closely linked to this, arbitrary detentions, hasty trials, and a policy of collective punishment further alienates many of the Sunni population.


Rebuilding confidence in state-provided security

IS has targeted and burnt down local villages and farms to undermine confidence in state-provided security. When security is re-established, the next step is reversing the damage done by IS through rebuilding, repopulating, and providing services in these spaces—essentially introducing genuine state involvement and support to these areas. As attempts by the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Forces to push IS out of this territory begin, it is crucial that preparation for such state involvement, as well as for sustainable security, begins in earnest.

Marginalisation is often talked about as the driver of violent extremism; however, the path towards violent extremism is a complex process involving a number of push and pull factors. Additionally, marginalisation is a loaded term in Iraq that often provokes opposing views, as it is largely connected to the policies of Maliki between 2010 and 2014—this type of marginalisation simply no longer exists. Nonetheless, marginalisation (in terms of localised isolation, rather than lack of representation in the central government, and by no means connected to sectarianism) is a factor in violent extremism in Iraq, both directly, through providing little alternative, and indirectly, through offering it a space in which it can operate. Therefore, there needs to be a focus on addressing this localised marginalisation through both localised security (similar to the Awakening) and governance, which is then supported by the established security actors and the central government.

Research in Iraq has demonstrated that as Sunnis’ confidence in the government’s ability to provide security and services grows, they become less likely to support extremists. Nonetheless, Iraq has long failed to implement its decentralisation policies regardless of the fact that in the isolated communities that form the ungoverned spaces it is a crucial part of tackling the issues at the core of such isolation. Decentralisation, however, still needs significant involvement from the central government, as mechanisms to ensure good governance and prevent corruption need central supervision and should also be implemented centrally. This is much needed, as Iraq ranked 168 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2018 corruption ranking.

Decentralisation with close central government guidance needs to extend beyond IS-affected areas. It is as important in the south of Iraq—where protests have emerged against bad governance—as it is in the territories IS has found space to manoeuvre. Finally, in order for the central government to develop and play its role in implementing these policies, inclusive, responsive, and accountable governance also needs to be built.

As Iraq slowly rebuilds from the catastrophic impact of IS’ reign and the resulting battle it is imperative that IS is starved of its oxygen—that being the ungoverned spaces, resulting isolation of local populations, and the resources these two in combination offer the group. Iraq can then focus on the many challenges that occupy governance and development in the country as the next chapter in Iraqi history begins.


Dr Dylan O’Driscoll is an Associate Senior Fellow in the SIPRI Middle East and North Africa Programme.