A recent Islamic State offensive in Iraq’s Anbar province suggests that the extremist organization is changing tactics, relying less on local Sunni Muslim tribes for support and carrying out what one coalition strategist called a “counterinsurgency campaign” intended to undercut any U.S.-led effort to enlist tribes against it.
The outlines of this new strategy became apparent last week when the Islamic State launched an assault on Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, without the assistance of local fighters. That assault was preceded by weeks of assassinations aimed at prominent members of Anbar tribes.
“This is the first real multi-pronged assault by the group acting on its own,” said Aymenn al Tamimi, a Middle East-based researcher who studies jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria, referring to the campaign, which began last Friday.
The Islamic State’s success over the summer is due in part to Sunni tribes joining in its campaign against the Shiite Muslim-led government of then-Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. Since then, however, two developments have undercut that cooperation: Maliki has been replaced by Haider al Abadi, who’s considered more palatable to Sunnis than Maliki, and the Islamic State has asserted itself at the expense of local factions in the areas of Iraq it controls.
“Coordination might have been fashionable at the start of the renewed insurgency at the beginning of this year,” Tamimi said, referring to cooperation between Sunni tribes and the Islamic State dating to January. “But it seems to have dropped off.”
As the provincial capital, Ramadi is the key to control of Anbar province and would be an important steppingstone for any eventual Islamic State advance on the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. Much of the province is already under Islamic State control, including the city of Fallujah, where the U.S. conducted two bloody offensives against jihadist forces during its occupation of Iraq from 2003 to 2011.
Ramadi has been contested for nearly a year between Islamic State forces and those loyal to the government in Baghdad. U.S. officials, in an effort to break the Islamic State’s alliance with Sunni tribes, plan to arm Sunni tribesmen with more than $24 million worth of weaponry and supplies, including AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar rounds, according to a document prepared for Congress. The U.S. also plans to send hundreds of American troops to Anbar to help train Sunni tribesmen; at least 50 are already based at al Asad Air Base in Anbar.
Some analysts say the U.S. plans, and the recent government capture of Baiji in Salahuddin province, may be behind the Islamic State’s new strategy of cooperating less with local tribes and working to undercut possible new enemies.
“It seems ISIS is becoming increasingly desperate in Anbar,” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraq analyst at the London-based research and consulting firm Integrity, referring to the Islamic State by an acronym. Jiyad said he saw the shift in tactics as “reactionary” rather than proactive.
A coalition security official based in Baghdad, who asked not to be identified so he could speak openly, said it was clear that the Islamic State was trying to consolidate its hold on Anbar at the same time it was working to eliminate potential Western allies.
“The Islamic State is basically launching a counterinsurgency operation,” the official said.
Tamimi said the Islamic State appeared to have determined that it was no longer useful to forgive local tribesmen who’d previously worked with the government. Allowing tribesmen to repent and be allowed to live had its “time and place.” But as the Islamic State sets a priority of consolidating territorial gains, such forgiveness won’t help it make further gains in Anbar, he said.
That’s likely to spell an increasingly brutal fight for Anbar. “Things are going through a dangerous phase,” said Hikmat Sulayman Ayada, the head of the Anbar provincial council’s security committee.
Evidence of that came as Iraqi security forces initially pushed back Islamic State advances on Ramadi’s eastern edge. At least 25 bodies of Albu Fahd tribe members were found. The men appeared to have been executed, and many viewed it as a revenge attack prompted by the tribe’s close ties to the Iraqi government.
“It’s natural that Daash killed the sons of the Albu Fahd tribe,” Ayada said, using a common Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “They were standing against the organization and carrying weapons.”
There’s been a string of similar killings in the province over the past month, the most deadly of which was the so-called massacre of more than 300 members of the Albu Nimr tribe in a village in western Anbar earlier in November. The bodies, including those of dozens of women and children, were dumped in a well. They showed signs of systematic killings, according to Iraq’s Human Rights Ministry.
Those killings show the Islamic State is taking a more hard-line approach toward those who oppose it, in contrast to military operations that were coupled earlier in the year with announcements that those who’d worked with government forces were eligible for “towba,” or forgiveness.
The initial effort to seize more of Ramadi was highly coordinated and complex, local officials said. Under the cover of poor weather that Iraqi government officials claim made it impossible to provide air support, the Islamic State effectively launched simultaneous assaults on a number of fronts, attacking the city from all sides.
Islamic State fighters, local officials say, were armed with heavy artillery and car bombs as well as boats and rafts, which made it possible to cross the Euphrates to the city’s north and use the river’s banks for cover.
Government-aligned forces were able to resist the initial assault on territory they still controlled, but fierce clashes with Islamic State fighters continue as the group attempts to capture the remaining pockets of the provincial capital.
Anbar council member Ayada said local security and tribal forces had managed to hold the city center, which he described as “calm,” while clashes continued to the south and west of the city, where Islamic State fighters had sent fresh reinforcements.
Anbar province Chairman Faleh al Issawi said he’d called on Iraq’s central government to lend more help to the fight against Islamic State, but that so far his calls to Baghdad had been in vain.
“The central government is not serious about resolving the crisis in Anbar,” he said from Ramadi in a phone interview. “It’s simple: We need a fixed armored brigade in Ramadi to repel any assault on the city.”
Security sources in Baghdad say there are no indications that reinforcements have been sent to Ramadi.