The Islamic State (IS) formally turned from statehood to insurgency last October. The 125th edition of Al-Naba, IS’s weekly newsletter, released on 29 March 2018, contained a number of indicators that the jihadists’ guerrilla warfare is gaining considerable steam—and that IS thinks it should gain more.
An Expanding Insurgent Campaign
The lead story on the front page of Al-Naba 125 describes IS’s raids in Kirkuk: “This week, more than 22 people were killed and injured; about 20 homes for apostates were destroyed, plus 15 vehicles, wa-lilah al-hamd [praise be to God].” IS says that on 6 Rajab 1439 (24 March 2018) it captured the village area west of al-Riyad in the Kirkuk Province, holding the area “for hours” after raiding the houses of members of “al-Hashd al-Rafid” (al-Hashd al-Shabi), the Iran-led Shi’a militia structure that is now integrated into the Iraqi state, burning and destroying nine of them.
An infographic on page 2 describes the ambushes IS has carried out along the roads in Iraq.
Page 4 contained operational reports from across northern Iraq, and a special section on an IS raid against the Hashd in Makhmur, close to Erbil, a town IS captured in 2014 and which is now a tense frontline between Iranian-controlled Shi’a militias and the Kurdish Peshmerga.
Makhmur is not too far from the Jalam desert and Hamrin mountain range that have been important bases of IS’s insurgent activity since it was evicted from overt territorial control in northern Iraq. On 27 March, the Pentagon named Makhmur as among the areas of primary concern:
So for the ISIS … areas of highest concern, where we still have fragments of ISIS or remnants of ISIS, mainly the Makhmur, Kirkuk, Tuz Khurmatu area, there’s a sort of a diagonal line there where we find fragments of ISIS. … And the other area of concern is the western Anbar desert, south of Rutba, south of the international highway. It’s an open desert with not a lot of population, and so ISIS has remnants or fragments out there. … [T]he numbers we find in the Anbar desert, they’re few. They are not coming from Syria that we’re seeing, although that would be a concern in the future, and we’re fully aware of that possibility. …
[B]ack in February the Iraqis did three operations up in the Makhmur area, also the Hamrin Mountain area and also in the Hawija area. Two of those operations the Iraqi Security Forces moved on the ground to secure those locations. The third one, in the Hamrin Mountains, because the terrain is so rough, they asked for coalition air support in the Hamrin Mountains and we did some airstrikes there because it’s such rough terrain and hard to access.
So that leads me to believe that the remnants that we see are in those locations. … [T]hey cleared Hawija up to the Kirkuk area and then after that moved to the Euphrates River Valley. There are still remnants of ISIS in that Kirkuk-to-Makhmur area, which is why we did those operations with the Iraqi Security Forces in January and February.
The attack reports continue on pages 5 and 6, dealing with Iraq on page 5, where attacks are documented from Diyala to Rutba, and page 6 notes attacks in Syria as part of Wilayat al-Furat (Euphrates Province), particularly around al-Bukamal, and as far afield as Khorasan (Afghanistan). The attacks are everything from suicide assaults against police barracks, checkpoint raids, and long-distance sniper attacks, to close-in targeted assassinations by al-mafariz al-amniya, IS’s security detachments, which have struck down police and military officials, even in Baghdad, and anti-IS Sunni tribesman.
Page 7 is more of the same, mostly from Iraq and Wilayat al-Sinai in Egypt. The operations extended from Ninawa to the south of Baghdad through Saladin, Kirkuk (the site of the “largest share” of attacks), Diyala, and Anbar, Al-Naba says, which is to say “on all fronts” despite the declaration of victory by the Iraqi government in December.
There were a few sections of Al-Naba that focused on other matters.
Page 3 contains a claim for the Trebes supermarket siege in France on 23 March by Radouane Lakdim and an essay justifying the enslavement of Yazidis. The article began with the case of Du’a Khalil Aswad, a Yazidi woman stoned to death by her community in 2007 for eloping with a Sunni man. The Yazidis in IS captivity could find a path to God, says Al-Naba, echoing the reasoning given when IS first admitted it had restored slavery, and in any case this was the heavenly ruling for polytheists.
Page 8 contains a doctrinal essay, “Sedition and Slander”, and page 10 deals with a specific story IS uses as part of its ideology lessons to motivate cruelty among its troops. Page 11 is a roundup of the world’s news: the expulsion of Russian diplomats by Western countries, the political tensions about and between America’s Muslim communities, the Asad regime’s hideous atrocities against East Ghuta, and the reforms in Saudi Arabia.
IS Call for Sleeper Cells to Wake Up
In terms of IS’s strategic thinking, the most interesting part of Al-Naba is the essay on page 9, “Take care to facilitate, not disable”. The essay, which Hassan Hassan wrote about last week, opens by saying that “preventive al-ijrat al-amniyat (security measures)” can be compared to a shield, where the size and thickness is determined by the threat. The first subheading of the essay is, “An operative cell, not a sleeper cell”. This section admonishes IS’s khaliyat al-nayima (sleeper cells) that the security measures they have adopted have been so stringent that they have “restrict[ed] the ability to move and accomplish what is required”, placing them in a state of near-total dormancy, where they have become “a tool for disabling jihadist work, rather than being a tool to facilitate it”.
The “whole of jihad” is exposure to risk, Al-Naba continues, and a mujahid must keep in mind “two basic duties, which he must perform simultaneously”: the “goals of the jihad” and securing the ranks, by keeping himself safe, and gathering intelligence and resources. The “secondary duty should not overshadow the basic aspects of jihadist activity”, with the mujahid concentrating so much on his own security he neglects “jihad for the sake of God”.
But, warns IS, this has happened before, with operatives falling into “self-indulgence”. They “retreat from jihad and fail to perform their duties,” says Al-Naba, even as they continue “calling themselves a ‘sleeper cell’ of the mujahideen, and perhaps it is true that they really are asleep, and may never wake up”.
“Therefore,” instructs Al-Naba, “every mujahideen in the way of Allah must consider himself an ‘operative cell’ in the body of the mujahideen. If it is required, they may be turned into a ‘latent cell,’ but not a ‘sleeper cell’ that is useless, indeed sometimes a burden on the mujahideen, consuming their resources without providing any benefit to them.”
Jihadists must consider themselves cogs in a machine, Al-Naba goes on, and have to strike the balance between action and an inaction that would halt the jihad work; at the same time, the work must be done properly, and rushed or sloppy work that leads to an operative being captured or killed has to be avoided. Risks should be reasonable. “It is not enough to be an ‘operative cell’ in the jihadi body,” according to Al-Naba, “rather, jihadists should fortify themselves into a ‘safe operative cell’ that the enemy cannot easily destroy, access, or transform into a cancerous cell that destroys the whole body from within.”
Al-Naba underlines the point about maintaining tradecraft in closing: protecting the work is among the “most important” aspects of holy war, which involves both emirs and soldiers developing, implementing, and complying with security procedures
In short, despite considerable IS insurgent activity—and the group apparently on the backfoot, its caliphate shattered and the Americans patrolling overhead—IS believes its secret operatives should be more active, exposing themselves to more risk of being exposed, captured, and killed. This reflects either a worry that IS’s networks are at risk of withering and dying—its undetected loyalists breaking away and returning to a normal life—or a degree of confidence that would buttress the signals elsewhere that IS is much less severely damaged than the U.S.-led coalition would like to believe.
Post has been updated