Islamic State in Iraq and the Tal Afar Offensive -Security Risks
31 Aug 2017
10 July 2017 saw the end to the Mosul offensive and a victory declared over Islamic State in Iraq’s second largest city. Following the recapture of Mosul, the latest objective for the US-backed coalition against Islamic State is the liberation of Tal Afar, a key hub between Mosul and the Syrian border. Joint Iraqi forces took control of Al-Jazirah, in eastern Tal Afar, in their ongoing push to remove fighters from the city that has been under IS control since 2014. Local media has emphasised the Iraqi Security Forces destroying of Shia militia vehicles as a means of restricting IS movements across Tal Afar, a key supply route for the jihadist group. In preparation for the ground operations, warplanes have been conducting multiple airstrikes across the city.
- Iraqi forces make gains against Islamic State (IS) in the offensive on Tal Afar.
- IS has lost more than 60 per cent of its controlled territory in Iraq and Syria.
- Mosul has been ‘liberated’ after the completion of the Mosul Offensive.
Armed conflict: 10 July 2017 saw the end to the Mosul offensive and a victory declared over Islamic State in Iraq’s second largest city. Following the recapture of Mosul, the latest objective for the US-backed coalition against Islamic State is the liberation of Tal Afar, a key hub between Mosul and the Syrian border. Joint Iraqi forces took control of Al-Jazirah, in eastern Tal Afar, in their ongoing push to remove fighters from the city that has been under IS control since 2014. Local media has emphasised the Iraqi Security Forces destroying of Shia militia vehicles as a means of restricting IS movements across Tal Afar, a key supply route for the jihadist group. In preparation for the ground operations, warplanes have been conducting multiple airstrikes across the city. Within eight days, all 29 neighbourhoods of Tal Afar city had been taken back; however, this offensive is proving to be challenging for the Iraqi fighters and there still remains to be an official declaration of victory. This is expected to be made once the town of Al-Ayadiya has been secured in the coming days.
SOLACE GLOBAL COMMENT
The Islamic State takeover of Mosul, and the ease in which it occurred, was a major symbolic victory for jihadists because it housed many families that joined the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein. The reclaiming of Mosul and Tal Afar has been a major milestone for the liberation of Iraq. The recapture of Tal Afar increases the difficulty for jihadists to transport fighters and weapons between Iraq and Syria; this creates a positive move for the Iraqi security forces in inhibiting supplies for IS attacks. Iraqi intelligence estimated that approximately 2,000 militants occupied Tal Afar, while Iraq’s military claims to have killed 260 Islamic State fighters. The belief is that many have fled to the north and the west of the city, meaning this conflict is unlikely to finish in the short- to medium-term.
The Ottoman-era citadel in Tal Afar was once referred to as the pillar of civilisation. It is a major historical monument for the Iraqi and Arab people but was damaged in 2014 when IS destroyed some of its walls. During the three-year occupation of Tal Afar, the jihadists used the citadel as a prison for those accused of blasphemy. This gave the recapture of this monument a far greater meaning of liberation to Iraq and Iraqis. As in Mosul, much of the city of Tal Afar during the offensive housed snipers and was booby-trapped by IS through the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). This meant that although some homes appear to be undamaged, many Iraqi fighters will not enter until they have been officially cleared.
With the areas controlled by IS diminishing, their focus has reverted to targeting Shias in Baghdad and other areas. On 28 August 2017, IS claimed responsibility for a car bomb in Baghdad, killing 12 and wounding many more. This was the third bombing within three days that targeted the capital. IS has further claimed responsibility for 20 suicide bombings in and around Baghdad since the beginning of August 2017
There are reports of extra-judicial killings by Iraqi security forces of IS militants. The motives behind these actions are numerous; however, of primary concern is the current institutional weaknesses of the Iraqi state to prevent such actions by Iraqi armed forces. These killings may contribute to continued distrust between Sunnis and Shias in long term; the marginalised Sunni community was a key factor of the Islamic State’s initial success in gaining territory in Iraq. Therefore, despite the legitimacy of these allegations towards Iraqi soldiers, there remains an underlying threat of retribution attacks, whether by terror attack or strategic armed assaults on vulnerable targets throughout the country.
Leading counterterrorism units in Iraq argue that the morale is disappearing from the extremists and that the next phase will be to target any remaining Islamic State cells in areas such as Qaim, Rawa and Ana near the Syrian border. Along with this, coalition forces are beginning preparation for the next offensive in the northern town of Hawija, 150 miles southeast of Tal Afar. Although it must be understood that despite the incredible progress in Mosul and Tal Afar, the threat from IS is still significant and will continue, requiring extensive military and counterterrorism forces to secure Iraq. This build-up of combat victories has led to the requirement of establishing stability and reconciliation in the regions recaptured from IS. This in turn presents a risk of conflict from further ethnic and sectarian groups. The potential for the re-emergence of such security risks has to led to calls for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi and other political leaders to come up with a viable political solution to ensure Iraq’s future stability.
Despite the military victory across Mosul and Tal Afar, the core motivations for Islamic State fighters have not been combatted. The fall in oil prices, shortages of necessities, and political corruption, strengthens the validity of the belief that Sunni Muslims must use violent conflict as a means to protect against Shia hegemony. Islamic State continues to pose a substantial threat to the western world, as events in 2017 have shown. The group claim attacks which have occurred in places like London and Barcelona as responses to the west’s backing in the fight against IS. Although IS can be argued to be weaker, there is evidence that they can still plan and carry out significant, deadly attacks, so it is likely that the terror group will continue to conduct (and inspire) attacks throughout Iraq, the Middle East, and wider world.
SECURITY ADVICEArmed ConflictHigh
Travellers should avoid the areas surrounding major cities at present. Locations within Tal Afar, Baghdad, and its surrounding outskirts will be highly militarised and have limited access, in addition open conflict which is likely to occur for the short- to medium-term. Due to the nature of, and terror tactics used by IS, it is difficult to determine where and when IS will mount offensives. It is recommended enhanced security precautions should be employed at all times whilst in country.
Islamic State is likely to increase attacks throughout Baghdad and Fallujah in their targeting of Shia Muslims. The Iraqi military will continue open conflict in the Northern Province for the foreseeable future. The threat from kidnap has also increased especially during religious and public holidays. It is important for travellers and those residing in Iraq to assess their evacuation plans as Islamic State attacks are often unpredictable and cause mass casualty events. Travellers should be aware of the ongoing and unpredictable disruption to flights and travel.
Full extensive journey management planning is vital for any travel to Iraq. Armoured escorts would be recommended for road moves in high risk areas as well as a well-trained armed security team. Solace Global would advise all clients travelling throughout Iraq to use travel-tracking technology with an intelligence feed, in order to gain rapid access to the security updates. Such technology can also notify others in case an emergency occurs. This is essential in identifying and avoiding areas of high risk in real time, and will enable users to further mitigate the risks arising from travelling in Iraq.
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