Nine years after U.S. troops wrested Fallujah away from al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI), the terrorist group’s successor has returned to secure nearly full control of the city. For Americans who fought to evict al-Qa`ida from the city, the group’s return is difficult to swallow. But the revival of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Fallujah, and beyond, is more complicated than an organization rebuilding capability and marching on a city.
Three factors are key. First, al-Qa`ida in Iraq was not as weak as it was often portrayed following the U.S. surge and Sunni Awakening in 2007, so the rebound is not as dramatic as media tends to paint it. Second, the ISIL’s success remains deeply conditional on tribal support for or acquiescence to its activities, so its revival is as much about Iraq’s political context as it is about the group itself. Third, the ISIL’s expansion in Syria—which itself was predicated on the organization’s resilience in Iraq following the surge—has offered a tremendous platform to recruit, train, and fundraise in ways that positioned the group to both stoke and exploit sectarian tensions in Iraq.
ISIL After the Surge
The U.S. surge in Iraq, alongside the Sunni Awakening, deeply damaged what was then called the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Tribal fighters who had collaborated with the group turned on it and looked to build accommodation with the Shi`a-led Iraqi government. U.S. Special Operations Forces disrupted the ISI’s communications and leadership. U.S. and Iraqi forces settled down in cities to provide security necessary for rebuilding trust and a modicum of normalcy.
The ISI adapted by shifting operations out of Iraq’s Sunni heartland and identifying local patrons who would tolerate the group and its extremism. Most that did so were facing an existing social conflict, and calculated that embracing the ISI was worth the tradeoffs involved. The ISI’s strategy was most successful in and around Mosul, where conflict between Kurds and Sunni Arabs festered after violence receded in Anbar Province. The ISI was able to use that wound to justify itself. As a result, from 2008-2010, while U.S. forces remained in the country, nearly 3,000 Iraqis were killed each year by terrorist attacks.
The ISI was always deeply enmeshed with tribal groups in Anbar Province, which in part made it so vulnerable to the Anbar Awakening. It was the social and political context around Mosul that gave the ISI safe harbor after those setbacks. This socio-political context is key to understanding the ISIL’s return to Fallujah.
In Anbar, tribal frustration with the Iraqi government is nothing new. Whatever his intentions, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has not effectively integrated Sunni tribal groups into the Iraqi government (although singling out al-Maliki without recognizing that some tribal leaders make intransigent demands is a limited view). What is new since 2013 is that some of those tribes now calculate that al-Qa`ida’s renewed presence and the specter of violence advance their interests vis-à-vis the Iraqi state. Those tribes may not fully accept al-Qa`ida’s ideology, but they understand Machiavellian politics at its rawest.
That distinction matters because it suggests that if the political winds shift, the ISIL’s position may be more precarious than headlines suggest. But it nonetheless represents the “Pakistanization” of Iraqi politics, in which ostensibly legitimate political actors manipulate militants to benefit their political position with third parties. Anbari tribes are certainly not the first groups, even in Iraq, to make such a calculation; the Shi`a political leader Moqtada al-Sadr played similar politics from 2004-2008. But the strategy often backfires—often because it empowers uncontrollable militant actors—and it is almost certain to backfire in this case as well.
The Syrian Haven
If Anbari tribal leaders want evidence that tolerating the ISIL is likely to backfire, they need only to look across the border into Syria, where anti-Assad rebels have finally begun to reject the ISIL, which they long tolerated because of its military effectiveness against Assad. The ISIL is an example of jihadis’ tendency to undermine their own successes by favoring extremism and absolutism over any sense of determined conciliation. Even if the ISIL comes to “govern” Fallujah, they will not do so for a long period. The question is how much damage can they cause in the interim.
Even if the ISIL in Syria suffers a dramatic setback, the Syrian conflict’s importance in the group’s overall disposition is indisputable. The Syrian war gave the ISIL training safe havens that it never had in Iraq, access to foreign fighters on a scale it never enjoyed while U.S. troops were in Iraq, and—for a while—even a modicum of legitimacy among states and powerful social groups, as it was a forceful presence against Assad.
The good news is that the ISIL does not operate in a vacuum and remains dependent on other actors in Fallujah and elsewhere. Plus, the group has a long history of shooting itself in the foot. The bad news is that so long as Anbari tribes and Iraq’s Shi`a-led government are unable to come to some sort of stable compromise, al-Qa`ida will retain a foothold in Iraq. Moreover, if the Iraqi government were to crush al-Qa`ida in Fallujah it might deny jihadis a safe-haven and augment the government’s monopoly on the use of force, but it would not crush the ISIL because the group is too dispersed. Militarized counterterrorism is necessary but its utility is limited. Good governance, including effective law enforcement and intelligence work, is the only way to eliminate a terrorist organization, and that does not seem likely in Iraq any time soon. It is hard for American servicemen and women who fought to defeat al-Qa`ida in Fallujah almost ten years ago to reckon with the ISIL’s revival. But that earlier U.S. victory, and those that followed, produced as much progress against the ISIL’s predecessors as could be expected.
Brian Fishman is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center and a Counterterrorism Research Fellow at the New America Foundation. He previously served as the CTC’s Director of Research.
The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, or any of its subordinate commands.