The Role and Significance of Signature Attacks in the Iraqi Insurgency
September 1, 2010
On August 31, 2010, the United States declared an end to combat operations in Iraq. In recent months, however, there has been a stubborn perception that security in Iraq is suffering a downturn. Yet the raw numbers of monthly security incidents reveal a significant decline in year-on-year comparisons. The key reason for the difference between perception and reality is the rising incidents of so-called “signature attacks” that capture the media’s attention. These high-profile attacks involve tactics such as suicide vest bombings, suicide car bombings and other attempted mass casualty attacks. In October to December 2009, for example, the average number of attempted or completed signature attacks in Iraq was 15 per month. By the second quarter of 2010 (April-June), the monthly average increased to 23. The month of July 2010 witnessed 34 such attacks and was claimed by the Iraqi government to have been the deadliest month since May 2008.
Typically for Iraq, the rise in signature attacks can be viewed in two ways. To some analysts, the attacks signal a partial recovery of movements such as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). To others, including Iraqi government spokesmen and U.S. military leaders, the attacks represent increasingly desperate attempts by such groups to demonstrate that they remain active and strategically relevant.
This article will show how the ISI’s insurgent campaign was interrupted in March 2010, when the insurgent group lost a key operational leader. As a result, large-scale simultaneous bombings on strategic targets have given way to sporadic and sometimes ineffective attacks on individual targets. It will then disaggregate the different strands of Iraq’s interwoven insurgencies to gain a better understanding of the role, significance and future evolution of signature attacks in Iraq.
Interrupted Campaign in Baghdad
Throughout 2009, the ISI was fixed in a pattern of quarterly car bombings (spaced three months apart) on clusters of government buildings in Baghdad. On August 19, 2009, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Finance were both seriously damaged, resulting in at least 90 deaths. On October 25, 2009, the Ministry of Justice and Baghdad Provincial Council were struck by car bombs, killing 155 people. On December 8, 2009, five car bombs were detonated in car parks and public areas in the government district just outside Baghdad’s International Zone, killing 127 people. On January 25, 2010, three major international hotels were attacked in Karrada, near the International Zone, killing 15 people. This campaign was interrupted on March 11, 2010, when the ISI amir in west Baghdad, Munaf `Abd al-Rahim al-Rawi, was captured. Although one further “concept” attack flowed through the operational pipeline, there have been no major coordinated attacks against government targets in Baghdad since al-Rawi’s arrest.
Instead, the ISI has executed a patchwork of smaller profile-raising attacks. In response to the April 18, 2010 deaths of ISI leader Abu `Umar al-Baghdadi and al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI) chief Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the ISI launched a hasty series of five car bombs on Shi`a mosques in Baghdad on April 23, striking crowds of worshippers as they left Friday prayers. Fifty-eight people were killed. In June and July, the ISI sought to humiliate the government by storming government-protected buildings in the capital. On June 13, ISI fighters stormed the Central Bank of Iraq, using three suicide vests to defeat the guard force and then rampaging through the building. On June 20, a twin car bomb attack killed 26 people queuing outside a government immigration office near the International Zone. On July 26, the ISI claimed a car bomb attack on the Saudi-funded al-Arabiya television channel. On July 29, an ISI assault force overran a police checkpoint in Adhamiyya, a predominately Sunni part of northeastern Baghdad, and then ambushed government reinforcements with a series of roadside bombs. The July 29 attack, in which a number of security personnel were killed, generated widespread publicity due to the ISI’s ability to literally plant its flag in Baghdad during daylight hours. Other attacks targeted security force headquarters in Baghdad in July and August.
Although these acts are troubling for the government, they represent a more manageable problem than the highly effective, quarterly strikes against government ministries that unfolded in 2009.
Reaching into the South
The declining scope and scale of ISI attacks in Baghdad have been offset to some extent by the series of attention-grabbing attacks launched on May 10 and August 25, 2010. The May attacks involved coordinated car bomb explosions in Baghdad, Hilla and Iskandariyya (in Babil Province, south of Baghdad), and Basra. The August 25 attacks were mass casualty bombing attempts in Mosul, Kirkuk, Tikrit, Dujail (near Saddam’s birthplace), Ba`quba, Muqdadiyya, Ramadi, Falluja, northern Baghdad’s Adhamiyya and Kadhimiyya districts plus the southern cities of Karbala, Kut and Basra. Although only the latter attack on August 25 was claimed by the ISI, some ISI elements were probably involved in both of the series of attacks, which claimed a combined total of at least 140 lives.
The unique feature of the attacks was the inclusion of so many southern targets, particularly in Basra, which is nearly 370 miles by road from the nearest major Sunni Arab concentrations. Although only soft targets were selected across the south—typically Shi`a civilian gatherings targeted with multiple car bombs—the coordination involved in the attacks is noteworthy at a time when the ISI and other groups continue to suffer significant attrition to their leadership cadres. There are various theories to explain this contradiction. Ba`athist and mercenary elements have played a major role in bombings claimed by the ISI. Separately, some suggest that Iranian intelligence support has facilitated some bombings in an effort to destabilize Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s claims to have improved security in Iraq.
Such theories may be correct, but the south is hardly impenetrable to the ISI or other Sunni Arab militant groups. Baghdad’s southern “belts”—Babil and Wasit provinces—have long functioned as a base for attacks against Shi`a communities and particularly pilgrim processions moving between Baghdad and the shrines in Karbala and Najaf. Indeed, there are precedents for mass casualty attacks in Iraq’s “deep south”: on June 10, 2009, a car bomb was remotely-detonated in a Shi`a market town west of Nasiriyya, with the vehicle later traced back to a Basra safe house where booby-trapped children’s toys had previously been found on May 2, 2009.
Disaggregating Iraq’s Interwoven Insurgencies
In any given month, at least half (and usually a greater proportion) of mass casualty attacks are spread across the provinces in non-coordinated attacks. The mainstream media erroneously aggregates these incidents with coordinated attacks to give the sense of a unitary Sunni Arab insurgency that is guided by a single controlling hand. In fact, there are clearly a number of regional insurgencies operating largely independent of each other within Iraq, with each making different use of mass casualty attacks to meet their own objectives and reflecting local tactical conditions.
In some Sunni Arab areas, little use is made of mass casualty attacks. The ISI and related movements have largely moved away from the use of vehicle bombs against civilian targets to collectively punish and intimidate Sunni Arab communities. Instead, such groups are attempting to rebuild operational sanctuaries and recruitment areas using more selective tools such as “night letters” (warnings), assassination, and bribery targeting significant numbers of key community leaders and security force members. Where mass casualty attacks are undertaken, they tend to target the security forces. In eastern Anbar (the Ramadi-Falluja-Abu Ghurayb corridor), for instance, there have been 22 mass casualty attacks since August 2009. Twelve of these were aimed at security force checkpoints and bases, while only two were focused on civilian targets. This approach to targeting stands in marked contrast to AQI’s use of chlorine vehicle bombs to coerce the population in the same area in 2007 and 2008.
Although Abu `Umar al-Baghdadi and AQI leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri were killed in Tikrit, the Tigris River Valley (TRV) has not been an intensive theater of mass casualty attacks in the last year. Once again, more subtle methods are being utilized to increase the operational space for insurgent groups as the U.S. drawdown creates opportunities to influence uncertain Sunni Arab communities. The TRV and the foothills of the Hamrin Mountains to the east continue to be a logistical, transportation and rest and recuperation area for Sunni insurgents. The only significant use of car bombs in the TRV between Baghdad and Beyji has been in areas south of Balad, where eight car bombs have been used in the last year to attack Iraqi Army checkpoints and U.S. convoys on Main Supply Route Tampa North (Highway 1).
The Diyala River Valley (DRV) is a far more active theater for mass casualty attacks. Diyala is known as “Little Iraq” because the province mirrors Iraq’s mountainous Kurdish-Arab northeast and its fertile Shi`a-Sunni center and south. Diyala also continues to be the scene of a war within a war, including 40 mass casualty attacks in the last year. The DRV was the operational headquarters of AQI for at least the first three years of the occupation, and it continues to see high levels of violence in areas such as the provincial capital Ba`quba, Khalis, Muqdadiyya, and the Lake Hamrin villages of Jalula, Saadiyya and Qara Tapa. In Ba`quba, where there have been 16 mass casualty attacks in the last 12 months, five were carefully targeted attacks on provincial leadership, five on Shi`a civilians, and the remainder on security forces. Across the province, these proportions are mirrored in the split of effort among the ISI’s key opponents.
A subtle difference is observable in Ninawa and Kirkuk provinces, where the ISI and Ansar al-Sunna predominately target Kurdish security forces and Kurdish civilians. In raw numbers, there were 63 mass casualty attacks in Ninawa and 12 in Kirkuk since August 2009. In both provinces, Islamist militants are more integrated into the broader anti-Kurdish and anti-American resistance forces. The insurgency in Mosul is mounting roughly the same number of monthly car bombs and suicide vest attacks as it did over a year ago. The five or six mass casualty attacks undertaken each month in the provinces represent a sub-set of the 90 or so major attacks launched by insurgents in the two provinces (combined).
In the urban fight against the federal and Kurdish-led security forces, car bombs and suicide vest attacks are still utilized as heavy weapons with which to attack bases and hardened checkpoints. To a greater extent than any other part of Iraq, suicide attacks remain the norm in Ninawa and Kirkuk. Whereas remote-detonation of car bombs and truck bombs is the identified means of initiation in around half of mass casualty attacks across the country in the last year, they only account for 12% of attacks in Ninawa and Kirkuk. This has given the insurgency in these provinces the ability to effectively target armored mobile targets (such as individuals marked for assassination) and also to achieve optimal detonation of vehicle bombs during attacks on hardened checkpoints. Around a quarter of mass casualty attacks continue along the corridor linking Mosul to the Syrian border, which includes the hard-hit Turkoman city of Tal Afar—the recipient of a triple suicide bombing at a football match on May 14, 2010. The key targets are Kurdish-led security forces and ethnic minorities, who are viewed by the insurgents as Kurdish proxies in the area.
The May 10 and August 25, 2010 serial mass casualty attacks were significant feats of coordination, but they are only part of a broader picture. Leadership casualties appear to have interrupted an intensifying series of ISI attacks on the Iraqi government in Baghdad and diverted the group onto a different path: targeting soft civilian targets in Shi`a areas. Most of the other mass casualty attacks that occur in Iraq are not coordinated and are directed by local cells for tactical reasons. In some areas, they are fully integrated with other military means of resistance and there has been a marked movement away from coercive mass casualty strikes on Sunni civilians. Kurdish, Shi`a and ethnic minority civilians remain fair game to almost all Sunni Islamist groups.
In most parts of Iraq, the use of increasing numbers of remotely-detonated vehicle bombs against soft targets has allowed greater numbers of attacks to be carried out and has given cells greater longevity and survivability than networks specializing in suicide operations. This should not be confused with a resurgence of the insurgency. The effectiveness of mass casualty attacks is arguably declining. Vehicle-borne devices are getting smaller; whereas devices of more than 800 pounds of military explosives were the norm in previous years, devices now usually comprise 50-150 pounds of homemade or bulk explosives in a sedan car or even a motorbike. Larger payloads are increasingly rare and are difficult to transport due to the density of checkpoints. Military munitions are likewise becoming harder to procure and transport, driving partially successful efforts by many cells to switch to Ammonium Nitrate Fuel Oil for their main explosive charges, and leading the government to consider its first explosives security regulations regarding fertilizer sales. Instead, the most effective attacks in Iraq continue to be suicide vest bombs, particularly when utilized by female bombers or by pairs of bombers acting in a coordinated manner.
Dr. Michael Knights is a Lafer fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, specializing in the military and security affairs of Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and the Gulf Arab states. Dr. Knights has been writing about internal security in Iraq since the 1990s and has worked extensively with the Iraqi Security Forces and private security companies in Iraq. He is the author of four books and the editor of one anthology on Saddam-era and post-war Iraq.
 Although the U.S. combat role in Iraq officially ended on August 31, 2010, approximately 50,000 U.S. troops remain in the country.
 All statistics in this article are derived from Olive Group’s database of more than 130,000 geo-located incidents. This data suggests that reported monthly incidents have decreased from 1,562 in July 2008 to 873 in July 2009 and finally to 330 in July 2010. The database is maintained by private security company Olive Group and represents data gained through more than 2,000 days of consecutive on-the-ground operations in Iraq.
 Iraqi figures of 535 Iraqi deaths and 1,000 other casualties reflect the impact of all security incidents in the country during July 2010, not just mass casualty attacks. The U.S. government queried the figures, claiming that 222 Iraqis were killed and 782 were wounded.
 Government spokesman Major General Qassim al-Musawi characterized the attacks as the “hysterical” attempts of surviving al-Qa`ida cells to “prove their existence and their influence.” See Aseel Kami and Suadad al-Salhy, “Attacks Kill Over 100 in Iraq, al Qaeda Blamed,” Reuters, May 10, 2010. Also see General Ray Odierno, news briefing, U.S. Department of Defense, July 21, 2010.
 “Blasts Bring Carnage to Baghdad,” BBC, August 19, 2009.
 “Baghdad Bomb Fatalities Pass 150,” BBC, October 26, 2009.
 Steven Lee Myers and Marc Santora, “Election Date Set in Iraq as Bombs Kill Scores,” New York Times, December 8, 2009.
 Haider Kadhim, “Baghdad Bombs Kill 36, Chemical Ali Hanged,” Reuters, January 25, 2010.
 The last “concept” attack was the April 4, 2010 assault on four diplomatic targets west of the International Zone, which left 42 dead.
 “Bombings Across Iraq Target Shiite Mosques, Leaving 58 Dead,” Fox News, April 23, 2010.
 Suadad al-Salhy and Muhanad Mohammed, “Gunmen, Bombs Target Iraq Central Bank, Killing 15,” Reuters, June 13, 2010.
 “Twin Baghdad Car Bombs Kill 26, Wound 53,” Agence France-Presse, June 20, 2010.
 “4 Killed, 10 Injured in Al Arabiya Suicide Bombing,” al-Arabiya, July 26, 2010.
 Tim Arango, “Iraqi Insurgents Plant Qaeda Flag in Baghdad,” New York Times, July 29, 2010.
 “Dozens Dead in Iraq Attacks,” al-Jazira, August 25, 2010. Also see “Dozens Killed in Wave of Bombings Across Iraq,” BBC, August 25, 2010. The casualty figures have been adjusted to reflect more accurate totals later provided by contacts in the Iraqi Security Forces.
 Ba`athist involvement has been a persistent theme in government announcements during the past year, ranging from the August 2009 to the August 2010 bombings. This is not just a political issue (where the government seeks to rouse fears of a Ba`athist return), but it also reflects the sophistication and professionalism of some attacks, which point to the involvement of former regime intelligence officers. For details, see Ned Parker and Riyadh Mohammed, “Iraq Car Bombings, Other Attacks Kill 51: Al-Qaida, Baathists Blamed for Bloodshed,” Los Angeles Times, August 26, 2010. See also Liz Sly and Saif Hameed, “Iraq Arrests Former Baathists in Baghdad Bombings,” Los Angeles Times, August 22, 2009. Speculation concerning Iranian involvement in mass casualty attacks is commonly voiced by Iraqi generals and politicians in private. The only open source discussion of the issue was the official U.S. attribution of responsibility to Iran for market bombings in Iraq in November 2007. See comments by Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, the deputy spokesman for Multinational Corps-Iraq in a press briefing on November 25, 2007.
 Personal interview, U.S. Marine Military Training Team adviser, Basra, Iraq, July 2009.
 For a good recent account of how the ISI and other groups undertake such intimidation campaigns, see Richard Spencer, “Now it’s Every Iraqi for Himself,” Daily Telegraph, August 31, 2010.
 This data is based on Olive Group’s statistics. Contrast this with the composition of 29 mass casualty attacks carried out in the last year in the nine southern Shi`a provinces, of which 27 were aimed at civilian targets.
 Michael Knights, “Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre Briefing: Chlorine Bombs in Iraq,” Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, March 2007.
 For details on AQI’s longstanding use of the Hamrin Mountains, see Michael Knights, “Endangered Species – Al-Qaeda in Iraq Adapts to Survive,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, April 2008.
 This data is based on Olive Group’s statistics.
 For a discussion of Diyala as an operational environment, see Michael Knights, “Pursuing Al-Qa`ida into Diyala Province,” CTC Sentinel 1:9 (2008).
 This data is based on Olive Group’s statistics.
 Ibid. The number of true suicide-detonated devices is declining considerably, with almost all suicide attacks falling into two categories: suicide vest attacks or suicide car bomb attacks on moving convoys, both modes of attack where suicide operations are a prerequisite, not a choice. Very few attacks witness insurgent groups deliberately expending valuable martyrs on targets that can be attacked using other means.
 This data is based on Olive Group’s statistics, blended and cross-referenced against numerous open source reports of individual bombings.
 “Bombers Used Fertilizers – BOC,” Aswat al-Iraq, April 7, 2010.