Columbia International Affairs Online: Policy Briefs

CIAO DATE: 11/2014

TSG IntelBrief: The Fight the Islamic State Really Wants: Iraqi Shi'a

October 2014

The Soufan Group


• With apparent heavy losses in Kobani, Syria, the so-called Islamic State (IS) is stepping up efforts to ignite the one fight it wants above all: a full sectarian war with Iraq's Shi'a population

• IS will likely accept serious losses, as long as it can claim to be the Sunni extremist vanguard in the fight against the Shi'a; this means the group will focus on high-profile and high-casualty attacks against Shi'a symbols and populations

• With the February 2006 bombing the ‘Golden Mosque' in Samarra, Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi finally got the fight he was looking for against the Shi'a and in doing so moved the IS precursor group AQI further up the list of the most feared and capable Iraqi extremist groups

• The new government of Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi will be pressured to overreact to IS attacks and to let loose the Shi'a militia that battled with both Sunni extremists and innocents alike eight years ago; a heavy-handed sectarian response will be a disaster for the country, even if it is asking a great deal for those being attacked to show restraint.


The fate of the Islamic State (IS) advance in the Syrian/Turkish border town of Kobani (‘Ayn al-‘Arab) remains uncertain, though unprecedented air drops of weapons by the U.S. and indications of Turkish support for an influx of Iraqi Kurdish fighters into the city suggest IS will pay a heavy price for its attempted advance.

With losses most likely numbering in the several hundred, IS will indeed notice this setback. But while Kobani was undeniably important for IS-with significant grain/wheat production and another border crossing to claim under IS control-the fight that IS wants most of all remains in Iraq. From Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi to current leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, IS has conducted relentless and countless attacks against Iraqi Shi'a, whom they view as apostates unworthy of mercy. To that end, IS has stepped up its attempts at high-profile attacks against Shi'a targets in Iraq with the hopes of once again igniting a full sectarian war, as it did in 2006.

Yesterday, on October 20, four car bombs exploded in Karbala near the plaza for the Mosque and Shrine of Husayn Ibn Ali, the most revered place in Shi'a Islam outside of Mecca and Medina. The attacks killed 22 people and wounded at least 50 more. Such an attack is extremely provocative, akin to multiple car bombings at the Vatican. It is widely suspected that the terrorist group now led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is responsible for these attacks, and with good reason, as it remains a core focus of the group founded by Zarqawi.

It was Zarqawi's February 2006 bombing of the Shi'a al-‘Askari, or ‘Golden,' Mosque in Samarra that helped turn a smoldering conflict into all-out sectarian war and led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people. Indeed, on June 9, 2014, the IntelBrief highlighted ISIS's aims to attack Samarra again to reignite the conflict. The next day, ISIS undertook its biggest operation aimed at fighting a sectarian war and captured Mosul away from the Maliki government. The group's desire to attack the most revered Shi'a shrines has only grown since then.

To counter this threat, Shi'a militia have stepped into the void left by the inept Iraqi Army. This is as understandable as it is problematic, since these very groups-such as ‘Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq-conducted some of the worst excesses in Iraq against Sunni extremist groups but also against innocent Sunni populations who were forced to leave their homes amid horrific violence. The new government of Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi has stressed inclusion as one of its priorities, because the most lasting way to blunt and diminish IS is to bring Sunnis into the political process and military of Iraq. But attacks like Monday's will put the new government under great pressure, as its largest constituents are targeted.

It will be a disaster for Iraq if Shi'a militia go beyond protecting targeted shrines and begin to once again hunt Sunnis in Baghdad and its southern environs. IS needs this sectarian fight badly if its fortunes on the battlefield in Syria and in northern Iraq are reversed over time. It will go to great lengths to get this sectarian fight, without which the group has no raison d'être. This likely means increased attacks against Shi'a symbols and populations, and more pressure for the Shi'a militia to respond as if it were a repeat of 2006. It will take remarkable political leadership of an untested government to ensure that 2015 does not turn out like 2007.