National Security & Defense

The Baghdad Bombings and Three Observations on ISIS’s Evolving Strategy

Aftermath of the bombing in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, May 11, 2016. (Wissm al-Okili/Reuters)

Nearly 100 people were killed Wednesday in three coordinated Daesh — also known as ISIS — attacks on Shiite Muslims in Baghdad. This was not random Daesh violence. Instead, these atrocities were planned in direct consideration of Daesh’s evolving strategy. On that basis, I believe that there are three key observations we should draw.

First, Iraq’s capital has had a bitter taste of how Daesh will respond to the tightening encirclement it faces. As I noted recently, Daesh is under growing pressure in its Syrian capital of Raqqa and in its Iraqi capital of Mosul. And while Daesh’s global-terrorism capability is growing, its home bases are not the citadels of easy security they once were. As such, grasping to reclaim the initiative in Iraq, Daesh is renewing the approach that first made it strong. Daesh is moving away from its focus on holding territory and is once again targeting Iraq’s fragile civil society. As I explained in June 2013, Daesh was focused on massacring Shiite Iraqis in brutal and public ways designed to throw the country into sectarian conflict. That strategy succeeded.

Witnessing Daesh’s purge of “apostate” Shiite Muslims, the region’s then-fragmented Salafi jihadist fanatics were energized under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death banner. In turn, former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki escalated his persecution of innocent Sunnis and embraced Iranian sectarianism. Within just a few months, Iraq’s tradition of multi-sectarian nationalism collapsed and Daesh forged its empire.

Looking for further evidence of Daesh’s return to the bloody basics? Consider its corollary strategy of targeting Shiite civilians in Damascus.

Iraq is currently afflicted by an escalating political crisis.

But these attacks illustrate more than Daesh’s re-focus on sectarian bloodletting. In equal measure, they reflect Daesh’s astute attention to Iraqi politics. Iraq is currently afflicted by an escalating political crisis. There are the sectarian proxies of Iran determined to turn Iraq into a political and theological puppet of Ayatollah Khamenei. There are separatist actors like the Kurds and the Sunni Anbari tribes. There are the mix of Sunni and Shiite politicians — like current Iraqi prime minister Abadi — who seek some degree of stability and democratic plurality.

And there is Muqtada al-Sadr (think an Iraqi Trump) who seeks power under the pretense of his new nationalist-populist identity. But as Sadr’s recent storming of the fortified Green Zone proves, the political cliff edge is growing closer. Daesh wants to push the Iraqi parliament over that precipice. Correspondingly, it’s likely that Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood was specifically targeted in yesterday’s biggest attack in order to weaken Sadr’s ability — alongside Iraqi Shiite nationalist leader Grand Ayatollah Sistani — to forge a grand bargain with Sunni politicians. In particular, this attack reeks of Baathist strategists. As Kyle Orton has reported, Daesh’s military successes rest significantly on its cadre of former Baathist military officers from Saddam Hussein’s regime. Unlike the blood-fetish psychopath cadre of Daesh, the ex-Baathist officials are flexible in strategy, and skilled in asymmetric warfare: They are what President Obama called the junior-varsity squad.

One final observation from these attacks bears light on Daesh’s identity: In Wednesday’s attacks, we’ve seen another reference marker to the theological fanaticism that fuels Daesh’s strategic endeavor. Regardless of the pressure Daesh faces in terms of territory and materiel, the group will never surrender. Until its leaders, its fighters, and its banner are buried under the semi-functioning Iraqi and Syrian states, al-Baghdadi’s hordes will continue to threaten global security. What happened in Baghdad matters for many reasons. America’s security is prominent among them.

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at

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