With Iraqi Special Forces and American military advisors just twenty miles outside of Mosul, the liberation of Iraq’s third largest city has never been closer. Yet there are few in the American intelligence community who see the liberation of Mosul as the final battle against IS. The eventual liberation of Mosul will mark the end of IS as a traditional insurgency and the beginning of its shift back into a traditional terrorist organization. While IS’s transition will be slow and painful the threat that they will eventually morph into will be significantly more hazardous to Iraq’s future as compared to the current insurgency.
As a geo-political terrorist group, IS’s current threat to Iraq’s security comes mainly in the form of traditional conflict, in which the conquering of territory plays a central role. In these types of conflicts, IS can be combatted through armed conflict. But once Mosul is liberated, Iraqi and American Special Forces will no longer be able to combat IS through traditional military means. The cornerstone of Iraqi counter-insurgency tactics, Special Forces and heavy Armored Fighting Vehicles (AFV’s) ground invasions, will no longer be feasible as a means for combatting IS The Iraqi military is setup and supported in a manner, which facilitates multi-front large-scale invasions but does a poor job of protecting soft targets. Thus once IS can no longer be categorized as a land-holding insurgency in Iraq, IS’s tactics will be better suited for attacks on the Iraqi people.
The question then becomes: how will IS change tactics after losing its stronghold in Mosul? IS’s pre-territorial past may contain a clue. Prior to gaining a physical foothold in Iraq, IS’s predecessor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, exploited the rough ethnographic topography and deep sectarian divisions that permeate almost every aspect of daily life in Iraq. The former leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, intentionally stoked the flames between neighboring Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurdish tribesmen. Zarqawi, a Jordanian born Jihadist, is credited with hundreds of attacks on both Sunni and Shi’a communities across Iraq during the early 2000s. Zarqawi’s tactics became so brutal, and his willingness to kill Muslim civilians so great, that Osama Bin Laden and his right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, eventually broke ties with Zarqawi. Thus, Al-Qaeda in Iraq splintered and formed The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an organization motivated by Zarqawi’s extreme tactics. Zarqawi’s strategies were so effective that he ended up a top priority for the CIA and was eventually the recipient of a 500-pound laser-guided bomb courtesy of The Agency. As ISIS began to gain territory, the group moved away from purely sectarian attacks and morphed into more a traditional insurgency, similar to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
With the loss of Mosul it is likely that IS will revert back to its pre-insurgency tactics of targeted bombings and more traditional terror campaigns similar to the Iraqi terror campaigns of 2005.While the major cities in Iraq remain under Iraqi military control, as American advisors and the Iraqi government cannot afford to leave a vacuum for a paramilitary takeover, small northern towns such as Diyala remain highly susceptible to IS’s bomb and divide tactics upon which the group was once founded. Thus, as IS likely reverts to its pre-insurgency tactics, the threat of sectarian violence and the likelihood of heightened violence and significant destabilization in smaller, ethnically divided areas increases substantially. A combination of the slimming of international resources as well as the Iraqi government’s inability to fight a gorilla style terror campaign, paint a tough picture of a post-insurgency Iraq.