Security Landscape: Militias, ISIL, and Counterterrorism in Iraq

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Iraq’s direct terrorist threats included ISIL remains and various Iran-aligned militia groups, including U.S.-designated Kata’ib Hizballah, Harakat al-Nujaba, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, as well as more undersized militias, declaring to be a part of Iraq’s “Islamic Resistance.” The Kurdistan Workers’ Party a designated terrorist group mostly located in the mountains of northern Iraq and southeastern Türkiye, executed multiple attacks in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region resulting in the demises of several Kurdish security forces personnel.

ISIL, though severely decreased in capacity, continued to perform operations, particularly in northern and western rustic areas with limited Iraqi Security Forces presence. ISIL aimed to reestablish footholds in Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninewa, and Salah al-Din provinces, particularly in the gaps between those areas often patrolled by the Peshmerga and ISF.  

Although ISIS executed deadly terrorist attacks in Iraq, those attacks resulted in fewer deaths nationwide in 2021 than in previous years. Methods included bombings, IEDs, indirect fire, sniper fire, and traps. Iraq remained a key member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and a player in all Coalition Working Groups.  Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Service operated about 170 counterterrorist operations against ISIS during 2021, usually with Defeat-ISIS Coalition support.

Iraqi counterterrorism functions were mostly executed by the CTS, a cabinet-level entity reporting straight to the prime minister, as well as by different security forces under the Ministries of Defense and Interior, and the Peshmerga. In restricted instances, Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) increased Iraqi Army and CTS-led operations. All PMFs were demanded by law to operate under the management and control of the prime minister.  

However, Iran-aligned militia groups, including numerous within the PMF, fought central government command and control and were employed in violent and destabilizing actions in Iraq and neighboring Syria, including killing and kidnapping people protesting militia corruption. The attacks by IAMGs against U.S. interests resulting in the deaths and wounding of Iraqi service members and residents remained about the same in 2021 as in 2020. 

However, The Iraqi government enhanced the security of the International Zone before the October 2021 national election. Iraq did not greatly change its counterterrorism legal and rule enforcement framework. Human rights groups said that authorities arrested suspects in security sweeps without warrants, especially under the antiterrorism law, and repeatedly held such detainees for lengthy periods without charge. 

The groups also allege courts routinely received forced confessions as proof, and in some ISIS-related claims this was the only evidence. Border security and corruption remained a crucial vulnerability, as the Border Guard Security Force had a narrow capability to fully secure Iraq’s boundaries with Syria and Iran. Border security was distributed by the BGSF, with ISF or Peshmerga deployed behind them. The border with Syria around Türkiye remained extremely porous, and border areas with Iran were typically controlled by IAMGs. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Export Control and Related Border Security started a two-year train-the-trainer agenda for several hundred Iraqi border guards.

While the Ministry of Interior transferred biometric information upon request on suspected terrorists with the US, INTERPOL, and other allies, a biometric information-sharing agenda was not completed by the government.

Baghdad was a member of MENAFATF, as well as the Counter-ISIS Finance Group.  The Government of Iraq — including the Central Bank, regulation enforcement, security forces, the judiciary in Baghdad, and the IKR — persisted in targeting ISIL financial networks and safeguarding Iraq’s financial institutions. Iraq worked to maintain its AML/CFT regime. Iraq’s FIU was not a component of the Egmont Group, which restricted Iraq’s ability to exchange data with other FIUs on illicit finance problems; but Iraq operated toward membership. 

Iraq also continued strategic messaging to negate ISIL, in part by providing meaningful content to the Coalition Communications Cell. Many Iraqi ISIL fighters stayed in Iraqi custody, while numerous Iraqi civilians, including some household members of ISIL members, stayed in displaced persons centers. Iraq believed that the return and social reintegration of family members of supposed ISIL supporters, as well as the condition of fair and equal justice, is necessary to prevent future terrorism and damaging radicalization. The Government of Iraq repatriated 300 supposed ISIL fighters from northeastern Syria confinement facilities as well as 1,779 Iraqi nationals, especially women and children from Al-Hol. 

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