COVID-19 is not the only killer lurking about the shifting battlefield of a post-Saddam Iraq. Former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi proclaimed that the war against the Islamic State was over in 2017, but perhaps, like former President George W. Bush in 2003, he declared victory a bit prematurely. On January 21, 2021, twin suicide bombings emitted a plume of smoke above a market in Baghdad. Health officials said 32 people were killed and at least 100 others were injured in the first mass casualty attack in the nation’s capital in more than two years- a worrisome development that underscores the precarious security situation in Iraq amid U.S. withdrawal and deep concern that the Islamic State is resurgent. While the Iraqi government has made major strides in degrading and disrupting the Islamic State over the years, it must acknowledge the substantial threat the organization continues to pose the country on its road to democratization.
Iraq is in the middle of an existential crisis. Its geographic borders were defined by European colonialism, and its history impacted by the ideas of occupation, revolution, and coup d’e’tat. Additionally, the search for unity has proven to be difficult due to the heterogeneity of Iraq’s ethno-religious groups and the inability of the country’s government to represent the interests of a diverse community. Within a region rife with authoritarian regimes and a terrain plagued by the shadows of war, democratic prospects are few and far between. Although since 2004, Iraqis have embraced the constitutional process and held numerous regular elections, many of its people are disaffected and unemployed, wandering adrift in contours of ethno-religious cleavages, void of a state that can provide basic services: safety, electricity, and water. Couple this actuality with the de-Ba’athification of Iraqi society and the dissolution of the Iraqi Army, which was facilitated by the 2003 U.S. intervention, and led to the rise of Iranian-backed Shia militias, and Kurdish as well as Shiite political empowerment and marginalized Sunnis as a result, it is apparent that Iraq is a security dilemma. Furthermore, there is a youth bulge, U.S. combat troops are preparing for redeployment, illiteracy is widespread, and corrupt kleptocrats are eager to enrich themselves at the expense of salvaging a war-torn economy and strengthening trust in government responsiveness. Consequently, Iraq’s trajectory towards democracy is fragile and not linear. Meanwhile, as dark clouds of instability hover over the country’s political landscape, many young people are alienated and exasperated, desperate to fill the void in their heart, looking for signs of hope, a sense of identity, and belonging. And herein lays the danger of this security vacuum, a vulnerable, polarized, and disenfranchised Sunni population, or from another perspective, another generation of Iraqis that the Islamic State can prey on and exploit as terrorist cannon fodder. The group is seemingly aware that extreme polarization can bring governability and social cohesion efforts to a near standstill, slow democratic promotion endeavors, and therefore, provide an opening for the Islamic State to capitalize on Sunni victimization.
One can argue that the threat posed by the Islamic State to Iraq is overhyped. Thanks to the military leadership of the United States and the resolve of its coalition partners, 2019 was a tough year for the Islamic State. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the organization’s then-leader, was killed in a U.S. raid and their proto-state crumbled as hundreds of Islamic State fighters surrendered in Baghuz- the group’s last piece of territory. Underscoring the success of the United States and their Iraqi partners in the degradation of Islamic State capabilities, the outfit has been forced to transition back to an insurgency that has regrouped in Iraq’s rural and under-governed areas. From these safe havens, the Islamic State had conducted a diminished rate of small-scale and rudimentary attacks, it had struggled to issue communiqués, and many of its foot soldiers, like its known senior leadership, had been captured or killed. Consequently, it could be said that by 2019, the Islamic State threat in Iraq was largely diminished as the organization’s ability to organize and conduct operations was severely undercut.
By the beginning of 2020, however, the Islamic State began to show signs of resurgence in Iraq. With the emergence of COVID-19, the country’s focus began to shift away from the fight against the organization, as Iraqi forces were overwhelmed, struggling to contain and address the disruption the pandemic was having on exacerbating precursors of democratic erosion, like polarization due to ethno-religious divisions, corruption, and the government’s inability to provide security and basic services. That said, the Islamic State, at one point known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, is a product of these mechanisms of democratic breakdown and is driven to exploit Sunni fears and create instability. Ergo, there has been a surge in Islamic State operations in rural and urban areas, attack type and sophistication, an increase in digital propaganda, and recruitment efforts, for about two years. The aforesaid twin suicide bombings in January, as well as the car bomb attack last month in Baghdad, exemplify this point. Further underscoring the Islamic States’ rebirth in Iraq, there was a 94% increase in attacks from 292 in Q1 2019 to 566 in the Q1 2020. Perhaps even more alarming about these attack metrics, the amount of explosive incidents between Q1 2019 in comparison to Q1 2020 more than doubled. There were 40.3 such attacks per month in Q1 2019 and 87.3 such attacks per month in Q1 2020. Consequently, the Islamic State has proven once again, it is adept at exploiting Iraq’s underlying conditions of democratic breakdown, and like with the pandemic, able to thrive on chaos.
Islamic State is down but not out. The threat emanating from the organization
will continue to fluctuate from low to severe risk. Iraqi forces will continue
to disrupt Islamic State operations but the government must succumb to an
unsettling realization. The Islamic State may never be eradicated in Iraq as
its ideas will always appeal to some; but if there is enough political will and
military pressure, it can be contained. However, any kinetic or psychological
blow will be short-lived, and the Islamic State will continue, as it is now, to
be a significant threat to Iraqi democracy. This is, unless Iraqi forces fully
engage the Islamic State in the battle to win hearts and minds, and more
adequately address the factors that have spurred its rise.
 Ranji Alaadin, “To save Iraq from economic collapse and fight ISIS, contain Iran’s proxies,” Brookings, February 17, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/02/17/to-save-iraq-from-economic-collapse-and-fight-isis-contain-irans-proxies/.
 Jowan Mahmod, “Iraq’s demographic time bomb,” LE MONDE diplomatique, October 17, 2019, https://mondediplo.com/outsidein/iraq-s-demographic-time-bomb.
 Jennifer McCoy, Tahmina Rahman, and Murat Somer, “Polarization and the Global Crisis of Democracy: Common Patterns, Dynamics, and Pernicious Consequences for Democratic Polities,” American Behavioral Scientist 62, no.1 (2018): 16.
 “Global Terrorism: Threats to the Homeland”, 116th Cong. 1, 4. (2019) (testimony of National Counterterrorism Center Acting Director, Russell Travers).
 Anthony H. Cordesman, “The Real World Capabilities of ISIS: The Threat Continues,” last modified September 9, 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/real-world-capabilities-isis-threat-continues.
 Michael Knights, and Alex Almeida, “Remaining and Expanding: The Recovery of Islamic State Operations in Iraq in 2019-2020,” CTC Sentinel 13, no.5 (2020): 14.