Overview: The primary terrorist threats within Iraq included ISIS remnants and Iran-aligned militia groups, including U.S.-designated Harakat al-Nujaba, Kata’ib Hizballah, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq as well as the smaller Iranian-aligned militias claiming to be a part of Iraq’s “resistance.” The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (or PKK), a terrorist group headquartered in the mountains of northern Iraq, also conducted multiple attacks in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) that resulted in the deaths of several Kurdish security forces personnel.
Despite its territorial defeat, ISIS continued to conduct operations on a smaller scale, particularly in the North and West, including rural areas with limited presence of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). ISIS sought to reestablish footholds in Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninewa, and Salah al-Din provinces, especially in the areas of disputed control between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the federal government. Although ISIS maintained its capability to conduct deadly terrorist attacks in Iraq, these attacks resulted in fewer casualties in 2020 than in previous recent years. Attack methods included bombings, indirect fire, IEDs, and ambushes. Iraq remains a pivotal member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and a participant in all Coalition Working Groups (Foreign Terrorist Fighters, Counter-ISIS Finance Group, Stabilization, and Communications). The Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) conducted more than 253 operations against ISIS during 2020, often with Defeat-ISIS support.
Iraqi counterterrorism functions are principally executed by the CTS, a cabinet-level entity reporting directly to the prime minister, as well as by various security forces under the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the Kurdish Peshmerga. In limited instances, Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) augment Iraqi Army and CTS-led operations. While all PMF are required by law to operate as part of the ISF, many PMF groups continued to defy central government command and control and engaged in violent and destabilizing activities in Iraq and neighboring Syria, including killing and abducting protesters. Attacks by Iran-aligned militias against U.S. interests increased in 2020, resulting in the killing and wounding of U.S., Iraq, and other Defeat-ISIS service members.
2020 Terrorist Incidents: Terrorists conducted more than 100 IED attacks on Defeat-ISIS-contracted convoys and launched at least 40 indirect fire attacks against U.S. interests in Iraq. The following is a representative list of terrorist incidents:
- On January 4, Iran-aligned militias conducted indirect fire attacks on Embassy Baghdad and Balad Air Base, as well as on Embassy Baghdad on January 21 and 26, resulting in material damage and injuries.
- On March 11, Iran-aligned militias conducted indirect fire attacks on Camp Taji, killing three Defeat-ISIS personnel and wounding others. This was followed by a second rocket attack on Camp Taji on March 14, wounding several Iraqi and other Defeat-ISIS personnel.
- During October 29-30, ISIS conducted extended attacks by sniper and mortar fire on security forces and civilians from nearby orchards in Diyala province.
- On November 9, ISIS conducted an attack at Radhwaniyah Village on the outskirts of Baghdad, killing 11 persons and wounding responding ISF units.
- On December 20, Iran-aligned militias conducted indirect fire attacks on Embassy Baghdad with 20 rockets, resulting in material damage.
Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: Iraq made no significant changes to its counterterrorism legal and law enforcement framework in 2020. Human rights groups reported that authorities arrested suspects in security sweeps without warrants, particularly under the antiterrorism law, and frequently held such detainees for prolonged periods without charge or registration. Courts routinely accepted forced confessions as evidence; in some ISIS-related terrorism cases this was the only type of evidence considered.
Beginning in October, the Iraqi government started efforts to improve the security situation of the International Zone. These efforts, combined with diplomacy, resulted in a significant decline in the number of indirect fire attacks against U.S. facilities in Baghdad in the last quarter of 2020.
Border security remained a critical vulnerability, as the ISF has limited capability to fully secure Iraq’s borders with Syria and Iran. Border security along the periphery of the IKR is administered by the ISF and Peshmerga. The border with Syria south of the IKR remained porous. In July, the Prime Minister deployed forces at the border as part of a three-phase initiative to enhance border security. The Iraqi government reopened the al-Arar border crossing with Saudi Arabia after a 30-year closure. Iraq and the United States partnered to close a gap in border security through broader deployment of and upgrades to the U.S.-provided PISCES (Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation System) integrated border security management system. While the Ministry of Interior shared biometric information upon request on known and suspected terrorists with the United States, INTERPOL, and other international partners, there remained no legal instrument implementing a U.S. program to facilitate biometric information-sharing on both terrorist and criminal suspects.
Countering the Financing of Terrorism: Iraq is a member of MENAFATF and the Defeat-ISIS CIFG. The Government of Iraq (GOI) — including the Central Bank of Iraq, law enforcement, security forces, and the judiciary in Baghdad and the IKR — continued to target ISIS financial networks and safeguard Iraq’s financial institutions from exploitation by ISIS.
Countering Violent Extremism: Iraq continued its strategic messaging to discredit ISIS, including through its membership in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Communications Working Group. Many Iraqi ISIS fighters remained in Iraqi custody, along with ISIS-affiliated family members. Iraq acknowledged that the return and reintegration of family members of suspected ISIS supporters, as well as the provision of fair and equal justice, are important to prevent future terrorist radicalization and violence. However, almost 1.3 million Iraqis remain displaced within Iraq, and some 30,000 — mainly women and children — reside in al-Hol refugee camp in Syria. The GOI made no significant efforts to facilitate the return of Iraqi women and children from Syria in 2020. Iran-aligned militias routinely used threatening messaging to promote violent extremism.
International and Regional Cooperation: Iraq continued to work with multilateral and regional organizations — including the United Nations, the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, NATO, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, INTERPOL, and the Arab League — to support counterterrorism efforts.
Source: “Country Reports on Terrorism 2020,” U.S. State Department, (December 16, 2021).