Lina Khatib
Head, Middle East and North Africa Programme
Examples from across the region show ISIS thrives where governments cannot win local trust across the social and sectarian spectrum.
The reflection of members of Saraya al-Salam, a group formed by Iraqi Shia Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, as they prepare to reinforce government forces in the fight for control of Fallujah. Photo by Getty Images.The reflection of members of Saraya al-Salam, a group formed by Iraqi Shia Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, as they prepare to reinforce government forces in the fight for control of Fallujah. Photo by Getty Images.

The government of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi in Iraq is facing mounting criticism from both Sunnis and Shia supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, who both accuse it of corruption and of acting against the national interest. This criticism has added to the pressure on the government to prove itself as legitimate. In the absence of a political compromise, a military victory by the government against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has become one way of securing its future.

Yet as the Iraqi army embarks on an offensive on Fallujah to retake the city from ISIS, the Iraqi government continues to inadequately address the crucial dimension of buy-in from local Sunni residents for this army-led initiative. This absence is likely to worsen the government’s relationship with Iraqi Sunnis and weaken its bid for legitimacy. No matter how much effort any state invests in a military or security operation, success will be limited without the trust of the local people whose lives and livelihoods are at stake.

Different governments, different outcomes

Fallujah has been under ISIS control for almost two-and-a-half years. This control could only happen through the cooperation of local Sunni tribes with ISIS in late 2013, as they saw in it a convenient way to exact revenge on the Iraqi government—then led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki—following years of policies that privileged pro-Iran Shias and discriminated against Sunnis and those Shias who did not support Iran.

This kind of alliance of convenience between citizens and terrorist groups is not limited to Iraq, nor is it defined by sectarian grievances. In Libya, ISIS could only manage to retain control of Sirte because of the cooperation of the Gaddafi tribe in the city. The tribe has regarded this cooperation a way to weaken the post-2011 government that had excluded from Libya’s development plans areas considered strongholds of ousted leader Muammar Gaddafi.

In Egypt, the tentacles of ISIS are extending in Sinai because of cooperation with local jihadist groups like Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis that are portraying themselves to Sinai residents as an alternative to a state whose presence in this neglected region largely manifests itself through its security apparatus. Service delivery by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis is increasing the group’s popularity. Its link with ISIS has been partly motivated by the desire to obtain financial resources to enable this service delivery, thereby establishing a relationship of mutual benefit for the two groups: Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis gets the resources that allow it to increase its legitimacy in the eyes of the local people, while ISIS increases the scope of its global influence.

Security operations against ISIS and its affiliates in Libya and Egypt are under way, with plans to increase their scope. While it is important to weaken ISIS militarily, those operations will face added difficulties without the cooperation of local residents in Sirte and Sinai. Those local residents who have cooperated with ISIS will not only help in protecting the group as long as they see the state as an enemy, they also represent a loss of a valuable potential source of local intelligence for the security services and the military. The same dynamic applies to Fallujah.

These cases are in striking contrast to the situation in Tunisia. In March, ISIS launched an attack from Libya on the border town of Ben Gardane in southern Tunisia. The attack failed not just because of the resistance put up by the Tunisian army and national guard, but also because of the cooperation of local residents. The residents of Ben Gardane relayed important information to the security services that enabled them to capture tens of terrorist suspects both during and in the aftermath of the attack.

The case of Tunisia stands out because the people regarded the army as guarding their interests. This diverges greatly from the situation in Fallujah, where most Sunni tribes view the Iraqi army as an institution serving the interests of their sectarian rivals. It does not help that Shia militias have announced their intent to take part in the anti-ISIS offensive. Even if those militias act under the guidance of the Iraqi army, their recent atrocities against Sunnis in the Anbar province during the battle to liberate Ramadi from ISIS and their affiliation with Iran are causes of deep mistrust of the government’s motives among Iraq’s Sunni community.   

With this sectarian tension in place, and given that thousands of Fallujah’s residents are part of the families of ISIS fighters, the Iraqi army’s attempt to break into Fallujah is likely to face fierce resistance that surpasses the challenges faced in the liberation of the city of Ramadi few months ago. And even if the army manages to overcome ISIS in Fallujah, it will find it difficult to hold the city without the cooperation of its residents. It is only when local residents are won over that any anti-ISIS military operation can be hailed as a success. But this formula is absent in Iraq today.

The current government under Abadi desperately wants to increase its legitimacy through fighting ISIS. But the Iraqi army does not have enough capacity to tackle ISIS on its own, and has become dependent on the help of militias. The government’s blessing of the role of Shia militias in the fights against ISIS means that Sunnis still see it as continuing to discriminate against them. This resentment is in turn sustaining Sunni tribes’ embrace of ISIS in Fallujah and Mosul. Even if ISIS is defeated, the drivers behind people’s embrace of the group are likely to remain intact if not amplify.

All this indicates that the offensive on Fallujah may be urgent militarily but is premature politically and is likely to eventually hurt the legitimacy of Abadi’s government instead of bolstering it. It is only through the presence of a central government trusted by people from across the social and sectarian spectrum that terrorist groups like ISIS can be tackled comprehensively.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback