Representatives of the Islamic State jihadist group confirmed Thursday that they organized twin suicide bombings in Baghdad, Iraq, that day that left 32 dead and over 100 injured.
The attack was the largest of its kind in years in the capital, and the biggest significant attack by the Islamic State in the country since the demise of the group’s “caliphate” in 2017, prompting panic from the Iraqi government. The location is a particular cause of concern for Iraq given that ISIS was traditionally most active in the north of the country, taking over the then-second-largest city in the country, Mosul, and invading areas populated by the nation’s Yazidi minority. Baghdad is about 250 miles from Mosul. ISIS is a Sunni jihadist group, bringing it into conflict with the majority-Shiite Iraqi government and Iranian proxy militias like the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which became an official wing of the Iraqi military during the ISIS occupation.
The Kurdish outlet Rudaw confirmed on Thursday that members of the Islamic State used the encrypted application Telegram to confirm that the suicide bombers responsible for the attack this week were members of their jihadist outfit.
“Two suicide bombers belonging to the terror group detonated explosive belts in the crowded square, the group confirmed via its propaganda telegram channels late on Thursday,” Rudaw reported. “It said the second bomber struck as people gathered after the first explosion.”
Reports indicated the bombers waited for the square’s markets to become crowded before attracting locals by claiming to be sick. The Iraqi government had recently loosened mobility restrictions in place to fight the Chinese coronavirus pandemic, leading to a larger-than-usual crowd at the square.
The jihadist group also claimed in al-Naba, the most recent iteration of its propaganda newspaper, that it had conducted 30 attacks throughout Iraq in the week of January 15 to January 21, without providing evidence. Those attacks, ISIS boasted, killed another 40 people. Al-Naba appears to be a successor to Dabiq, the high-production Islamic State magazine that ceased publication in 2016, after U.S. and coalition forces launched a targeted campaign to eliminate ISIS’s top propagandists.
Rudaw reported that the Islamic State had killed 28 people in a similar attack in the same location in Baghdad in 2018, but these types of suicide bombings had become unusual in the capital in recent years.
The attack on Thursday prompted alarm from the Iraqi government, which rapidly moved to dismiss security officials who failed to act to prevent it. Iraqi Prime Minister Mostafa al Kadhimi reportedly dismissed at least four top officials — the head of the Iraqi federal police, two top Interior Ministry officials, and the director of Intelligence and Security of Baghdad Operations Office — in the aftermath of the attack.
“The two terrorist explosions against the safe citizens of Baghdad, at this time, confirms [sic] the endeavor of shadowy groups to target national achievements and the aspirations of our people for a peaceful future,” Iraqi President Barham Salih wrote in a statement posted on Twitter. “We stand firmly against these rogue attempts to destabilize our country.”
Iraqi government spokesman Yehia Rasool announced via Twitter on Friday that Baghdad would launch a campaign called “revenge of the martyrs” to eliminate the last of ISIS on Iraqi soil.
بتوجيه من القائد العام للقوات المسلحة @MAKadhimi، أنطلقت فجر يوم الجمعة عملية " ثأر الشُهداء " والتي تستهدف بقايا عصابات #داعش الإرهابية حيث تمكن @iraqicts، من الإطاحة بعدد من الإرهابيين في"باب المُعظم / #بغداد وعامرية الفلوجة، ومحافظة #كركوك. pic.twitter.com/lcQkcpmekp
— يحيى رسول | Yehia Rasool (@IraqiSpoxMOD) January 22, 2021
The attack followed a controversial move by the Iraqi government to postpone parliamentary elections for four months due to the government’s inability to guarantee that it could administer a free and fair election. Without citing a specific reason for the delay, the government listed among its reasons “the need to consolidate stability in the country, preserve the security and safety of citizens, strengthen the authority of the security services and enforce the law, protect community peace and security, prevent illegal actions and control fugitive weapons.”
After controlling large swathes of Iraq and Syria for years starting in 2014, the Islamic State suffered critical defeats in 2017 that saw the group lose the two most important cities in its “caliphate,” Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq. In 2019, a U.S. military operation President Donald Trump ordered resulted in the death of the “caliph” of the terrorist organization, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who reportedly detonated a suicide bomb upon realizing that American forces had found him.
“He died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way,” Trump said at the time.
Al-Baghdadi’s death deflated the Islamic State’s high profile among international jihadist sympathizers, but the leader left thousands of loyalists behind in the Middle East, particularly in areas previously controlled by the group. A spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S. coalition mission in Iraq and Syria, warned in November that as many as 10,000 Islamic State members were still active in both countries.
“They are not going to take over any territory, because we’ve defeated them territorially. Now, they are doing an insurgency,” the spokesman, Col. Wayne Marotto, explained. “They are assassinating people, they are kidnapping people. They are a bunch of criminals. They are still out there in some parts of Iraq, in the mountains and in the caves. We find them and we bomb them and we kill them.”