One way that ISIS tries to swell its ranks and increase its power is by eliminating what it calls “gray zones.” That term is specifically used to refer to places in the world where Muslims and non-Muslims coexist under non-Muslim governments–so many countries in Europe, or the United States, would fit into this category. The idea is to carry out attacks in these places in order to destroy that co-existence, provoke a backlash by the non-Muslim society against its Muslim citizens/neighbors/etc., and force the Muslims living in those places to come over to ISIS because, ideally, they have nowhere else to turn. But really, the gray zone in the broadest sense is anyplace where ISIS’s worldview dictates that an us (pious Sunni Muslims) against them (everybody else) mentality should apply but, for whatever reason, doesn’t. And since ISIS, good takfiri organization that it is, believes that any self-described Muslims other than pious Sunnis are not actually Muslim at all, you don’t have to go to Europe or America to find the gray zone. In fact, you can find it most prominently in the two countries that have suffered more at ISIS’s hands than any others: Syria and Iraq.
In both Syria and Iraq you had, before ISIS burst (back) on to the scene in 2014, Sunni populations resisting what they saw as oppressive and/or discriminatory governance by non-Sunnis. Now, in Syria this was a general rebellion against a brutal dictator, though it’s undeniably true that most of the rebels are Sunnis and most of Syria’s non-Sunni and non-Muslim population has more or less stayed in Assad’s camp, whereas in Iraq it was a popular Sunni resistance to a democratically-elected but ultimately very sectarian government, but there were obviously enough commonalities in the two struggles that ISIS found a strong footing amid both of them. Leaving Syria aside because this post is about Iraq, ISIS has always had a dual track strategy in mind: taking and holding as much of Iraq’s traditionally Sunni Arab territory as possible, making itself the de facto government for those Sunni Arabs living under its control, while provoking the kind of response from Iraq’s Shiʿa-dominated government (and its powerful Shiʿa militias) that would drive Iraqi Sunnis (somewhat) voluntarily into ISIS’s camp (either in anger or just desperation). It’s ISIS vs. the gray zone, just as it is everywhere else.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that the gray zone is winning these days–the gray zone won’t win unless and until places like Ramadi, Tikrit, and Fallujah are rebuilt and repopulated with Sunnis living peaceably under a representative government–but it’s more than fair to say that ISIS is losing. As of the middle of May it had lost 45% of the Iraqi territory it held at its peak, and that was a few weeks before Fallujah was finally taken from them in late June. Mosul is the next major domino to fall, and if/when it does ISIS will be back to where it was in Iraq before it took Mosul two years ago: underground, scrambling to reestablish itself. So with one part of its Iraqi strategy coming apart at the seams, naturally ISIS has begun leaning more heavily on the other part: looking to provoke Iraqi Shiʿa into the kind of retaliatory action that might push more Sunnis in their direction. Hence all the attacks on Baghdad, which ISIS (and before it AQI) has consistently perpetrated, but which have diminished in frequency at times when ISIS has enjoyed its greatest successes on the battlefield. And hence the group’s most recent terrorist strike:
Islamic State suicide bombers reportedly disguised as militiamen tried to storm one of Iraq’s main Shia sites on Thursday night, in the most serious attack on a holy site since the destruction of another Shia shrine a decade ago, which sparked the country’s sectarian war.
The bombers, aided by gunmen, fought through a marketplace to the gates of the Sayyid Muhammad bin Ali al-Hadi mausoleum in Balad, before blowing themselves up near its main gates, in what Iraqi officials claim was Isis’s most brazen attempt yet to re-ignite sectarian chaos.
At least 40 people died in the attack and, while the shrine was not damaged, its gates were scorched by the blasts and fire that destroyed the market.
Muhammad b. Ali al-Hadi (d. ~861) was one of the sons of (as his name tells you) Ali al-Hadi (d. 868), the Tenth Imam according to Imami/Twelver Shiʿa belief. His brother, Hasan al-Askari (d. 874), was the Eleventh Imam and the father (maybe) of Muhammad al-Mahdi (whose historicity is probably not attestable barring the discovery of some new evidence), the Twelfth or “Occulted” Imam who Imami Shiʿa believe will return at the End of Days as the Mahdi. Muhammad b. Ali al-Hadi briefly had a branch of Shiʿism centered around the idea that he, not Hasan, was his father’s chosen successor (even though Muhammad pre-deceased Ali al-Hadi), but that never really went anywhere. Still, as the son of one imam and brother of another, his shrine is a holy place for Imami Shiʿa.
The last terrorist strike against an Iraqi Shiʿa holy site of this magnitude, the one referenced in that quote above, was the 2006 al-Qaeda in Iraq strike on the Askariyah Mosque in Samarra, the birthplace of Hasan al-Askari. There were no casualties reported in that attack, but the mosque itself was severely damaged. AQI never officially took credit for that bombing, perhaps because its parent organization was reticent about, though not totally above inciting, attacks targeting Shiʿa, but we know that the dearly departed leader of AQI, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, called for attacks against Shiʿa sites in an effort to provoke a Sunni-Shiʿa civil war in Iraq. And Samarra did help provoke that civil war. It was the spark that set off the brush fire of sectarian violence that marked the 2006-2007 period of the Iraqi occupation, which was and still is called a “civil war” in many quarters despite the Bush administration’s best efforts to downplay or outright lie about what was happening. Undoubtedly ISIS is hoping to spark another sectarian civil war now, because that might be the only scenario under which it can hold on to Mosul and regain some of its position in Iraq.