Iraq's Looming Election Has ISIS Spooked

Cross-sectarian amity ahead of the vote imperils the group’s existence—so it’s lashing out violently.

A field of empty chairs with a discarded campaign poster
A campaign poster at a rally in Baghdad on May 7, ahead of Iraq's parliamentary elections on May 12. (Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP / Getty)

The Islamic State has issued a stern warning to any Sunni Muslims planning to taking part in Iraq’s upcoming general elections—don’t.

On April 22, Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, the spokesman of ISIS, delivered a speech filled with lengthy Koranic verses and fiery religious rhetoric. He celebrated European and American “unbelievers being run over, stabbed, or killed in the streets of Paris, London, and Manhattan,” mocked U.S. failures to oust Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad while simultaneously lamenting the defeats of Syrian rebels—most of whom are ISIS’s rivals—at the hands of the Syrian regime. He also denounced the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, and the Palestinian Authority as “apostates.” But he reserved his harshest words for Iraq’s Sunnis, who constitute the backbone of ISIS. “We warn you against assuming the debts of those who have committed every form of apostasy. The voting centers and those within them are targets of our swords,” Muhajir said. Stay out of voting centers on May 12, the day of the polls—don’t even walk near them, Muhajir warned Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, who are believed to account for some 20 to 25 percent of Iraq’s 30 million people. Even those who oppose ISIS should stay home rather than “support or assist the rejectionist polytheists or their apostate lackeys regarded as Sunnis,” Muhajir said, referring to Shia Muslims, who revere saints or imams, along with any Sunnis who cooperate with the government in Baghdad.

While Muhajir’s tirade could have simply been the depraved rant of a mass murderer, it would be foolish to ignore his words. An explicit threat from ISIS to target Iraq’s parliamentary elections shows the importance of that vote, and suggests the weakened jihadi group’s persistent ability to wreak havoc in the country. Iraqi media has reported more than 15 assassination attempts against candidates or election officials over the past month. On Monday, ISIS claimed responsibility for the assassination of Sunni parliamentary candidate Farouq al-Jabouri, a candidate running on the election list of Ayad Allawi, Iraq’s former U.S.-backed prime minister. Iraq will bar firearms during election day and close its border crossings and airports for 24 hours before polling stations open on Saturday. Officials know that ISIS may be down, but it is certainly not out.

Sunni participation in the election represents an existential threat for ISIS. It could reintegrate Sunnis into a political process they’ve felt marginalized from. Such reintegration could cut against the resentment and hatred that ISIS uses to feed its ideology and attract recruits. “After ISIS, the fault lines have been shifting. I believe it has changed from before,” Hisham al-Hashemi, a former security adviser to the Iraqi parliament, told me. “At the beginning, the Sunnis believed the solution was weapons. Now they’ve turned to politics, dialogue, and foreign relations.”

ISIS and its precursors were born out of Sunni rage in the chaos and violence that swarmed Iraq after the United States toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. That cataclysm ended the centuries-old hegemony of Iraq’s Sunnis, paving the way for a new class of Shia politicians like former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as well as political parties backed by Iran or rooted in its brand of religiously inflected populism. During the worst of the sectarian bloodshed after the fall of Saddam, Sunni jihadists attacked Shia civilians and symbols, giving rise to Tehran-backed Shia militias that targeted Sunni civilians. This deadly dynamic gave birth to al-Qaeda in Iraq, which eventually mutated into ISIS.

The fighting of those years still comprises a core part of ISIS’s mythology. “Iraq is the ‘University of Jihad,’” the group proclaimed in an article in the latest issue of its weekly newsletter. “The experiences gained by the mujahideen in their ongoing war against the Crusaders and the rejectionists [Shia] and the [Sunni] Awakening will be lessons for the mujahideen everywhere.”

When Haider al-Abadi became prime minister of Iraq in 2014 shortly after the disastrous fall of Mosul to ISIS, he was a humdrum compromise candidate chosen by lawmakers and the power brokers of his Dawa Party, agreeable to both Washington and Tehran. But he has since come into his own. Heading an electoral list for the first time, he has reached out to Sunnis, including tribal leaders and prominent politicians who have joined his slate. Abadi, unlike Maliki, grew up in Baghdad’s upper-middle-class Karada district, surrounded by a cosmopolitan mix of Shias, Sunnis, Christians, and even Sabeans, an ancient Middle Eastern religious minority. He has gone to great lengths to cool sectarian tensions that reached a peak during Maliki’s final years in office, during which he used the courts to hunt down Sunni political rivals and the armed forces to crush mostly peaceful protests in Anbar province.

Other Shia politicians are following Abadi’s lead. Former Shia militia leader Hadi Ameri, a founder of the powerful Iranian-backed Badr Brigades, has recruited Sunni militia commanders who once fought alongside him against ISIS to run on his Fatah electoral list. Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric and politician who last year made a rare visit to Saudi Arabia and has long championed the cause of Iraq’s Sunnis, has partnered with Sunnis as well as Iraq’s Communist Party for his Alliance of Revolutionaries for Reform list.

All in all, the elections may cool sectarian tensions, and could even reconfigure Iraq’s political map. “There are a couple important differences between this election and the last election,” Kirk Sowell, an Iraq expert and the founder of Utica Risk Services, told me. “Sectarian polarization is way down. There are more cross-sectarian mash-ups in the electoral blocs.”

Of course, it’s important not to get too carried away. Iraq’s political class remains as incompetent and corrupt as ever. Iraqis face daily hours-long power cuts while billions in public funds have gone missing. The campaigns now underway remain largely devoid of substance or real debate. They have failed to address any of Iraq’s real problems, from a growing substance-abuse epidemic to the economy’s addiction to oil exports. Many of the Sunnis running on Shia-led lists are little more than local warlords who cut deals with their equally thuggish sectarian counterparts for their own end, such as Ameri’s partners in Anbar and Mosul provinces.

Many of Iraq’s Sunnis remain displaced, struggling to regain normalcy after years of displacement. Ahmed Mohammed Eid, a 19-year-old, lives in what remains of a two-story home reduced to rubble in the Anbar province town of Khaldiyeh. He said he doubted he would take part in the elections. Between school and his part-time jobs, he wouldn’t have time to vote even if he wanted to. “We’ve gotten nothing from the government,” he told me when we spoke in early March. “Why should I vote?”

But despite the campaigns’ light touch on the issues, voter apathy, and a lack of compelling candidates, the election still presents a non-ISIS alternative for Sunni. “Maliki was a great scarecrow a pretty good foil for ISIS,” Sowell said. “If Abadi’s vision prevails, if people accept a Shia prime minister with Sunni partners, that would be bad for the Islamic State narrative that this is an Iranian-run government oppressing Sunnis. This would undermine that line.”

Even after Abadi’s declaration of victory over ISIS in December, the group has remained a potent force. On May 2, it said it had bombed the home of a candidate in Tuz Khurmatu, a day after it said it struck at the home of a tribal leader north of Baghdad. It has claimed two attacks on the Iraqi Turkmen Front party in April, and one on the headquarters of the Sunni al-Hal party in Anbar province, killing seven people. In recent weeks, ISIS-linked groups have also launched devastating attacks against election-related targets in Libya and Afghanistan. The inside page of the latest issue of al-Naba, ISIS’s newsletter, featured an illustration of burning ballot box, sitting in a pool of blood.

“They are threatening the elections and calling for attacks on civil-service establishments,” said a Syrian researcher who has tracked the Islamic State’s rise. “Whether they will perpetrate any acts against these establishments is anybody's guess. Looking back at their history, they may well do it though. That’s worrying.”