Iraqi intelligence officials have detailed how a cell of alleged car bombers affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) used inventive tactics to avoid detection, including hiding bombs in Quran boxes and brazenly displaying bottles of booze in the back seats of vehicles to throw off investigators.
Authorities said they recently arrested 31 members of the cell, including a senior emir who was considered a key leader. Investigators told AFP that 10 members of the group, which allegedly plotted and executed some 52 attacks across Baghdad in 2014 and 2015, are still on the loose.
It is unclear when the arrests took place, but an Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INIS) official said they all occurred within a 72-hour period that followed a six-month surveillance operation. INIS spokesman Fahim al-Atraqchi told AFP that the number of car bombings in Baghdad "decreased" in the weeks following the arrests.
The bombing cell reportedly managed to dodge authorities at numerous checkpoints set up across the city by employing a series of "ingenious" tactics, such as stuffing explosives into a modified Quran box, which would usually be used to hold the sacred text. Other tricks involved cutting trapdoors in car floorboards and displaying bottles of alcohol in their cars, Atraqchi said.
"They were trying to fool the police into thinking they were drinkers and dispel any suspicion they could be religious extremists," he said.
Max Abrahms, a professor at Northeastern University who studies IS and terrorism, said extremist organizations will continue to adapt as governments step up counterintelligence efforts.
IS, a Sunni militant group, carries out car bombings in Shiite areas of Baghdad partly to fan sectarian violence and increase the "bloodletting between the Sunnis and the Shiites in order to win over the support of the Sunni population," Abrahms said.
"When ISIS is hiding essentially among the civilian population, it's trying to conceal itself using novel ways, and it's trying to make the population itself a suspect to increase the chances that forces against ISIS will mistreat populations," Abrahms said. "After all, one of the main reasons for the development of ISIS in Iraq is because government forces mistreated the Sunnis."
On Monday, Iraqi authorities released photographs of the unnamed members of the alleged car-bombing cell. The men were blindfolded, bound, and lined up — as if in a school photograph — in brown uniforms against a wall at a detention facility. In front of them was a cloth bearing the spoils of INIS' raids on 10 cars the group allegedly prepared with explosives.
Rifles, laptops, headphones, pistols, forged ID cards, and dozens of fake license plates were also seized as part of the operation, authorities said.
"We were looking for targets that would grab headlines," one suspect, a father of four and former cell phone shop worker-turned-IS fighter, reportedly told AFP.
"ISIS is really good at grabbing headlines, but it doesn't care as much as it should about whether the headlines are negative or positive," Abrahms said. "The reality is that terrorism is a superb tactic for gaining attention, but the attention is overwhelmingly negative."
While IS proudly touts the brutal violence and executions it carries out in territory under its control, both its media strategy and targeting of civilians could ultimately work against the group, Abrahms said.
The shows of brutality may be effective to recruit a "small minority of those in the world who are already radical," but the "vast majority do not interpret the violence in the same way," he said. "Civilian targeting is also politically counterproductive for the perpetrators."
Abrahms said that al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the parent organization of IS, made the same mistake of inflicting too much indiscriminate violence on the population, rather than selectively targeting government forces.
"That's why AQI went out of business," he said. "It basically targeted anybody it could, including Sunnis, and eventually even the moderate Sunni population rose up against AQI, depleting its membership and ultimately weakening it. ISIS is committing the same mistake."
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