Ghosts of the Past: The Double Suicide Bombing in Baghdad after the Defeat of ISIS in Iraq

Adam Hoffman investigates the deadly attack that ISIS perpetrated in the heart of Baghdad in mid-January, shortly after the official announcement of the organization’s defeat in Iraq.

Residents of Mosul demonstrate in solidarity with residents of Baghdad, after the double attack.  From Twitter.
Residents of Mosul demonstrate in solidarity with residents of Baghdad after the double attack. The sign reads “Your shahids (martyrs) [are] our shahids.” From Twitter.

Throughout the Middle East, 2017 was marked by the collapse of ISIS as a territorial entity. This was the direct result of the campaign of the Global Coalition against the organization, which was led by the United States and included the participation of the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces. The collapse of ISIS was especially evident in Iraq, which was where the first iteration of the organization was formed following the US invasion in 2003.  During the summer of 2014, ISIS was able to take control of a large portion of Western Iraq. However, despite recent declarations of victory against the group, ISIS is still active and determined to continue disrupting public order and security in the country. This was made eminently clear by the double suicide bombing attack in central Baghdad in mid-January 2018, which made manifest the threat that ISIS terrorism might return to the heart of Iraq shortly before the planned general elections.

On the morning of January 15, two suicide bombers detonated themselves in Tiran Square in the center of Baghdad, killing at least 38 people and injuring about 100 others. A video documenting the moment of the first suicide bombing was distributed on Twitter by a resident of Baghdad and received more than 12,500 views.[1] The immediate assessment made by senior intelligence officials in Iraq was that the attack had been perpetrated by sleeper cells of ISIS. After the attack, Iraqi Prime Minister Dr. Haider al-Abadi ordered military and intelligence officials in the country “to locate and punish sleeper terrorist cells, and protect the citizens’ safety.” [2]

Two days after the attack, ISIS' news agency Amaq claimed responsibility for the attack, but its announcement included several incorrect details. For example, it was claimed that three suicide bombers carried out the attack instead of the two originally reported. The delay in publishing the announcement, in contrast to previous terrorist attacks in Iraq for which ISIS claimed responsibility shortly after the incident, and the incorrect details in the text of the announcement may attest to difficulties the ISIS communications system has experienced in recent months and to the decline in the volume of its online activity.[3]

The fatal attack was exceptional in two respects. First, attacks in the Iraqi capital have been quite rare, even during the period of fighting against ISIS in Mosul and other parts of Iraq, due to the tight security system in and around the city. Secondly, this was the first terror attack in Baghdad since al-Abadi declared the end of fighting against ISIS in early December.[4]

The discourse on online social networks following the attack expressed the pain and shock that many felt about those killed, while also illustrating the fear of ISIS returning to Iraq so soon after the official announcement of its defeat. Mournful tweets carried the hashtags “Iraq is bleeding but not dead” and “Tiran Square.” One photo that was retweeted many times showed a father of five who was killed in a terror attack, with a caption asking that people to pray for mercy on his soul. Another popular tweet, which was posted by a Shi’i Iraqi user, showed a street cleaner before the attack and his body sprawled out the ground afterwards. It was accompanied with curses directed at the “Traders in religions” that were responsible for the attack. The user also related to the atmosphere in Iraq after the declaration of victory: “We looked at the future optimistically after being saved from ISIS” but “We have forgotten the political class in Iraq which is essentially connected to bloodshed.” In this way, this Shi’i user attempted to turn the spotlight on the country’s Sunni population, which many Iraqis identify with the murderous regime of ISIS and the terrorist attacks that it perpetrates.

However, despite these sectarian comments, Sunni citizens from Mosul chose to express solidarity with the residents of Baghdad following the attack. A resident of the city tweeted pictures of the city’s residents holding Iraqi flags and a placard reading “Your shahids (martyrs) [are] our shahids”  (see picture above). The user added, “Today, Mosul stands in solidarity with those martyred in Tiran Square, Baghdad.” It should be remembered that Mosul had been the capital of ISIS’s “caliphate” in Iraq, and was controlled by the organization for nearly three years prior to being re-conquered by the Iraqi army last July.

By mounting an attack in the Iraqi capital, ISIS wanted to show not only that it is still active and dangerous, but also that it is no less determined to disrupt political stability in Iraq, especially in the run-up to the May elections. al-Abadi stated, “Our responsibility as a state is to maintain the democratic process and to ensure that the elections are free and fair.”[5] These remarks were also  aimed at Sunni and Kurdish politicians who demanded postponing the elections until public security is restored, and until displaced Sunnis and Kurds can return to areas that were controlled by ISIS. They are making this demand out of concern that holding the elections as scheduled will give Shi’a a representational advantage in the new parliament.[6] The Global Coalition against ISIS is also aware of the sensitivity of the security situation in Iraq ahead of the upcoming elections. A Coalition spokesperson said that its forces are working together with the Iraqi security forces to ensure that the security situation in Iraq is “firmly in place” until the elections. [7]

The terrorist attack by ISIS in central Baghdad also highlighted Iraq’s vulnerability to terror perpetrated by ISIS even following the official defeat of the organization, especially considering the already rattled nerves of Iraqi citizens who fear a possible return of ISIS to their country. Despite the international claim that ISIS was defeated in Iraq, there is a significant gap between declarations of victory (such as that of the Iraqi army in early December 2017)[8] and the reality in which ISIS is indeed still active and operating using terrorism and guerilla methods. However, the discourse on online social networks reveals a degree of solidarity and unity among Iraqi society, which is trying to recover from the period of the ISIS regime, even if from an international point of view the struggle against ISIS is no longer high on the media agenda. These reactions indicate that, for many Iraqis, the ideological and the security threats posed by ISIS have not yet passed.



[1] @sunji_1, Twitter, 15 January 2018. 

[2] @HaiderAlAbadi, Twitter, 15 January 2018. 

[3] Gilad Shiloach, “ISIS’s Defeat in Syria and Iraq Is Also the End of ISIS’s Media as We Know It.” Jihadiscope, November 9, 2017. 

[4] Margaret Coker and Falih Hassan, “Iraq Prime Minister Declares Victory Over ISIS.” The New York Times, December 9, 2017. 

[5] @IraqiGovt, Twitter, 16 January 2018.

[6] “War-ravaged Iraq not ready for elections, say Sunnis calling for delay”, Rudaw, January 17, 2018. ; “Iraq Sunni tribes: Postpone elections until displaced return”, Middle East Monitor, January 15, 2018. 

[7] “Coalition, Iraqi forces focus on security ahead of May elections”, Rudaw, January 16, 2018. 

[8] @Defense_Iraq, Twitter, 9 December 2017.