Late on the morning of 17 October, unidentified gunmen abducted 12 individuals in the nearby Farhatiyah area. One relative claimed the gunmen wearing military uniforms. The abductees included 10 individuals from the predominately Rafi’at tribe and two children from the Jisat tribe, both of which are Sunni Arab. The Salah ad Din Police Command stated that an Emergency Police unit recovered the bodies of eight missing individuals near the village at around noon, approximately one hour after the abductions. Later reports cited the recovery of 10 bodies, with most of the victims executed by gunshot wound to the head. Amongst the victims were 2-4 off-duty Tribal PMF members belonging to units active in Anbar province, and a number of students. At least two other individuals remained missing.
Conflicting reports claimed these events occurred on the night of 16 October, ostensibly in conjunction with the above mentioned IS attack in Sayyid Gharib village that evening. However, significant gaps in timing references remained apparent. Salah ad Din Governor Amar Jabr Khalil conducted an emergency phone conversation with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, asking him to open an investigation. Reports from social media sources accused Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) of responsibility for the attack, noting that the government was unable to officially raise such allegations. Most local government sources attributed the attack to unidentified assailants.
Suspected indiscriminate PMF responses to regular attacks in suburbs of Balad:
IS has conducted similar brutal attacks in the past involving the abductions and executions of several individuals affiliated with security forces. However, the intensity of IS murder and intimidation operations has dropped significantly in accordance with incremental reductions in IS capabilities. Current activities tend to involve small-scale night raids targeting individuals with local government and security ties. The deadliest relevant attack in Salah ad Din province in the recent past involved a raid near Samarra city on 24 July. The gunmen executed a village mukhtar and four relatives including an off-duty soldier.
A high-profile raid during daylight hours would degrade the likelihood of IS perpetration, but IS involvement cannot be outright discounted. IS attack intent was expected to be elevated during the period following Arba’een, but security operations spearheaded by Counter-Terrorism Service units resulted in the arrests of dozens of suspected IS members amongst other successes. IS intent to register a propaganda victory could have motivated a shift in patterns involving a bold and highly lethal attack against a vulnerable population center. Nevertheless, given the available information, alternative conditions are assessed to be more likely.
Since September, IS conducted at least six attacks against PMF in the Balad district, with each targeting AAH locations in areas near the latest developments. Casualties were relatively moderate, but all three attacks since 28 September resulted in 1-2 fatalities. Additional attacks were likely, with PMF commonly recharacterizing IS attacks as their forces proactively engaging insurgents. Security successes have not been absent, with credible reports of four insurgents killed during an engagement in a nearby area on 11 September. However, resilient and elusive IS cells remained active as seen during subsequent activity, frustrating PMF units.
For further discussion and analysis, please see the full report.