At approximately 20:00 on 20 September, an IED emplaced inside a Kia minibus detonated near Checkpoint 54, the main checkpoint along the Karbala – Babel Road outside Karbala city. The attack reportedly killed 12 individuals and wounded five others. Reports suggest a passenger left an IED in a bag under a seat before departing, with the device subsequently remotely detonated. Contributing to this highly lethal attack, reports suggests that many of the casualties were caused by individuals being trapped inside a burning vehicle as opposed to the direct effects of the blast. IS claimed responsibility for attacking a bus transporting Shi’a pilgrims at the mentioned location. IS claimed 10 individuals were killed and seven others were wounded in an accurate reflection of some casualty reporting.
On 21 September, unnamed security sources stated that National Security Service personnel arrested an individual identified as Yaqub Abbas Janabi, also known as Abu Aysha, in a restaurant near Checkpoint 54. Abu Ashya was accused of placing the IED inside the targeted bus, departing the vehicle shortly before the detonation. Likely based on resulting intelligence, joint security forces conducted an operation in the Hamya area of Jurf al-Sakhar sub-district, a historic IS staging ground in northern Babel province. ISF arrested an individual identified as Ibrahim Hamid Jasim Janabi, who was accused of supplying Abu Aysha with the device. ISF seized four IEDs and other IED materials.
Government and security officials regularly attempt to overshadow significant attacks with significant security responses including headlining arrests and casualty-producing airstrikes. That said, the claimed arrests on 21 September are not implausible, particularly given the release of images and growing discussion by official sources. At face value, these timely and effective security responses reflect positively on the performance of security forces. However, little optimism is play that the 21 September arrests will decisively degrade IS IED capabilities based from historic staging grounds in northern Babel province.
The emplacement of IEDs on buses, in storage compartments or magnetically attached, is a historically common IS tactic that is experiencing a resurgence in south-central Iraq. On 6 July, what was described as an under vehicle IED detonated against a PMF vehicle travelling on Babel-Baghdad Highway (Highway 8). Four PMF fighters were reportedly killed and a fifth was wounded in a particularly lethal attack. On 27 July, an IED detonated against another minibus outside Karbala near Checkpoint 54, killing two individuals and wounding six others. The arrests following the 20 September IED attack provided key additional insight into what was likely the same approach used in the 27 July attack.
Through these well-planned attacks, IS militants skillfully demonstrated the capability to project activity in well-defended environments of the Southern Region where the organization otherwise possesses limited operational capabilities. Due to its religious significance to the Shi’a population, Karbala remains an attractive target for Sunni extremist groups seeking to stoke sectarian discord. The timing of the latest incident during the Muharram holy month is expected to perpetuate security concerns during the approach to Arba’een in October. The incident underscores the elevated threat from terrorist activity at congested checkpoints locations, more particularly during periods of high pilgrim traffic.