In his last released video message, leader of the so called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi appeared with three men. One of them had a semi-hidden pistol in his belt, which is a Croatian HS 2000 pistol sold to Iraqi police forces. The pistol, which is not important in the scenery of the video message, could tell a lot about the linkage between ISIS and corruption in Iraqi army and security institutions. Regardless of how weak the ISIS’ insurgents are nowadays, there are mutual interests between the insurgents and some corrupt military and security officials in Iraq. As corruption feeds ISIS insurgents, ISIS also provides many benefits to the officials.
The ISIS’ corruption-benefits are not limited to their arms, ammunition, and logistic supports that are paid for from Iraq’s defense budget; it is actually much more complicated as corruption was one of the three key reasons to the organization’s Mosul conquest, which empowered it to pose direct threats to several regional countries.
Now, the ISIS insurgent operations are an excuse for wasting huge amount of defense budget, while they are quite weak, desperate, and paralyzed in some rural areas like Qara Chukh in Nineveh, Pallkana in Tuz-Khurmatu, Nada Plain in eastern Diyala, and Mtebija in Salah Adin.
Corruption, which has cost Iraq more than $785.86 billion since 2003, is among the top concerning factors to keep ISIS’ insurgents survive. It is also expected to give birth to similar radical armed groups. What underpins this concern is not the devastating effect of corruption on the service institutions and downgrading quality of governance, but its endemic effect on security and military forces that are supposed to protect Iraq.
Up to the ISIS war in 2014, the bulk of corruption in Iraqi army and security forces was dangerously big. According to a report published by Transparency International, army officers and leaders in Mosul were selling ammunition and spare parts of their armored vehicles. They were used to sell food items provided for soldiers. Plus, military ranks and positons were also sellable among the patronage networks who were surrounding top army commanders and Iraqi prime minister office; a battalion command allegedly was purchased at $10,000 and a division command in $1 million as an investment to make more money. The endemic corruption still works, but in different levels and various ways.
Corruption and Terrorism Strengthen Each Other
The Transparency International’s report pointed out ISIS benefits from corruption as the following:
– The organization’s propaganda campaign against top government officials’ grand corruption.
– Reacting to sectarian policies and acts by Iraqi federal leaders, ISIS presented itself as a savior for Arab Sunni community to fuel the country’s sectarian division farther.
– Describing the West and their Middle Eastern allies as complicit in corruption, and finally showing ISIS as provider of security, justice and welfare.
Iraq’s widespread corruption still delivers more benefits to ISIS by pushing aggrieved and marginalized people in rural areas to support ISIS’ insurgent operations. It can polarize political and social environments in which radical groups can be attractive for its comprehensive idealistic solutions to the marginalized communities. When Nuri al-Maliki’s government cracked down on Arab Sunni activists and politicians after 2011, a similar environment opened the door of Mosul to about 1200 ISIS militants to occupy one-third of Iraqi territory and defeat more than 30,000 members of Iraqi army and security personals.
Likewise, ISIS and other armed groups also feed corruption in Iraq’s defense and security institutions. They play the role of “acceptable excuse” for wasting huge amount of resources and public fund under the pretext of operational budgets. For instance, in Pallkana Mountain, (located between Kirkuk, Salah Adin, and Sulaymaniyah provinces) about 50 ISIS’ insurgents have been operating. Iraq’s army and Kurdish Peshmarga forces have launched dozens clear up operations to push them out in the area, but they are still there. The insurgent militants are used as a big excuse for some officials to benefit Iraq’s defense expenditures. Many politically linked companies, military leaders, and sometimes, low ranked officers benefit from these operations, according to Said Ali, one of the local leaders of Public Mobilization Units (PMU).
Plus, the endemic corruption diminishes trust in security institutions in instable areas. In villages southeast of Kirkuk, ISIS’ insurgents sometimes show up to ask for food items and basic logistic supports. The people, who were forced to help ISIS’ insurgents, were afraid to call the security institutions and inform them about the existence of insurgents, fearing from ISIS’ retaliation. As a result, more than seven villages have been abandoned in the district of Tawuq. The farmers fled their homes not because there were no enough security forces to protect them, but because they did not trust the security institutions to cooperate with them against the insurgents, according to Samin Hassan, one of the farmers who fled his village to the city of Kirkuk.
Corruption Dangers in Defense and Security Institutions
More than any other sector, security and defense institutions are vulnerable to corruption. What makes corruption to be so devastating here is the secrecy and confidentiality associated with this sector. The secrecy prevents revealing corrupt acts until they turn up as a disastrous failure, like what happened in Mosul on June 10, 2014. After driving out ISIS in Mosul, it was reported that former ISIS militants buy ID-cards of some PMU forces to pass security checkpoints and guarantee their mobility all over the country.
Corruption can feed the ongoing ISIS’ insurgents, as well as other radical extremist groups, by weakening counterterrorism capacity of the security institutions. This problem was one of the major reasons that led Iraqi army and security forces flee their positions when ISIS attacks started in June 2014; when Iraqi forces in Mosul found themselves with no ammunition, enough food, and spare wheel for their vehicles in the wake of ISIS attacks.
Moreover, the same corruption gives golden opportunity to ISIS’ insurgents, or any other radical armed groups, to expand its network and grow financially. ISIS, similar to previews Al-Qaida linked groups, has always tried to use state institutions and their resources through its networks and sleeper cells. The weaknesses of security institutions let ISIS’ insurgents to generate a stable income through variety of criminal activities like kidnapping, forced donation, and taxing businesses and farmers.
There have been many reports about how Iraqi soldiers sell their arms and ammunition in black markets to cover for their life-expenses. ISIS insurgents and any likeminded organizations have access to the black markets and money to buy the undersold arms and ammunition.
The most common corruption phenomenon in Iraqi army and security institutions is presence of ghost employees. It means having people enrolled on public budget and receiving their salaries but don’t actually work. For instance, in June 8, 2014 General Fadhel Jawwad Ali, was sent to lead Iraqi army’s second division and prevent the fall of Mosul; he found out “Checkpoints lightly manned, vehicles that did not work and one unit that should have 500 men only staffed by 71.”
To show how the ghost employees are affecting the Iraqi army, the CPI’s article shows, “The armed forces division which on paper counted about 25,000, was in reality at best 10,000-strong. One of the brigades, supposedly comprising 2,500 men, turned out to have been 500 strong when it mattered.” The differences between these numbers explain how ghost employees can destroy Iraq’s defense capacity. The number of ghost employees was decreased somehow during the Haidar al-Abbadi’s cabinet, but it is still one of the key corruption contamination in defense and security institutions.
Furthermore, the reported corruption and ghost employees deeply downgrades morale and loyalties of soldiers and security personals. It affects their passionate and enthusiasm. “When you see millions of dinars go wasted for phantom operations. In the end of the month, some people show up to receive their salaries next to me while they have never served and never worked with us. I feel like I was stupid when I was fighting with great enthusiasm against Da’esh [ISIS”,] said federal police officer who accepted to be quoted on condition of anonymity since he is not allowed to speak to media.
An Empirical Evidence
Existing literature on terrorism and violent armed groups shows a strong correlation between corruption and radical armed groups i.e. “Terrorism”. In the Iraqi context, there is some data to prove it. Data sets of World Bank Group and Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) clearly highlights this correlation. Comparing the World Bank’s data on internally displaced persons (IDPs) because of armed groups’ conflicts and the Iraq’s CPI’s corruption score fairly visualizes this correlation. The World Bank Group’s data gives the number of the IDPs (as a proxy for terrorism), and the CPI ranks 176 countries on a scale from 100 (the least corrupt countries) to 0 (the most corrupt ones).
The data shows how the Iraq’s corruption score decreases as the number of violence-driven IDPs increase and vice versa. For instance, in 2010 Iraq’s CPI score improved from 15 to 18 meanwhile the number of IDPs decreased from 280,000 to 260,000 and to 210,000 in the following year (2012). Likewise, as the Iraq’s CPI score decreased from 18 to 16 in 2013, the number of the IDPs hiked to 327, 6000 from 210,000. The pattern is clearly showing the strong correlation between corruption and radical armed groups’ conflicts.
Reshaping the Iraqi security forces
– Iraq’s security and defense institutions need to design specific anti-corruption measures into its bureaucratic procedures, aiming to reduce corruption opportunity and promote resilience against any corrupt acts.
– No room should be left to any independent operations for Iraq’s state backed militias like PMU and Arab Sunni majority Tribal Mobilization Units. All the armed groups should be abided with Iraqi laws; defense-ministry’s plans, and operate in coordination with the regular army forces.
– No government backed armed groups and neither units of Iraqi army should intervene in any national or domestic political campaigns, civilian issues, and security arrangements of the cities and towns. Their duty must be to stay outside of politics and administration issues of cities and urban areas.
– Government backed militias, as well as other armed and security units, must be prevented from intervening in government institutions and political activities according to Iraq’s constitution.
– Iraqi Federal government needs to construct a basic e-government program, in coordination with a strong leadership scheme, to clear up defense and security institutions from corrupt personals and officials.
– The previous sectarian conflicts and partisan policies downgraded quality of many security institutions and army units. The current government needs to introduce strong counter corruption polices and measures to make sure that all promotions and hiring are based on qualifications of the candidates not on their ethno-religious identities or political connections.