(ISW) ISIS launched a major counter-attack in Kirkuk Province in response to advances by Iraqi and Kurdish security forces towards Mosul. On the morning of October 21, ISIS attackers struck central and southern Kirkuk City and an under-construction power station in Dibis District, northwest of Kirkuk. The three attackers in Dibis stormed the power station and killed or executed 16 workers, including four Iranians, before Kurdish security forces arrived and clashed with the attackers. One attacker was killed while the other two detonated Suicide Vests (SVESTs), wounding several Kurdish security forces. Another report claimed that 12 people were killed and 34 were wounded in the Dibis attack.
As many as 40 ISIS attackers supported by sleeper cells targeted multiple government facilities and landmarks in central and southern Kirkuk City, marking the first time that ISIS launched a major attack in the city since January 2015. These targets included:
1. Police stations in Dumiz and al-Adala, and possibly in Wahid Haziran and Tisaeen areas, all demographically-mixed with significant Arab populations in southern Kirkuk City. The attackers detonated at least one SVEST.
2. The Kirkuk police directorate, where ISIS attackers attempted to enter the building before being repelled. The attackers detonated either a SVEST or a Vehicle-borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) during the attack.
3. A Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party headquarters and the central government building.
4. A prison in Kirkuk, where some attackers may have attempted to break prisoners out.
Several ISIS attackers also stormed an “education building” in central Kirkuk, forcing Kurdish security forces to call in a Coalition airstrike to target the ISIS fighters holed up in the building. Unconfirmed reports indicate, however, the a Coalition airstrike may have targeted a Shi’a Husseiniyah (place of worship) in Daquq District, just south of Kirkuk, killing and wounding as many as 47 people and Peshmerga. ISW could not verify the report at the time of publication.
ISIS’s attacks in Kirkuk province and elsewhere outside of Mosul are a classic zone defense from ISIS’s 2015 playbook, in which ISIS attacked separate locations while facing a counter-attack it could deflect. The attack on Kirkuk City is a demonstration that ISIS still maintains lethal attack capabilities there, and furthermore that it can still mount a sophisticated defense. ISIS’s strike into Kirkuk was likely calculated to force the PUK to withdraw its Peshmerga forces away from operations in the vicinity of Mosul towards Kirkuk to arrest the progress of anti-ISIS operations east of Mosul. ISIS also launched other attacks to force security forces to consider withdrawing from Mosul to secure other parts of Iraq.