ISIS 2.0 Is Really Just the Original ISIS
Without territory, the Islamic State has quickly reverted back to its origins as a terrorist group.
Nearly four months after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared that the Islamic State had been militarily defeated, the group has rapidly transformed back into a terrorist network and shows no sign of ending its campaign of attacks across northern Iraq.
“ISIS’s proto-state no longer exists. Their flag doesn’t fly over Iraqi territory,” says Fareed Yasseen, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States. “But that doesn’t mean they’ve disappeared. They are reverting to old tactics used by al Qaeda before 2014.”
As a testament to the group’s resilience, the past few weeks have seen a series of high-profile attacks, including one in which at least nine federal police officers were taken hostage at a fake checkpoint and then executed by Islamic State fighters disguised as Shiite militia members. The Associated Press also reported that between 150 and 200 members of the Iraqi security forces have been killed in Islamic State attacks over the past several months.
These attacks against security forces and civilians, often involving fake checkpoints, have centered on the group’s former strongholds in Anbar and Kirkuk provinces, as well near Mosul and in Diyala province — a rugged rural region in the northeast of the country known as an on-again, off-again insurgent stronghold. “It’s a very inhospitable area,” says Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State. “But it’s hospitable for people who want to hide out because of the rough terrain. ISIS has been able to dig tunnels and store weapons, ammo, and bomb-making material.”
The Islamic State took over much of northern Iraq during its drive through the country in 2014. Though the Iraqi Army eventually forced the group out during 2016 and 2017, many militants managed to escape or establish sleeper cells throughout their former territory.
Some vowed to carry on the fight: The Islamic State-produced magazine Al-Naba suggested that the group could easily transform into an insurgency, as it did in 2008 after the so-called U.S. troop surge. Its leaders have also consistently articulated the potential need for a “temporary retreat” into the desert should the caliphate’s fortune turn.
“This was a critical period where ISIS is looking for gaps and laying the groundwork for a future insurgency,” says Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and the author of a book on the group.
Much of this strategy has focused on a combination of attempting to reassert tacit control over rural areas while simultaneously targeting key political and symbolic figures associated with the Iraqi state. “What they’re doing now is what military forces would call ‘fighting patrols,’” says Mike Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They’re dominating no man’s land outside of the towns and cities.”
The goal, according to Knights, is to bottle up security forces in towns and villages, allowing the Islamic State increasingly greater freedom of movement throughout the countryside. The Iraqi security forces, already stretched thin across wide swaths of the country, would have difficulty keeping up — finding it increasingly costly to move beyond well-fortified checkpoints.
Though still aspirational, these efforts have focused on a rough line from northern Syria through to Diyala. “We still have fragments of ISIS or remnants of ISIS — mainly the Makhmur, Kirkuk, Tuz Khurmatu area — there’s a sort of a diagonal line there where we find fragments of ISIS,” U.S. Brig. Gen. Andrew Croft told a press conference last week.
But given that the Islamic State’s insurgent activity is still in its infancy, its focus is less on indiscriminate bombings and more on targeted attacks. “Since the era when ISIS controlled territory, they’ve been trying to get rid of the people who would eventually hunt them down,” Knights says. “They’re killing village headmen, tribal leaders, the new sahwa [an informal tribal organization allied against the Islamic State], and the Popular Mobilization Units.”
A U.S. official called this an emphasis on the quality of the attacks, rather than the quantity.
While the U.S. military has not technically classified the current violence in Iraq as an insurgency — noting that fewer attacks have been carried out and fewer civilians killed — those who were targeted were comparatively more prominent.
According to Hassan, this is the logic behind attacks like the recent one targeting the federal police. “They’re going after people who matter to the Iraqi state,” he says.
For their part, the Iraqi security forces and Popular Mobilization Units, along with civilian agencies, are still working to re-establish authority in areas formerly controlled by the Islamic State. This has meant mostly refocusing away from training for large, set-piece battles like Mosul to the more complex environment of a counterinsurgency-like campaign.
“We don’t need to train howitzer gun teams at this point,” says Eric Pahon, a U.S. Defense Department spokesman, referring to coalition partnerships with the Iraqi security forces. “We need to train local security forces that can hold areas and prevent an ISIS resurgence.”
Still, the Iraqi Army and specialized units such as the Counterterrorism Service are limited by manpower shortages. And without the ability to maintain a continuous presence, the Iraqi government also runs the risk of losing the support of those living in areas still threatened by Islamic State violence.
“Sunnis in a place like Hawija, their idea is that, until you can see a clear winner, you don’t move. You sit on the fence,” Knights says. “In some rural areas, you don’t see that the Iraqi government has won yet.”