How ISIS Still Threatens Iraq

Roiled with internal divisions, Iraqi forces struggle to fully eliminate the Islamic State.

Sinjar city, seen in March 2017, remains severely damaged and largely deserted years after Islamic State militants were pushed out.
Sinjar city, seen in March 2017, remains severely damaged and largely deserted years after Islamic State militants were pushed out. Alice Martins for the Washington Post via Getty Images

ABU TEBAN, Iraq—Each day, villagers in the hamlet of Abu Teban fear the arrival of darkness.

“At night, they attack us,” said Dakhyl Ibrahim Ramayed, a local leader, referring to the return of the Islamic State to this desert region of Anbar province. He pointed to the arid land bordering the small clump of homes that make up the village and a nearby blown-up house. “Daesh”—the Arabic pejorative for the Islamic State—can spring out of nowhere, said Ramayed, who was imprisoned eight times under the militant group and knows its brutality first hand.

“We put cameras on the house, guards on the roofs, and our people guard us until the morning because we need to sleep and there are no security forces,” he said.

The Islamic State appears to be returning to an insurgency in Iraq—or trying to. Since the fall of Baghouz, the last Islamic State stronghold in Syria, in March, at least a thousand militants are suspected to have crossed into Iraq. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the spiritual leader of the organization, was believed to be in largely Sunni-dominated Anbar when he issued his first video in five years last month. Many militants live in tunnel networks built by the Islamic State and stocked with the necessary food and clothing, and they operate in cells of five to 10 people. 

After the Islamic State took over large portions of Iraq for three years, Iraq’s military, with U.S. help, drove out the self-declared caliphate by the end of 2017. But Iraqi forces remain internally divided among a plethora of armed factions. And while the Islamic State has been largely decimated, pockets of the organization remain active and threaten Iraq’s remote regions, where the government is a rare sight.  Civilian centers like Baghdad may be secure, but as long as the provinces are at risk, the seeds that allowed the Islamic State to take root will remain.

Despite their internal divisions, the Iraqi armed forces have in many ways honed their operations against the Islamic State since Mosul fell to the organization in 2014. Michael Knights, a senior fellow specializing in security at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that despite Islamic State efforts to reassert influence, “we’ve … seen the U.S. and Iraqi special forces greatly accelerating their operational template, including operations at night. We’ve also seen the Iraqi security forces surge … and you can see that’s had quite a positive effect.”

At the same time, each faction of the armed forces has its own methods of fighting the Islamic State, and in the long term, these divisions will likely cost them in effectiveness. Armed factions include the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the Iraqi Army, and tribal militias. Many Sunni fighters against the Islamic State have joined the PMF, which began as a collection of largely Shiite provisional militias built to fight the Islamic State in 2014. Loosely organized and often at odds with each other, the PMF militias, many of which are backed by Iran, are deeply involved in the fight against the Islamic State but rarely coordinate with the CTS.

Renad Mansour, a research fellow at Chatham House, said: “The CTS and the [PMF] don’t talk to each other. They don’t even sit in the same room as each other because one is viewed as an American proxy and one is viewed as an Iranian proxy. These two groups are meant to be on the same side fighting Daesh and making sure Daesh doesn’t come back. But of course they’re not going to share intelligence with each other.”

Mansour pointed to the change in attitude among Moslawis—residents of the city of Mosul—as an example of the uncertainty that remains. “After liberation, the Moslawis were very happy to be finished with the caliphate, but now you go talk to the same people and they’ll tell you it’s been a year and a half, almost two years, and we still haven’t seen our government yet,” Mansour said.

But the Baghdad government, as fractious as it remains, does have one thing going for it that’s very different from last time: Too many Iraqis experienced up close what the Islamic State really is like, and they fear and loathe it.

“In 2014, 90 percent of the tribes here supported Daesh. Now not 1 percent of them support Daesh,” said Sheikh Qatari Shamarmand, a leader of a tribal militia in Anbar province.

He said that while his tribe was one of the few that did not support the Islamic State, it was the exception rather than the rule after years of neglect by the Shiite-majority government in Baghdad. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Shiite-led government largely isolated Sunni-majority communities, creating the anger and resentment that made many see the Islamic State as a viable option.

But Shamarmand said when the Islamic State transformed from an insurgency into a ruling power in 2014 and seized a third of Iraq, “they [the tribes] discovered they were a criminal organization and that what was important to them wasn’t whether you were Sunni or Shia—what was important was killing and destruction.”

The brutality of the Islamic State’s rule dramatically shrank the group’s base of recruits, and a great number of tribes and civilians began to share intelligence with Iraqi security services. 

“What was the reason for the fall of the provinces [to the Islamic State]? The [Iraqi] troops were afraid because they felt that the people around them did not love them, they did not want them, so they left their weapons and left,” said Maj. Gen. Tahseen al-Khafaji, the manager of the media office at the Iraqi Defense Ministry. “Now the story is the opposite. Now they want the military. Now they are with the military. They helped the military with their operations during the liberation. So of course cooperation is much higher than it was before.”

Even so, the Islamic State is back to its killing ways in Iraq. In its latest operations, the group has targeted local leaders like Ramayed; in early May, the group attacked the home of a local leader in the northern province of Nineveh, killing him and four of his relatives. In April, a roadside bombing killed a tribal leader in the same province.

And though the Islamic State is weaker than it has been in a decade, it’s shifting its mode of operations and asserting its presence in targeted assassinations designed to show communities that the caliphate still exists. For Iraqi security forces, this means a game of cat and mouse as they try to track the remaining Islamic State cells inside the vast desert regions of western Iraq, the Hamrin Mountains in Diyala province, and the remote rural areas of Nineveh.

Iraqi intelligence has improved since it last tackled the Islamic State as an insurgency in 2010; however its focus remains military. But across Iraq, a dual war is playing out: one military and one social. The Iraqi military is winning the physical war, but as long as villages like Abu Teban remain isolated and endangered, resentment will grow, and in that anger lies the roots of the Islamic State.

The numbers of Islamic State members still operating in Iraq vary from under 1,000 to 3,000 or more—a dramatic diminishment in numbers from the Islamic State’s height, when an estimated 100,000 fighters fought for the group.

“Even [in] 2009-10, when al Qaeda in Iraq or the Islamic State in Iraq was in a declining cycle, it was still a really large-scale, almost industrialized insurgency,” Knights said. “In certain parts of Iraq, the insurgency was still pretty much the only industry within an area.”

Now the number of explosions caused by the Islamic State has dwindled as the group returns to the more classic mold of an insurgency. “Daesh does not have the leaders or ability to occupy a city or large area. … Now Daesh is returning to its former state with limited operations and sleeper cells,” said Staff Lt. Gen. Mohammed al-Askari, a military advisor at the Iraqi Defense Ministry.

“Now it’s much more of a more difficult choice for people to be involved in the insurgency,” Knights said. “Nowadays it is a very narrow insurgency involving quite a small number of people, and as a result they’ve needed to go to a more quality approach.”

By “quality” he means that while the number of total Islamic State attacks has gone down, he believes the group is focusing on strategic targets that will show the extent of its power.

“They’ve learned a lot of lessons from the past, and one of those is how to successfully adopt a quality over quantity approach. So even though the [Islamic State] launches very, very small number of attacks in comparison to their historic record, they’re able to do things like rural assassination campaigns of mukhtars,” Knights said, using the Arabic term for local leaders. 

Shamarmand, the tribal militia leader, hails from a town called Baghdadi in Anbar province; he fought in the war against the Islamic State and lost hundreds of his tribespeople to the war and the occupation. Every two weeks, Shamarmand gathers his men together and travels out into the desert to pursue the last remnants of the Islamic State in cooperation with the Iraqi armed forces. They follow local intelligence and find pockets of five to 15 members living out in the most isolated regions. Some hide in caves, others in tunnels, and still others rent houses.

Shamarmand works with both the military and CTS, which rely on him for local knowledge and contacts. The tribal militias are some of the many armed groups operating in the region, and Shamarmand said he has good relations with each of them. But Mansour said the groups are riddled by internal division that comes at the cost of the security and safety of vulnerable citizens.

“What you have now—which is even more troubling to me at least in Anbar and other recently liberated areas—is that there are so many different armed groups … all competing with each other at the same time. … There is no one sense of these are the liberators,” Mansour said. “If those people who are supposed to enforce security are competing with each other for territory, for the economic spoils of war, the people will always be left behind.”

There are areas, Shamarmand admitted, where security forces do not dare go out at night and locals must cooperate with the Islamic State or pay the consequences. The villagers do not see security services working for them, and many still lack basic services. Mansour said that while the recent memory of the Islamic State is still potent, these elements are the true reason why it will be so difficult to defeat the insurgency. “At the moment, Daesh is still a very dark point of Iraq’s history, so it’s very difficult to see people accepting Daesh, especially from an ideological perspective. However … what we’ve seen in Iraq is that the conflict is always cyclical.”

Now areas like Abu Teban remain deserted, and large parts of Mosul remain neglected without government services or resources. It may only be a matter of time until the government loses the groundswell of support that sprung from the defeat of the Islamic State. “The challenge becomes trying to address even a group like Daesh as if it’s only a military problem. So the military solution only really addresses the symptom, which is Daesh, but cannot really address the roots as to why these groups emerge,” Mansour said. “The challenge we have now is that no one is addressing these roots.”

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