Islamic State Aims for Comeback Amid Virus-Expedited U.S. Withdrawal
Iraqis fear their country will become a new battleground between ISIS and Iran-backed militias.
AIN AL-ASAD AIRBASE, Iraq—Inside an operational command room at Ain al-Asad air base, which is lined with maps of past missions against the Islamic State, three American radio operators stand at their desks. In past months, they provided intelligence and helped coordinate their Iraqi counterparts’ operations against Islamic State cells within large swaths of the Iraqi desert in Anbar province. But since U.S. drones killed Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani and his ally Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in early January, there has been a pause as the withdrawing Americans focus on protecting their own troops.
Now the area the Americans are surveying has shrunk down to a fraction of its previous size, leaving large portions of the desert unmonitored. Lt. Col. Tim Garland, a U.S. officer who works directly in anti-Islamic State operations from Ain al-Asad, told Foreign Policy that if they had once surveyed an area the size of Texas, now they were looking at a sliver of that the size of Dallas.
And the Islamic State, which has been on the back foot for years now, is eager to move back into this vacuum, aided by the coronavirus-expedited withdrawal of U.S. and allied troops in support of the Iraqi military. So is Iran, which controls substantial numbers of Iraqi militias and is dominant in the Shiite-led national government. The outcome, many Iraqis now worry, may be that their country becomes a new battleground between the Sunni Islamic State and Shiite Iran.
In the latest issue of its propaganda magazine, Al-Naba, the Islamic State urged its members to step up their attacks on “crusader nations” while they are distracted by the coronavirus. “Fear of this contagion has affected them more than the contagion itself,” the publication said, adding that Western nations will not want to deploy their troops abroad in the midst of the pandemic.
“The last thing they want is to send more of their soldiers to regions in which this disease is likely to spread or to have to mass their security forces and soldiers at home when they’re working to minimize mass gatherings and contacts between people of all professions,” Al-Naba said.
In Iraq, this prediction is already beginning to play out as several coalition members, including France and Britain, have withdrawn their troops from Iraq and halted their training programs to protect their soldiers from the spread of COVID-19.
This comes at the same time as tensions between the United States and Iran continue to ratchet up in the wake of a series of tit-for-tat attacks between the United States and Iran-linked factions. On April 1, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted that he had “information” that Iran was planning an attack on U.S. troops and that it would “pay a very heavy price, indeed,” if it attacked.
Sadam al-Obeidi commands a faction in one of the Iraqi militias guarding a small village called Baghdadi, a few miles away from Ain al-Asad. He and his men worry that without the coalition’s support, the Islamic State, or ISIS, will be able to creep back.
“ISIS is still active in the desert. … If there is no one monitoring it, it will be able to revive itself,” Obeidi said. The information gathered by the Americans would normally be coordinated with their Iraqi counterparts, who would then coordinate with local actors like the tribal militias. Obeidi said he used to go on missions to root out the Islamic State at least twice a month, raiding the group’s supply depots and capturing the occasional fighter, but that since the pause, he has not been on a single sortie.
“Since the political events [the Suleimani killing], we just protect our residents. We haven’t gone out to the desert,” said Obeidi, adding that without U.S. equipment and backing neither the tribal militias nor the Iraqi armed forces would be capable of suppressing the terrorist organization. “The tribal power in Baghdadi is small—from 2014 to today, we have 150 fighters. Is that enough to guard the entire desert? You can’t. But the American forces have the capabilities and the planes,” he said.
Garland told Foreign Policy that even without U.S. guidance he was confident that Iraqi forces had been trained sufficiently to address any potential security gaps, “The ISF [Iraqi security forces] has maintained the pressure. They have maintained their operations. They have not missed the beat in Anbar,” Garland said.
But the situation inside Ain al-Asad spoke to a different reality. Operations have somewhat resumed but are scaled back as U.S. troops withdraw from several bases in Iraq. The security gap is compounded by the fragility of the Iraqi armed forces, which remain weak and riven by sectarian infighting.
Ordinary Iraqis fear the worst. Saif al-Din, an elderly man with a large family, lives in a small cottage a few miles away from Ain al-Asad. His sons both work in anti-Islamic State operations: one with the local police and one with the tribal militia. Living on the rural outskirts, he faces a more immediate threat of Islamic State attacks than most. But it’s not the Islamic State that scares him. It’s the potential advance of the Iran-backed militias—something he holds American actions accountable for.
“Honestly the Americans … don’t have a brain,” Din said. “They are here to end Iran, but they gave us to Iran. They are the ones who brought Iran and put them above us,” he said in reference to America’s role in installing many of the politicians who currently hold sway in the national government after the 2003 invasion.
Iran, despite being preoccupied with its own terrible coronavirus outbreak, is not giving up its interests in Iraq. Last week, after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly pushed to destroy the Iran-linked militia Kataib Hezbollah, which the United States has repeatedly blamed for rocket attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq, Iranian Maj. Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri warned that any “ill will against our country’s security” would elicit “our fiercest reactions.”
U.S. action against Iran within Iraq has also sparked outrage among Iraqi politicians, who voted this year on a recommendation to expel U.S. troops. A U.S. escalation means that U.S. resources will continue to be focused on Iran tensions, while the fight against the Islamic State gets pushed to the side. This deprives the Iraqi armed forces of key security capabilities provided by the coalition, while Iran-backed groups will continue to divide the country, fomenting the type of chaotic environment where the Islamic State thrives.
Iran-linked militias that were loyal to Muhandis have promised revenge for the January strike, and U.S. targets are regularly harried with rocket attacks, which in mid-March resulted in the deaths of two U.S. and one British service members. A retaliatory U.S. strike on Kataib Hezbollah targets killed an Iraqi civilian and revived pressure for a U.S. withdrawal. The United States still has around 5,000 troops stationed in Iraq, divided among a number of Iraqi bases on the invitation of the Iraqi government to support and aid the fight against the Islamic State. But in recent weeks, the Americans have indeed drawn back, consolidating their soldiers onto fewer bases, with U.S. Defense Department officials indicating that they hope to reduce the U.S. troop presence in Iraq by half.
This would leave Iraq’s security forces without the capabilities to fully root out and quell the remnants of the Islamic State. It’s an army that has been trained for door-to-door, house-to-house operations, but that’s not the way the Islamic State functions anymore. Since its defeat in 2017, Islamic State remnants work out of isolated areas in the desert and the Hamrin Mountains. “The situation is different. You don’t have an organized army in front of you—we are fighting gangs. We are fighting people who are hiding while wearing civilian clothing,” said Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, a spokesman for the Iraqi Defense Ministry.
“Iraqi forces are fighting an ISIS insurgency that has abandoned the semi-conventional warfare that the organization had at its height and that is now a much harder target, operating as small guerrilla units in rugged terrain in the country’s rural periphery or attempting to work clandestinely to infiltrate populated areas,” said Sam Heller, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. “It’s an enemy that requires a relatively advanced set of technical enablers that the coalition is able to provide.”
Chief among these enablers are air support and intelligence gathering, both of which are primarily provided by the United States. Rasool pointed to the same capabilities while talking about the need for a partnership with the coalition. “The cooperation with the international coalition, especially when it comes to reconnaissance, air support, and intelligence information—that is very important,” he said. “If you don’t have modern planes, then you cannot have a strong army.”
The coalition uses its technical capabilities to help coordinate and advise missions with the Iraqi Army and local tribal militias that were mobilized in 2014 to fight the Islamic State.
True, the group is a shadow of its former self, and a U.S. withdrawal will not transform that right away. “If the coalition forces left right now, it would be a couple of years before they came back, but they would come back. That’s the lesson of 2011 through 2014,” said Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
But huge security gaps remain that might allow a reconstituted Islamic State to flourish. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 resulted in the dismantling of the Iraqi military formed under Saddam Hussein, and the piecemeal force that was trained in the following years never was able to achieve the cohesiveness of the original institution.
Today, the Iraqi armed forces broadly divide into four factions: the Counter Terrorism Service, the Army, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), and the Kurdish peshmergas. Since the defeat of the Islamic State, the PMF, a loose umbrella organization of paramilitary groups that includes several powerful Iran-backed militias, has semi-integrated into the armed forces as Iran has bolstered its influence over Iraq.
“By September last year, before the protests began, the militias were completely dominant—by that I mean they could tell any Iraqi security force commander to do whatever they liked,” Knights said. Among these groups are militias such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah, and the Badr Organization, which operate far-reaching networks of trade and influence that they enforce with unchecked violence. The proliferation of these armed factions, combined with both the fragmentation of the Iraqi security forces and the coalition’s withdrawal, is reminiscent of 2011—the first time U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq.
“The Islamic State was at its lowest ebb in 2011, and after U.S. forces left at the end of 2011, it began an unbroken recovery until it took over Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and a third of the country,” Knights said.
And if the United States escalates its battles with Iran, it could lead to Iraqi politicians attempting to achieve its complete expulsion from the country. This would mean America would no longer check these groups—something that civilians living near Ain al-Asad are keenly aware of. Among them is Din, the older man who lives near the air base and sees the U.S. military presence as an expedient counterweight, making it difficult for Iran to fully dominate the country. “They [Iran-backed militias] could come, and they could kill us … so we don’t want the Americans to leave,” he said.
Among Sunnis, popular support for the Islamic State largely disappeared after the scope of their atrocities became clear. Din and his sons took up arms to fight the Islamic State and were injured defending their town against the group. At the same time, popular resentment of Iran-linked actors is growing. And that suggests the same sense of marginalization that led segments of society, especially among Sunnis, to support the Islamic State in the first place.