The Islamic State is far from dead in Iraq

The chaos since the May 12 national election is again helping ISIS co-opt Iraqi communities as it did in 2014-15.
Sunday 29/07/2018
A soldier of the rapid response forces patrols in Basra after demonstrations, on July 17. (AFP)
Dormant threats. A soldier of the rapid response forces patrols in Basra after demonstrations, on July 17. (AFP)

At his post-summit news conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16, Donald Trump praised the United States’ “successful campaign” that had “just about eradicated” the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. ISIS, however, is far from dead in the region.

I recently returned from Iraq, where multiple security sources told me that ISIS is reconstituting itself in parts of the country. The chaos since the May 12 national election — an inconclusive result, involving widespread allegations of fraud and Iran-backed groups trying to make deals to ensure their control over the next government — is again helping ISIS co-opt Iraqi communities as it did in 2014-15, when the group occupied one-third of the country.

This reality runs counter to the prevailing view in Washington — a narrative Trump has advanced — that ISIS has been ousted from Iraq. “There are a lot of indicators that there is going to be an imminent resurgence of ISIS. You can see it in the records and the intelligence reports,” said Iraq’s former national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie, who recently left that post.

Of particular concern to those I interviewed: indications that the vast majority of remaining ISIS fighters are Iraqis, not foreigners. This makes it nearly impossible to provide incentives for them to leave the country.

A key factor in ISIS’s resurrection is its ability to tap into public dissatisfaction in remote Sunni areas of Iraq, where fighters remained after the group was routed from its urban strongholds.

Other factors boosting extremism include a lack of state authority, government corruption that curtails public services and the weakness of Iraqi security forces. Demonstrations in southern Iraqi cities over unemployment, a lack of electricity and other issues are intensifying, offering ISIS further opportunities to exploit public grievances.

One of Iraq’s leading ISIS experts, security adviser Hisham al-Hashimi, described the group’s strategy as being built on “four triangles of death,” citing sparsely populated areas where militants can hide even without the support of the local population.

In the first triangle, ISIS uses the Hamrin Mountains as a base for ambushes and attacks on the Iraqi state security barracks. This area, for the most part, is under ISIS control. In the second triangle, which includes Samarra, ISIS has not been able to co-opt the local population but militants use the area as a fallback position when attacked. The third triangle, between Baghdad and Damascus, is where ISIS carries out kidnapping and bombings, disrupting trade and stealing commercial goods. The fourth triangle is in the vast desert on the border with Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

“The [targets] are key to understanding the resurgence of ISIS remnants, whose goal is to create chaos and challenge the credibility of the Iraqi forces and further taint trust between security forces and average Iraqi citizens,” Hashimi said. This differs from ISIS’s 2014-15 strategy of occupying major cities, indicating the group is becoming more of a guerrilla force in Iraq.

It does not take much to manipulate the frustrations of the Iraqi population. They live in a rich country blessed with oil, yet widespread smuggling from Iraq’s northern Kurdistan siphons off money that could go to the central government. In addition, Iraqis who lost their homes in the fight against ISIS in major Sunni-dominated towns such as Mosul and Tikrit were allowed to return only if they bribed Shia-dominated ministries.

The election result provides a tangible indicator of Iraqi dissatisfaction with Baghdad’s politics. While Iraq’s election commission put voter turnout at 44.5%, reliable sources said the real figure was closer to 20%.

Even those who did vote do not seem to have got what they wanted. Muqtada al-Sadr, the populist Shia cleric whose political bloc won the election after promising to end corruption, improve the economy and work to reduce Tehran’s influence, is talking with whomever he believes can help him secure power, including the Iran-backed Fatah group.

Iraq’s top court ordered a recount of the ballots after a government report disclosed serious election violations but Rubaie said that Iraqis’ lack of confidence that a new government will be any more accountable than the last one only benefits ISIS. He said the military defeat of ISIS in Mosul and other cities is only half the story because it does not address the underlying causes that led Iraqis to join ISIS in the first place.

“We declared victory over Daesh [ISIS] but how do you define victory? Was it a social victory? No,” said Rubaie. “A political victory? No. The results from the election and its aftermath encourage extremism. Al-Sadr changed his positions and the goalposts.”

US-led forces continue to attack ISIS targets. The US Department of Defence reported 14 strikes against the group in Iraq and Syria from July 9-15. However, several Iraqi experts concerned about the coalition’s plans to reduce its forces in Iraq said the coalition is needed to fight ISIS in the four triangles identified by Hashimi. If that doesn’t happen, they said, ISIS will gain strength and Trump’s declarations of victory will ring even more hollow.

(This article was distributed by Reuters)