Islamic State terrorists scramble to reassert their presence among parts of vast territory they once controlled
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- Islamic State ISIS is an Islamic extremist terrorist organization controlling territory in Iraq...[+]
Affected Countries: iraq;
In caves tucked into craggy cliffs and tunnels dug deep beneath the desert, the remnants of a vanquished army are converging for what they hope will be the next chapter in their battle for an Islamic State.
Hundreds and perhaps thousands of Islamic State fighters have made their way over recent months into a stretch of sparsely populated territory spanning the disputed border between the Kurdistan region and the rest of Iraq, according to U.S. and Kurdish officials.
Off limits to Kurdish and Iraqi security forces because of historic disputes over who should control it, this area of twisting river valleys dense with vegetation has attracted the biggest known concentration of Islamic State fighters since they lost control of the last village of their once-vast caliphate in eastern Syria in March.
In recent weeks, they have been stepping up their attacks, focused on an area of northeastern Iraq in the province of Diyala near the border with Iran, carrying out ambushes by night and firing mortars. Grasses taller than men provide cover for snipers who sneak up on checkpoints and outposts. Government neglect and long-standing grievances foster a measure of sympathy among local residents.
“They have good military plans, they attack when you don’t expect them, and they are posing a real threat to people’s lives,” said Maj. Aram Darwani, the commander of Kurdish peshmerga military forces in the area.
Across many parts of the vast territory it once controlled, the Islamic State is scrambling to reassert its presence in a setting that is no longer as welcoming as it once was. Militant fighters who escaped from the battlefield are assembling in ungoverned spaces such as the no man’s land between areas controlled by Kurdish and Iraqi forces. Others are laying low as so-called sleeping cells in cities such as Raqqa in Syria, waiting for the phone call ordering them to attack.
Recent visits to the Islamic State’s former capital of Raqqa and the viciously contested frontier town of Kulajo revealed the challenges the militants face as well as the reemerging threat they pose.
So far, this is less a resurgence than a struggle to survive in the wake of the massive defeat inflicted on the last vestige of their territorial caliphate, according to U.S. military officials.
The Islamic State remains a long way from possessing the capacity to retake territory, said Brig. Gen. William Seely, who commands U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq. “These are people who are hiding out. They only come out at night to harass and take pot shots,” he said. “You can’t run a revolution or create your own caliphate if that’s all you do.”
Over the past two years, tens of thousands of Islamic State fighters have been killed, their leadership has been decimated and their self-proclaimed “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is dead, blown up after he detonated a suicide belt during a U.S. raid on his hideout in October. As many as 30,000 suspected ISIS fighters are in prison in Iraq and Syria and tens of thousands of their wives and children are detained in dismal camps, according to Kurdish, Iraqi and U.N. officials.
The group has struggled to reassert itself in its former city strongholds such as Raqqa and Mosul in Iraq, where Islamic State attacks have become rare. Memories of its brutal rule and the horrors of the airstrikes used to dislodge the militants deter any desire to see them return, according to Rasha al-Aqeedi, the editor of Irfaa Sawtak, an Iraqi newsletter.
Since U.S.-led forces began to roll back the caliphate more than four years ago, the number of attacks carried out by ISIS in Iraq and Syria has declined, by between 30% and 40% a year since 2016 in Iraq, according to the U.S.-led coalition.
But the militants have already proved adept at infiltrating ungoverned spaces, such as the gap between Kurdish and Iraqi army lines, said Maj. Johnny Walker, spokesman for the U.S. Special Operations forces that conduct most of the anti-ISIS operations. “While Daesh is at a serious disadvantage, finding it while it’s hiding in the complex human and physical terrain is a complex task requiring significant resources,” he said, using the Arab acronym for the Islamic State.
The Islamic State also appears to be gaining momentum in Syria’s eastern Deir al-Zour province, where the group made its last stand in March and where tribal and ethnic rivalries help sustain support for the militants. Assassinations have been on the rise in recent weeks, in part because the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces pulled fighters out of the area to confront Turkish troops to the north, according to an employee of a U.S.- backed NGO in the province, who was interviewed during a recent trip to the area and spoke on the condition of anonymity due to safety concerns.
Over a typical Syrian breakfast in one of the towns ISIS once ruled, he described having to take back roads through the desert to avoid a cluster of towns where the militants still command loyalties. The group is now making a strenuous effort to rearm, he said.
Islamic State fighters have also found refuge in the vast, barely populated desert known as Badia that lies across the Euphrates River from where U.S. troops are deployed. The area is nominally under Syrian government control, and there are indications that the militants there have established a measure of command over cells elsewhere in the country, Syrian Kurdish officials say.
For now, fewer people are being killed in Islamic State attacks than in the anti-government protests in Iraq and the battles unleashed by Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria in October.
But these new conflicts illustrate the danger posed by the group’s residual presence, analysts and military officials say. The Islamic State owed its conquest of territory to the collapse of state authority over a big part of Syria and the implosion of the Iraqi army in Iraq. Any further deterioration of security in Iraq or Syria would create a new opportunity for ISIS fighters hiding out or laying low.
The militants have not gone away and could yet rise again, cautioned Maj. Gen. Eric Hill, who commands U.S. Special Forces in Iraq and Syria.
They are making every effort to do so.
Over the eight months that Muawiyah Abdul Khader Akraa operated as part of a secret Islamic State cell in Raqqa, he said he participated in 17 attacks. He doesn’t know how many people he killed because, he said, he didn’t linger to find out whether his victims died.
“I did it to avenge our brothers in the battles,” he said, displaying no remorse during an interview at the prison in the town of Tabqa, where he has been detained by Kurdish security forces since his arrest in August.
He and two other self-confessed members of the cell agreed to be interviewed in the presence of Kurdish officials, who said they had verified the information the prisoners had provided after months of interrogations. Their accounts offer a rare glimpse into the world of the Islamic State’s sleeper cells, which lie at the heart of its efforts to reassert its influence in the cities from which it’s been driven out.
Akraa, 22, said his missions were assigned at meetings arranged during hurried calls over the encrypted Telegram app. He would be told a time and place to rendezvous, typically a landmark such as the clock tower, a park or Naim Square, where the Islamic State carried out public beheadings during its rule over Raqqa.
There he would be met by an “emir” – a prince or leader – who picked him up in a car and would deliver the orders, usually to plant a bomb but sometimes to assassinate a local official.
Akraa said he had been fighting with the Islamic State in Deir al-Zour province when he was approached by an emir in the area and asked to become an undercover operative in Raqqa. Akraa was given a fake ID identifying him as a Raqqa resident and assigned a smuggler to escort him across the front lines.
After arriving in Raqqa in January, Akraa was introduced to the head of the cell, whom he knew only as Baraa. He gave Akraa 25,000 Syrian pounds – about $50 – to rent an apartment, the promise of a $200-a-month salary and a small bomb, which he was instructed to plant outside a bakery whose owner had refused to pay “zakat,” or tax, to the Islamic State.
The bomb exploded at night and caused no casualties. “It was only a warning,” Akraa said. “He paid the zakat.”
Working with two others, he embarked on a series of attacks, he recounted. On one day, it was to detonate a bomb in a vegetable cart near a hospital. On another, the task was to drive up to the home of a local official on a motorcycle, knock on his door and shoot him when he came to answer it.
In May, Akraa participated in the biggest attack of the year in Raqqa, setting off a small bomb in Naim Square to attract security forces, which were then targeted in a larger suicide bombing. At least 10 people were killed.
The two other prisoners interviewed said they had been recruited in June, several months after sneaking away from the Islamic State’s last battle. Ibrahim Hassan al-Haji said he received a Telegram message out of the blue telling him to report to an emir in a Raqqa park, who informed him he was being activated to be part of a secret cell and offered him a salary of $80 a month. He said he complied because he had been unable to find a job and had no money “and because my ideology is jihad.”
The third man said he was recruited after he sought the help of an Islamic State smuggler to free a relative from the al-Hol camp, where tens of thousands of people related to former Islamic State members are detained. He said he had no choice but to follow the group’s orders. “They knew where I lived,” he said.
The emirs changed frequently. In April, Baraa disappeared, and a new leader known as “the doctor” showed up to arrange the bombing of Naim Square, said Akraa. Then “the doctor” vanished and was followed by two more.