Five months after U.S.-backed forces ousted the Islamic State from its last shard of territory in Syria, the terrorist group is gathering new strength, conducting guerrilla attacks across Iraq and Syria, retooling its financial networks and targeting new recruits at an allied-run tent camp, U.S. and Iraqi military and intelligence officers said.
Though President Donald Trump hailed a total defeat of the Islamic State this year, defence officials in the region see things differently, acknowledging that what remains of the terrorist group is here to stay. A recent inspector general’s report warned that a drawdown this year from 2,000 U.S. forces in Syria to less than half that, ordered by Trump, has meant the U.S. military has had to cut back on its support for Syrian partner forces fighting the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. For now, U.S. and international forces can only try to ensure that ISIS remains contained and away from urban areas.
Although there is little concern that the Islamic State will reclaim its former physical territory, a caliphate that was once the size of Britain and controlled the lives of up to 12 million people, the terror group has still mobilized as many as 18,000 remaining fighters in Iraq and Syria. These sleeper cells and strike teams have carried out sniper attacks, ambushes, kidnappings and assassinations against security forces and community leaders.
The Islamic State can still tap a large war chest of as much as $400 million, which either has been hidden in Iraq and Syria or smuggled into neighbouring countries for safekeeping. It is also believed to have invested in businesses, including fish farming, car dealing and cannabis growing. And the group uses extortion to finance clandestine operations. Farmers in northern Iraq who refuse to pay have had their crops burned to the ground.
During the past several months, Islamic State has made inroads into a sprawling tent camp in northeast Syria, and there is no ready plan to deal with the 70,000 people there, including thousands of family members of ISIS fighters. U.S. intelligence officials say the Al Hol camp, managed by Syrian Kurdish allies with little aid or security, is evolving into a hotbed of Islamic State ideology and a huge breeding ground for future terrorists. The U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish force also holds more than 10,000 Islamic State fighters, including 2,000 foreigners, in separate makeshift prisons.
At Al Hol, the Syrian Kurds’ “inability to provide more than ‘minimal security’ at the camp has allowed the ‘uncontested conditions to spread of ISIS ideology’ there,” said the inspector general’s report, which was prepared for the Pentagon, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The military’s Central Command told the report’s authors that “ISIS is likely exploiting the lack of security to enlist new members and re-engage members who have left the battlefield.”
A recent United Nations assessment reached the same conclusion, saying that family members living at Al Hol “may come to pose a threat if they are not dealt with appropriately.”
These trends, described by Iraqi, American and other Western intelligence and military officials, and documented in a recent series of government and U.N. assessments, portray an Islamic State on the rise again, not only in Iraq and Syria, but in branches from West Africa to Sinai. This resurgence poses threats to American interests and allies, as the Trump administration draws down U.S. troops in Syria and shifts its focus in the Middle East to a looming confrontation with Iran.
“However weakened ISIS may now be, they are still a truly global movement, and we are globally vulnerable,” Suzanne Raine, a former head of Britain’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Center, said in an interview this month with West Point’s combatting Terrorism Center. “Nothing should surprise us about what happens next.”
One significant indicator that points to the Islamic State’s resurgence is the amount of ordnance dropped by U.S. aircraft in Iraq and Syria in recent months. In June, American warplanes dropped 135 bombs and missiles, more than double what they had in May, according to Air Force data.
Defense officials in the region say the Islamic State is now entrenched in mostly rural territory, fighting in small elements of roughly a dozen fighters and taking advantage of the porous border between Iraq and Syria, along with the informal border between Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of the country, where security forces are spread thin and responsibilities for public safety are sometimes disputed.
For Iraqis in northern and western provinces where the Islamic State was active in the past, the sense of threat never disappeared, as the attacks slowed but never halted. In just the first six months of this year, there were 139 attacks in those provinces – Ninevah, Salahuddin, Kirkuk, Diyala and Anbar – and 274 people were killed. The majority of the dead were civilians but also included Iraqi security forces and popular mobilization forces, according to reports by Iraqi security forces and civilians gathered by The New York Times.
A particularly brutal episode of the kind not seen since the Islamic State was in control of territory in northern Iraq occurred in early August when armed men claiming Islamic State allegiance held a public beheading of a policeman in a rural village south of the city of Samarra in Salahuddin province, about two hours north of Baghdad.
The area has seen repeated attacks over the past two years, and police who lived in the village had received warnings to leave their job. Most, like Alaa Ameen Mohammad Al-Majmai, the beheaded officer, worked for the security forces because there are few jobs other than farming, which is seasonal, and occasional construction work.
He was kidnapped at night when he and his brother Sajid went to check on their uncle’s land after work, according to accounts from Sajid and other family members. Five armed men – some masked – grabbed the brothers, took them to an empty farmhouse and questioned them until the dawn prayer.
Then they said they would let Sajid go, but instructed him “to tell the people to quit their jobs working for the police force,” he recalled. They beheaded Alaa Ameen, leaving his body on his uncle’s land.
He became the 170th member of the force to be killed by Islamic State attackers in the area, said Maj. Zowba Al-Majmay, the director of an Iraqi emergency battalion for the area south of Samarra.
Earlier this month, a U.S. Marine Raider, Gunnery Sgt. Scott A. Koppenhafer, 35, was killed in northern Iraq during an operation with local forces. Marine Raiders, who are Special Operations forces, often fight alongside Kurdish peshmerga, or the Iraqi special operations forces, when deployed to Iraq.
His death marked the first American killed in combat in Iraq this year. In January, four Americans were killed in a suicide bombing in Manbij, Syria.
Reports like these fill several new, sobering assessments of the Islamic State’s resilience and potency. A July report by U.N. analysts on the Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee said that Islamic State leaders, despite their military defeat in Syria and Iraq, are “adapting, consolidating and creating conditions for an eventual resurgence” in those countries.
A new inspector general’s report assessing Islamic State activities from April through June concluded the group was “resurging in Syria” and had “solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq.”
Despite these reports, Trump has continued to claim credit for completely defeating the Islamic State, contradicting repeated warnings from his own intelligence and counterterrorism officials that ISIS remains a lethal force.
“We did a great job,” Trump said last month. “We have 100% of the caliphate, and we’re rapidly pulling out of Syria. We’ll be out of there pretty soon. And let them handle their own problems. Syria can handle their own problems – along with Iran, along with Russia, along with Iraq, along with Turkey. We’re 7,000 miles away.”
With 5,200 troops in Iraq and just under 1,000 in Syria, the U.S. military’s role in both countries has changed little despite the territorial defeat of the Islamic State in both countries.
After the fall of Baghuz, the Islamic State’s last holdout in Syria near the Iraqi border, what remained of the group’s fighters dispersed throughout the region, starting what U.S. officials now say will be an enduring insurgency.
The Islamic State is well equipped, the officials said, though its leadership is mostly fractured, leaving most cells without guidance from higher-ranking commanders. Also gone is the Islamic State’s heyday, when the group could mass produce roadside bombs, munitions and homemade weapons.
The Islamic State’s change in tactics has forced the Americans and other international troops to change theirs, ensuring they can fight a guerrilla-style campaign against insurgents who fight among and disappear into local populations.
The Iraqi army and its counterterrorism forces have run multiple campaigns against the Islamic State, focusing primarily on the triangle where Kirkuk, Ninevah and Salahuddin provinces come together in a rocky and hilly area known as the Makhoul Mountains.
Though Islamic State fighters are present, the pace of operations in Syria has dropped significantly. Army Special Forces soldiers, alongside conventional troops, often sit on their outposts for long stretches of time and only occasionally go after the low-ranking Islamic State fighters hiding in nearby villages, according to one defence official who recently returned from the country.
One of the greatest challenges, the official said, was the constant ferrying of U.S. troops to and from Syria in an effort to keep the overall troop presence at the military’s official deployment of just under 1,000. Sometimes, the official said, troops are brought into the country for specific missions and then sent out.
“Coupled with a U.S. drawdown, it’s setting the conditions for ISIS to retake pockets of territory while coercing local populations,” said Colin P. Clarke, a senior fellow at the Soufan Center, a research organization for global security issues and co-author of a new study by the RAND Corp. on the Islamic State’s financing.