ISIS ‘regrouping and reforming’ in Iraq, but 'not making a comeback' in Syria: Pentagon

ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Islamic State (ISIS) militants continue to pose a simmering threat in both Iraq and Syria, according to a new Pentagon report covering the terrorist group's activities between January and March of 2020. 

ISIS have been able to conduct a "low-level insurgency" in territories they controlled at the height of their power, "in mountainous and desert provinces north and west of Baghdad, particularly within an area of northern Iraq claimed by both the central government and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government," read Lead Inspector General Sean W. O'Donnell's opening message to the report publicly released on Wednesday.

“US CENTCOM in February described ISIS as “regrouping and reforming” in the Makhmour Mountains in northern Iraq, while the 2021 DoD budget justification for overseas contingency operations said that ISIS is expected to seek to re-establish governance in northern and western  areas of Iraq,” the report reads.

The Iraqi government announced the territorial defeat of ISIS in Iraq in December 2017, but the group have been able to re-employ their earlier insurgency tactics by recruiting locals in the disputed territories to ambush security forces, kidnap and execute suspected informants, and extort money from vulnerable rural populations. 

This quarter's ISIS regroup and reform in Iraq form part of a longer term resurgence, with both the coalition and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) reporting that the militant group's capabilities and strategy have remain unchanged since October of last year. 

“CJTF-OIR reported that it did not observe any change in ISIS’s capabilities this quarter compared to last quarter,” the report reads. “The DIA reported that it did not see any indication of a change in ISIS’s strategy in Iraq, based on ISIS activity in Iraq this quarter and a speech by ISIS spokesperson Abu Hamzah The DIA reported that it did not observe any change in ISIS’s tactics this quarter.”

Most frequently attacked has been the eastern Iraqi province of Diyala, where 80 of the 250 attacks recorded in the last three months have been reported. The Diyala towns of Baqubah and Khanaqin have been among the deadliest sites. 

Other attacks were reported in the provinces of Anbar, Kirkuk, Nineveh, and Saladin, according to the report. 

Primary methods of attack were assault, IED use, and assassinations.

In its most deadly attack since the territorial defeat, the group carried out a five-pronged offensive on Iraqi security forces that killed ten members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Saladin on May 2.  On the same day, militants killed three federal police officers and wounded two others in an attack on Zaghniya police station, Diyala province.

The May 2 attacks were just two of 64 carried out in Iraq between April 30 and May 6 for which the group claimed responsibility via its weekly al-Nabaa newsletter on Thursday. .

As part of its concentrated assault on rural areas, ISIS appear to have returned to their summertime tactic of agricultural arson. 

Crop burning in Makhmour on Tuesday was suspected to have been conducted by ISIS. Last week, the group claimed responsibility for crop fires in Diyala province via al-Nabaa.

Despite the continued threat posed by the group, the US and other anti-ISIS coalition members have undertaken a series of military base transfers to Iraqi security forces.

The transfers are part of a long-term plan for the coalition to step back from its mission, coalition officials have said, and are not due to the COVID-19 pandemic or attacks on bases hosting US and other coalition troops, largely suspected to have been carried out by Iran-backed militias. 

The early April transfer of Abu Ghraib base in Baghdad  - the sixth transfer of control to Iraqi security forces in a three-week period - was due to the success of the anti-ISIS mission, according to a coalition spokeperson.

In mid-April, then-Iraqi Defense Minister Najah al-Shammari vowed the government would “ramp up” anti-ISIS efforts to prevent the group from  capitalizing on Baghdad's prioritization of its efforts on the coronavirus crisis. New Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi placed tackling the threat posed by ISIS high on his leadership agenda.

Syria: no comeback, but still a threat 

Though the report warns of low insurgency in both Iraq and Syria, the group 'is not "making a comeback"' in the latter. 

“Both U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) reported that ISIS lacks the capabilities to sustain elevated attack levels over several months,” the report reads.  “USCENTCOM said the decrease in attacks in Syria this quarter was  “strong evidence” that ISIS is not “making a comeback,” as some other officials have stated," according to the report.

The group's current activities in Syria, including "re-establishing networks, assassinating and intimidating local leaders and security forces and extending its influence in rural areas” - as stated by US CENTCOM commander General Kenneth McKenzie written testimony to Congress  in March - the group "remains a threat," even after the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last year.

However, the approximately 10,000 ISIS militants held in detention in Syria pose a danger to the coalition's mission and personnel.

“ISIS prisoners pose “one of the most significant risks to the success  of the [defeat-ISIS] mission,” as well as a threat to U.S. and Coalition partner national security interests,” the report said.

With the support of the global anti-ISIS coalition, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was able to regain control of Baghouz, the militants’ last bastion in the country, in March 2019.

The SDF captured thousands of ISIS fighters in the fight, sending the families of the militants to al-Hol camp in Hasaka province.

The SDF struggling to beat back the threat of prison insurgency - their attentions have been divided between ISIS and Turkey and the proxy groups it backs - as officials warned when Turkey's October invasion of northeast Syria loomed.

ISIS inmates at Sanaa prison in Hasaka province northeast Syria have conducted a number of riots in recent months. The prison holds between 3,000 and 5,000 prisoners of around 50 nationalities, most of whom were detained by Kurdish and coalition forces in Baghouz. 


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