At his post-summit press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday, Donald Trump praised the United States’ “successful campaign” that had “just about eradicated” Islamic State in Syria. IS, however, is far from dead in the region.
I recently returned from Iraq, where multiple security sources told me that Islamic State is reconstituting itself in parts of the country. The chaos in the wake of the May 12 national election – an inconclusive result, involving widespread allegations of fraud and Iranian-backed groups trying to make deals to ensure their control over the next government – is again helping Islamic State co-opt Iraqi communities as it did in 2014–2015, when the group occupied a third of the country.
This reality runs counter to the prevailing view in Washington – a narrative Trump has advanced – that IS has been ousted from Iraq. “There are a lot of indicators that there is going to be an imminent resurgence of IS. You can see it in the records and the intelligence reports,” Iraq’s former national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie, who just left his post, told me. Of particular concern to those I interviewed: indications that the vast majority of remaining IS fighters are Iraqis, not foreigners. This makes it nearly impossible to provide incentives for them to leave the country.
A key factor in Islamic State’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 issues like unemployment and a lack of electricity are intensifying, offering Islamic State further opportunities to exploit public grievances.
Iraqi supporters of populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr celebrate after the results of Iraq's parliamentary election were announced in Baghdad, May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani
One of Iraq’s leading IS experts, security adviser Hisham al-Hashimi, describes IS’s strategy as being built on “four triangles of death,” citing sparsely populated areas once controlled by the group, where militants can hide even without the support of the local population.
In the first triangle, IS 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 IS control. In the second triangle, which includes Samarra, IS has not been able to co-opt the local population, but militants use the area as a fallback position when attacked. The third triangle, located between Baghdad and Damascus, is where IS is carrying 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 IS 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,” al-Hashimi said. This differs from IS’s 2014-2015 strategy of occupying major cities, indicating the group is becoming more of a guerilla force in Iraq, at least for now.
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 IS in major Sunni-dominated towns such as Mosul and Tikrit were allowed to return only if they bribed Shi’ite-dominated ministries.
The election result itself provides a tangible indicator of Iraqi dissatisfaction with Baghdad’s politics. While Iraq’s election commission put voter turnout at 44.5 percent, a number of reliable sources told me the real figure was closer to 20 percent.
Even those who did vote do not seem to have got what they wanted. Moqtada al-Sadr, the populist Shi’ite cleric whose political bloc won the election after promising to end corruption, improve the economy and work to reduce Tehran’s influence, is holding talks with whoever he believes can help him secure power – including the Iranian-backed Fatah group.
Iraq’s top court ordered a recount of the ballots in June after a government report found serious election violations, but Rubaie, the former national security adviser, believes that Iraqis’ lack of confidence that a new government will be any more accountable than the last one only benefits Islamic State. He says the military defeat of IS in Mosul and other cities is only half the story because it did not address the underlying causes that led Iraqis to join IS in the first place.
“We declared victory over Daesh [Islamic State], but how do you define victory? Was it a social victory? No,” says Rubaie. ”A political victory? No.…The results from the election and its aftermath encourage extremism. Sadr changed his positions and the goalposts.”
U.S.-led forces are continuing to attack Islamic State targets, with the U.S. Department of Defense reporting 14 strikes against the group in Iraq and Syria between July 9–15 alone. However, several Iraqi experts – concerned about the coalition’s plans to reduce its forces in Iraq – told me that the coalition is needed to fight IS in the four triangles identified by al-Hashimi. If that doesn’t happen, they say, IS will continue to gain strength – and Trump’s declarations of victory will ring even more hollow.