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In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon
In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon
The local vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup
Our Journeys / Africa

In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon

Two years ago, the Cameroonian government declared war on Boko Haram. Despite some progress, the group’s violent impact is still seen and felt deeply in the remote north of the country. 

In March 2016, Crisis Group Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup travelled for four weeks into an insecure area only few researchers are given access to: Cameroon’s Far North Region. He was escorted three days by the military between the front-line towns of Ldamang, Mabass, Kolofata, Amchidé and Gansé, before he went on to travel alone across the region: to Maroua, the Minawao refugee camp, Mokolo, Mora, Kousseri and Goulfey. During the four weeks he spoke to a wide range of people, including traditional chiefs, local inhabitants and administration staff, refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), vigilante groups, local NGOs, humanitarian actors, academics, the military, former Boko Haram members, former traffickers, and others, some in presence of the military but the vast majority on his own. He completed his research in April and May 2016 with additional interviews in Kerawa, Bargaram, Fotokol, Makary, Hile Alifa and Blangoua. Read Crisis Group’s in-depth report on the crisis in the area.

This is the story of his journey.

Cameroon's Far North district. CRISIS GROUP

At 8 o’clock in the morning, I hear seven vehicles stopping in front of my hotel: two armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and five four-wheel-drive vehicles. Sitting inside are over forty Cameroonian soldiers, who are here to take seven journalists and me into Cameroon’s Far North district – a region that has severely suffered under Boko Haram, and still does.

I want to understand what – apart from weapons – it takes to counter Boko Haram.

I am joining this convoy because I want to find out how Boko Haram operates in this area, and how strong it is, two years after the government started to clamp down on the insurgency. I want to see how the people living here are affected, understand if Boko Haram still recruits fighters in the Far North, and hear how large its network of sympathisers remains. And I want to understand what – apart from weapons – it takes to counter Boko Haram. I am especially curious to learn about the so-called “vigilantes”, local self-defence groups that have gained a certain fame in this Cameroonian war on terror. What can these groups really achieve?

The starting point of our trip is Maroua, a buzzing city of 400,000 inhabitants and capital of the Far North region. The region has never gained the sad notoriety of Nigeria’s Borno state, but it gradually became an important refuge for Boko Haram fighters in the 2000s. And it has suffered immensely under the insurgency over the past years, particularly since 2014 when Boko Haram entered into open confrontation with the Cameroonian government.

The Alpha escort of the BIR in Maroua, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The group’s tactics then changed quickly: smaller incursions and occasional kidnappings soon grew into larger raids on towns and villages as well as strategic attacks against the Cameroonian army. In just two years, the insurgency staged more than 500 attacks and incursions, and around fifty suicide bomb attacks in Cameroon, making it the second most targeted country after Nigeria. According to Cameroonian soldiers, they fought fourteen fierce battles in Kolofata, Amchidé, Fotokol and Bargaram in 2014 and 2015 against sometimes hundreds and even up to a thousand heavily equipped Boko Haram fighters from mainly Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad.

In total, in two and a half years the insurgents have killed at least 1,300 civilians, 120 soldiers and abducted an estimated thousand people in Cameroon. They have burned down hundreds of schools and businesses and forced thousands to flee. Today, there are over 190,000 internally displaced Cameroonians in the Far North and around 65,000 refugees from neighbouring Nigeria, according to OCHA figures.

Before we leave Maroua, one of the soldiers gives me a helmet and a bullet-proof vest. This will be my outfit for the entire journey, the standard equipment for everyone travelling in this once peaceful area whose broken tracks are now sown with mines and improvised explosive devices (IED). These were laid by Boko Haram to block the government’s way into the territory. More than 50 incidents have been recorded since October 2014, with 22 of the mines killing at least 30 soldiers and wounding many more.

SABC News: "Boko Haram Has Leveled a Threat at Cameroon and its President Paul Biya"

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau threatens to step up violence in Cameroon. In a video posted online, Shekau threatens the people of Cameroon and its president, Paul Biya. SABC News

I climb into a mine-resistant armoured personnel carrier (APC). But our safety has a price: despite air conditioning it’s over 45 degrees Celsius inside. With sweaty faces, the journalists and I look at each other, suddenly understanding, at least slightly, the physical challenge that the soldiers patrolling the region experience each day.   

Twenty kilometres outside of Maroua the roads become bumpy. And then there are no roads at all. But the driver finds his way toward the north east and after four hours we arrive at Mabass, a village right at the Nigerian frontier. Mabass and the neighbouring towns of Tourou and Ldamang were repeatedly attacked by Boko Haram in 2014 but the insurgents never managed to fully occupy them.

We stop at a rocky plateau overlooking the vast sandy frontier area with Nigeria where the local commander, Captain Ticko Kingue, points at a lake in the distance. “You see the lake over there?” he asks. “That’s the Nigerian town of Madagali. This entire frontier area is plagued by the insurgency. Even last night there were attacks. We cannot go into Nigeria, not here, we’re not allowed to. So what we do is we prevent the insurgents from coming in”.

A soldier belonging to the Emergence 4 Unit deployed at Poste de Mabass, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

It is crucial that the Nigerian and Cameroonian armies cooperate in the fight against Boko Haram. But for a long time, the two country’s historically difficult relations painfully slowed down their military coordination. Today, two years since the Cameroonian government declared war on Boko Haram, there’s still a great need for better exchange of intelligence. But at least cooperation between the two armies has improved significantly within the context of the region’s Multinational Joint Task Force – partly operational since November 2015 with the aim of crushing Boko Haram.

Here in Mabass, we are very close to the Nigerian army base near Madagali. “Sometimes they come to us, especially if we can help them with equipment”, says Captain Ticko Kingue. “And they inform us how things are going on their side”.

On the other side of the frontier, most border towns are still held by Boko Haram. “It’s been a long time since they managed to occupy new territory”, Captain Kingue says. “But they keep trying. They usually come in large groups of 200 fighters or more. We call this a ‘combat de masse’. Usually they come at night in a surprise attack. Sometimes they pretend to attack a larger village or town to divert the army’s attention while they try to seize smaller villages”. Although Boko Haram use indiscriminate violence, they also sometimes target these smaller villages to seize supplies or preach to the population, as happened on 15 December 2015 in Kerawa, where Boko Haram members rounded up the population to preach to them for hours in Kanuri, Haoussa and Arabic.

At Poste de Mabass.

Crisis Group Cameroon Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup in conversation with local army commander Kingue at Poste de Mabass, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. (Subtitles available in French and English) CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Boko Haram’s firepower reached its peak between summer 2014 and spring 2015. In the face of Cameroonian, Chadian and Nigerian military pressure since then, Boko Haram had to change its tactics and appears to be in decline. The jihadist group lost much of the territory it occupied and has much less military equipment than it used to. The army claims it has dismantled most Boko Haram cells in Cameroon, killed about 2,000 members in fighting and arrested more than 1,000 suspects since 2014. Today, Boko Haram is ostensibly weaker and is not able to conduct large-scale attacks any more. But it is far from defeated. It still goes after smaller targets, and increasingly relies on suicide bombers.

Contrasting with the army’s success stories, a recent Amnesty International report documents severe failings and human rights violations in the Far North counterinsurgency campaign. According to Amnesty International, many of the army’s arrests were arbitrary, the rights of detained suspects were “routinely denied” and they did not receive fair judicial treatment. The Amnesty report has been widely criticised and rejected by the government, the military, civil society and the majority of local media. Crisis Group research raised similar concerns as Amnesty’s, but when speaking to a wide range of people it also found a high degree of local support for army actions in the face of Boko Haram’s bewildering violence.

Boko Haram is ostensibly weaker and is not able to conduct large-scale attacks any more. But it is far from defeated.

We continue our journey into the Mayo Tsanaga district toward the only refugee camp in the Far North. The camp near the village of Minawao is run by the UNHCR and hosts almost 57,000 people. Most of them are Nigerians from the border areas. More than 190,000 Cameroonians were also displaced, mostly fleeing to other villages and towns of the Far North.

When the camp was built in 2011, living conditions were extremely poor, but that changed, thanks to combined efforts by the UNHCR, other humanitarian agencies and the Cameroonian government. Housing is simple but resembles how people live elsewhere in the Far North. Refugees receive three meals per day, which is more than many ordinary Cameroonians get to eat. Children of all ages can go to school. Nonetheless there is still much room for improvement. The UNHCR claims that not even 10 per cent of the funds needed to care for all refugees have been provided. Because of that, sanitary conditions in the camp are still not up to adequate standards.

A child going to school at Minawao refugee camp. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Another problem is that refugees have nearly no opportunity to work. For security reasons – especially the fear of suicide bombers – refugees are not allowed to leave the camp. The UNHCR is currently trying to come up with social activities to help the fact that many refugees feel condemned to doing nothing.

The psychological burden is hardest on those who came to the camp traumatised by the atrocities they saw or experienced during the insurgency, particularly women and girls who suffered abuses. There are only a couple of psychologists in the camp providing care for the newcomers – not enough to give permanent psychological assistance to the thousands who need it.

Most refugees tell me that they want to return to their homes as soon as the security situation allows it. But nobody can estimate when that will be. Many find it hard to believe that they will be safe again in the near future. One refugee from the Nigerian town of Pulka in Borno state says, “I may have many complaints, but nonetheless we are fine here in Minawao. I won’t go back”.

Our convoy returns to Maroua before night falls. Situated 100 kilometres away from the border, Maroua is out of Boko Haram’s reach and therefore one of the safest places in the Far North. But it too has suffered violent attacks. In July 2015, Boko Haram sent four young girls as suicide bombers to four public places in Maroua. When they blew themselves up, they killed over 37 people with them and wounded 114 others.

Youth are seen by Boko Haram as easy prey. The insurgents can either recruit or force them into their ranks and use them for their purposes.

My tour with the military over, I meet with one of the survivors, 13 year old Kevin, who tells me what happened on the night of 25 July: “It was night and I was with my friends. We wanted to buy candy from a shop close to the Boucan bar. There was a queue with six or seven people ahead of us. And then suddenly, a girl who was sitting right next to the vendor blew herself up. I remember hearing the detonation of the bomb before I passed out. I only woke up later at Maroua hospital. It was there that I realised that one of my legs was completely burnt. There were lots of small splinters in my belly, chest and neck from the explosion. The government paid for the surgery and I could leave the hospital about a week later, but I wasn’t the same. They had amputated the lower part of my burnt leg and I learnt that one of my friends had died during the attack. My other friend is alive, but they amputated both his legs and his face is burnt. I had never seen the girl who had blown herself up in the neighbourhood before. After we left the hospital, neither the government nor any of the humanitarian NGOs followed up with us on what had happened. A Catholic priest passes by from time to time at our house to speak with my mother and help my parents buy medicine”.

Luckily, the horrors of the attack have not taken away Kevin’s hope for the future. When I ask him if he still goes to school he says: “Yes, I have passed the first trimester. My teachers are very happy with me. When I finish school I want to become an engineer”.

Hans De Marie Heungoup with a victim of a suicide bomb explosion. Maroua, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans de Marie Heungoup

65 per cent of Cameroon’s population of 23 million is under 30 years old. Children and youths are the most vulnerable in this war. Many are traumatised by the violence they see or experience at a young age.

At the same time, youth are seen by Boko Haram as easy prey. The insurgents can either recruit or force them into their ranks and use them for their purposes, like the four girls in Maroua.

Recruitment is helped by the fact that many young people are unemployed, poorly educated, belong to a part of the society that is not well integrated or don’t see a future for themselves for other reasons. Local authorities and traditional chiefs in Maroua as well as in Mokolo and Mora told me that Boko Haram has lost its appeal and capacity to recruit almost entirely. Very few youths are still joining the movement voluntarily. Nonetheless, forced recruitments still continue in the border areas. As Boko Haram indiscriminately killed Muslims and Christians, fundamentalist Muslims distanced themselves from the movement, stating that Boko Haram represents neither Wahhabi nor Salafi Islam. Many Imams and Muslim clerics told me that the war against Boko Haram has actually limited the spread of fundamentalist trends of Islam as hard-line preachers are now afraid to speak up in public. 

The Far North is the poorest of Cameroon’s regions, with 70 per cent of its people living on less than one dollar per day. During the past three decades, the influence of conservative Salafi Islam has increased in the region and many children grow up exposed to radical religious viewpoints. There is an urgent need for the state and public institutions to care for these youths and make sure they do not radicalise in the first place – and if they do radicalise, offer them help to leave the group and be fully re-integrated into society.

Maroua has a big prison, and the vast majority of suspected Boko Haram members arrested in Cameroon, almost 900 of them, are detained here. What is sorely missing is a de-radicalisation program, one that teaches a more tolerant Islam and re-integrates into society those who were recruited by force and are willing to abandon the movement. 

When speaking to the regional administration, I learn that there are also no public counter-radicalisation programs outside of the prison aimed at keeping young people and others away from extremist groups. The only efforts made in this direction come from civil society groups and the churches. Cameroon’s Association for Inter-Faith Dialogue (ACADIR) has set a positive example by organising conferences and meetings that have brought together religious leaders of different strands of Christianity and Islam. But these initiatives only scratch the surface of the problem. They don’t reach those who are the biggest threat to religious dialogue in the Far North: radical Islamist leaders.

If the government does not invest in development, the impoverished local population will stay vulnerable to radical groups and religious radicalisation.

If the government is to turn a security-focused approach into a long-term political strategy against radicalisation, there is still much to do. If the government does not invest in development, the impoverished local population will stay vulnerable to radical groups and religious radicalisation.

Last year, when the government launched an emergency development plan with a budget of roughly $10 million per year, hardly anyone believed that this could make a big difference. Most experts estimate that the current plan covers only about one per cent of what is needed to significantly improve the situation in the country’s least developed region. With $10 million, you cannot construct a road network in the Far North, develop public services in all areas, like health and education, help business owners get back on their feet, create employment opportunities and pay for preventive programs to keep especially the youth away from radical groups.

It might be possible for Cameroon to find other funding to do the job, but a correct assessment of the needs is necessary. Only then can the government show that it has understood the scope of the problem and can hope for help from its international partners.

Members of the BIR in the Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. PHOTO/Erwan Decherysel

I leave Maroua a second time to go up to the Mayo Sava district. This time, I am picked up by soldiers of the BIR, “Bataillon d’intervention rapide” (rapid intervention force). Of the approximately 8,000 soldiers deployed in the Far North, 2,400 belong to this well-trained and equipped elite unit. They take me to a place that has become a symbol of the war: Amchidé.

We are confronted with the sight of a ghost town. Formerly inhabited by 30,000 people, Amchidé is among the hardest hit places in Cameroon and the stage of three long battles between the army and the insurgents in late 2014 and early 2015.

Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The BIR camp of Amchidé has been baptised “Le Palais” (the Palace), not just because of its palace-like shape but also because it was one of the insurgent’s key strategic targets in Cameroon. Despite a dozen of conventional attacks, including three where Boko Haram mustered 800 insurgents, the city only fell for one day, on 15 October 2014. But the military base never succumbed. 

In Amchide.

Crisis Group Cameroon Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup in conversation with Captain Kiki, commander of the BIR military base of Amchide, Cameroon, in March 2016. (Subtitles available in French and English) CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The entire population of Amchidé fled during the fighting and only 10 per cent have come back – to an almost dead city. There are no businesses in Amchidé anymore, since the fighting has cut all Amchidé’s supply lines.

Most of those who came back are men, and about 40 of them joined forces to form a vigilante group. These vigilante or community defence groups are nothing new. In many Cameroonian towns and villages, unarmed vigilante groups have existed for a long time. But they have gained a new level of importance with the insurgency. They are groups of normal citizens – always men – patrolling their villages to make sure everyone is safe, especially at night. 

Members of the vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

As the Boko Haram threat increased, the government realised how these vigilantes can help in the fight on terror. It provided equipment, such as rifles, torches and night vision gear, and worked with traditional village chiefs who handpicked the most “suitable” men of their village to be part of the vigilante group. Vigilante groups have since played an important role against Boko Haram. They identify strangers they believe could be potential suicide attackers. And sometimes they even fend off smaller Boko Haram attacks. In the past year as well as this year, the Amchidé vigilante group and similar ones in Limani, Kerawa and Tolkomari have been involved in low intensity fights with small groups of about half a dozen Boko Haram fighters. In some cases they were able to surround smaller Boko Haram cells or win a fight against attackers. In other cases, they were not successful – and suffered casualties.

A member of the vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Although they are praised by the government and local authorities, the vigilante groups are not exempt from criticism. Sometimes, vigilantes have denounced local inhabitants as members of Boko Haram just to settle private accounts. In other cases, vigilantes have been suspected of providing information to Boko Haram and were therefore arrested by the army. 

In the case of Amchidé, the first vigilante group formed by the BIR had only Christian members, who harassed and extorted money from the local Muslim majority. Following complaints, the BIR dissolved Amchidé’s first vigilante group and formed a new one with Christian and Muslim members. 

Unarmed vigilante groups have existed for a long time. But they have gained a new level of importance with the insurgency.

The last stop of my four weeks’ research trip is Kousseri, an old market town in between the Chari and the Logone rivers. You only have to cross a bridge to reach the metropolis of N’Djamena, capital of neighbouring Chad.

In economic terms, Kousseri is the most important city in the Far North. It has strong links with Chad to the east and Nigeria to the west, especially the Nigerian town of Maiduguri. In the past two years, it has been flooded with Cameroonian IDPs and Chadian refugees. Its population has grown from 200,000 to 280,000. Many of them come from the city of Fotokol, 100 kilometre to the west on the Nigerian border, where Boko Haram caused most casualties suffered in the country during the main phase of the war between May 2014 and March 2015.

For a period of several months in 2014 and 2015, Boko Haram staged almost daily attacks on Fotokol. One especially heavy battle took place in Fotokol in early February 2015. For two days, about 1,000 Boko Haram insurgents were fighting against Cameroonian BIR forces and Chadian soldiers, killing 81 to 400 civilians, seventeen Chadian soldiers, seven Cameroonian soldiers and 300 attackers, according to various reports. 

One woman from Fotokol tells me that Boko Haram killed her husband. Another woman describes how Boko Haram raided the village asking: “Where are the Christians?”. Some IDPs in Kousseri tell me that they feel relatively safe now, but the violence they have seen is hard to forget, and life remains hard for them. They receive only limited support from aid organisations like the World Food Program and no support from the state. They have to find their own housing or stay with friends and relatives. Opportunities for work are scarce and the local economy has suffered from the fighting. Tens of thousands of merchants relied on cross-border trade. When the Nigerian border was closed due to insecurity, many of them were left without work. Aya, who used to own a large shop in Fotokol, lost everything. She tells me: “There is no possible turning back for me and my children. We have been chased from our village, our house was burnt; we have to make our life here in Kousseri”. 

Hans De Marie Heungoup with a displaced family from Fotokol in Kousseri, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

After four weeks in the Far North, when I return to the capital Yaoundé, the main concern resonating in my head is that people cannot imagine that security will be restored soon. The military battle against Boko Haram is ongoing and despite some successes it is far from won. At the same time, the military’s performance is tainted by accusations of human rights violations against the population, including arbitrary detention, torture, extrajudicial killings, and forced disappearances - allegations which the military mostly denies. During our discussion, the spokesman of the Defence Ministry replied to similar claims: “Cameroon’s army is republican and professional. We systematically investigate all human rights abuses cases and sanction. As you should know four soldiers in the Far North have been discharged a few months ago for committing grave acts against the honor of the army”.  

While his claim that all abuses are investigated is clearly an exaggeration, and it is not clear that all sanctions concern Human rights abuses, there has been some progress. Disciplinary measures have been taken against some officers and soldiers  in the Far North, who have been removed from operational assignments to administrative posts or dismissed. Some judicial investigations into rights abuses are underway. 

Still, efforts made are far from sufficient and the defence ministry’s focus on sanctions is too narrow. There are no financial or material compensations for victims of the families of victims that suffered human rights violations. Neither has the military officially apologised. The government should pursue a stricter and proactive sanctions policy against soldiers who committed abuses, publicise its sanctions and put in place measures that can rebuild communities’ confidence. If human rights violations by the army continue, they will jeopardise the success of the counterinsurgency, as parts of the population may radicalise and take the side of the insurgents. At the same time, Western countries might withdraw their support for the army, as happened in Nigeria when there was a rash of human rights abuses by Nigerian army.

If human rights violations by the army continue, they will jeopardise the success of the counterinsurgency. Parts of the population may take the side of the insurgents.

As much as security efforts are crucial to curb the insurgency, Cameroon, Nigeria and Chad also need to shape new policies that can prevent the emergence of new jihadist groups. More and more, the central authorities seem to understand that. At the ministry of defence and at the ministry of external relations, I meet several senior officials who recognise that a sustainable victory is impossible without development in the Far North. But then, they all add “the priority is to defeat Boko Haram militarily first”. Otherwise, the sad example of Chinese development workers who were kidnapped in 2014 by Boko Haram while building roads in the Far North could be repeated, they say. 

Boko Haram is much weaker today than in 2014. Nonetheless, the government must not delay proving to its population that it cares for its needs, and that it is trying to give those who feel neglected by the state new hope for their future. 

This commentary is part of Crisis Group’s series Our Journeys, giving behind the scenes access to our analysts’ field research. 

Islamic state fighters and their families walk as they surrendered in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria March 12, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said
Report 207 / Middle East & North Africa

Averting an ISIS Resurgence in Iraq and Syria

Once again, the Islamic State may be poised to recover from defeat in its original bases of Iraq and Syria. It is still possible, however, for the jihadist group’s many foes to nip its regrowth in the bud.

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What’s new? In Iraq and Syria, ISIS is down but not out. The group remains active but reduced and geographically circumscribed. Keeping it down requires sustained effort. Any of several events – Turkish intervention in north-eastern Syria, but also instability in Iraq or spill-over of U.S.-Iranian tensions – could enable its comeback.

Why does it matter? Iraqis, Syrians and their international partners paid a heavy price to dislodge the militant organisation from its territorial “caliphate”. Yet even as an insurgency, it still threatens Iraqis and Syrians locally, and, if it manages to regroup, it could pose a renewed threat globally.

What should be done? Keeping ISIS weak will require avoiding new conflict in either Iraq or Syria that would disrupt counter-ISIS efforts – most immediately, Turkish intervention in north-eastern Syria. Syrians and Iraqis need a period of calm to pursue ISIS insurgents and stabilise their respective countries.

Executive Summary

The Islamic State (ISIS) has not made a comeback in Iraq or Syria – yet. The jihadist group survives as a deadly insurgency in both countries, but one that, compared to its earlier iterations, is weak and geographically circumscribed. Local conditions, particularly in Iraq, have militated against its return. Yet both Iraq and Syria face internal dangers and external threats, most imminently Turkish intervention in Syria’s north east, that could destabilise both countries. If internal instability or external shock interferes with counter-ISIS efforts in either country, the organisation seems likely to attempt a return. Preventing its resurgence requires continued local efforts to combat the group and stabilise the situation, even as all sides engaged in counter-ISIS efforts – local and international – need to avert disruptive new conflicts among themselves, whatever their differences.

ISIS lost its last territorial foothold in Iraq in 2017 and in Syria in early 2019.

ISIS has fallen far from its 2015 peak, when it was on the offensive against its many enemies and controlled a militant proto-state spanning Iraq and Syria. Faced with an overwhelming military campaign waged by an array of local and international foes, ISIS lost its last territorial foothold in Iraq in 2017 and in Syria in early 2019. In both countries, it has survived by shifting from semi-conventional warfare to hit-and-run insurgency.

In Iraq, the group operates as small, largely autonomous guerrilla units spread across the country’s most inhospitable terrain, including its mountains and deserts. From these hideouts, ISIS militants emerge to prey on rural areas, kidnapping and extorting residents and killing state representatives. The group’s operations are simple; it has only infrequently carried out more complex or large-scale attacks. So far, it seems not to have penetrated Iraq’s major cities.

Iraq has changed in ways that might prevent ISIS from returning in force. The nationwide sectarian polarisation from which ISIS benefited has faded. Additionally, now that many Sunni Arabs have experienced the dual trauma of ISIS’s draconian control and the military campaign to recapture their home areas from ISIS, most want nothing more to do with the group. The Iraqi security forces, for their part, have curbed their excesses and forged a more functional relationship with Sunni Arabs.

Yet despite these reasons for optimism, there are also threats. Securing peripheral areas still bedevilled by ISIS will be a major challenge. The government has yet to rebuild and jump-start the economies of these and other areas that were damaged by the war against ISIS, discouraging the displaced from returning. Healing society’s wounds seems similarly difficult. Iraq’s retributive approach to post-ISIS justice risks widening the country’s divisions. “ISIS families” – civilians with alleged family ties to ISIS militants and who have been exiled from their hometowns – appear in danger of becoming a permanently stigmatised underclass. Too, U.S.-Iranian tensions could spill over into Iraq, potentially leading to attacks by Iran’s local paramilitary allies on U.S. targets. The results would be unpredictable but could imperil the continued presence of U.S.-led Coalition forces and trigger greater instability.

ISIS could also stage a return in neighbouring Syria, whose stability seems threatened by a newly-launched Turkish intervention in Syria’s north east. On 6 October, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that Turkey would launch a military operation in northern Syria and that U.S. forces “will no longer be in the immediate area”. Trump’s statement – since then nuanced, muddled and contradicted – appeared to give a green light for unilateral Turkish intervention in Syria’s north east against the U.S.’s primary Syrian partner in the fight against ISIS, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is led by a mainly Kurdish force closely linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that has waged a decades-long war with Turkey. After the few U.S. troops present on the border left their positions, Turkey announced that the intervention had begun on 9 October, though its full scope remains unclear.

Conflict between Turkey and the SDF along the Syrian-Turkish border almost certainly will relieve pressure on ISIS, which lost its last territorial foothold in eastern Syria in May 2019 but persists as a deadly insurgency. Since May, the SDF has continued to pursue ISIS remnants across the north east and to hold thousands of ISIS detainees and ISIS-affiliated family members. Yet the SDF has warned that it will be forced to redirect its forces toward Syria’s northern border should Turkey attack. The consequences may be disastrous for areas farther south, where ISIS is most active, and for prisons and camps that hold ISIS militants and were already vulnerable to attack before the latest events.

Even if ISIS likely will survive in some form in both Iraq and Syria, its many enemies ought to be able to contain or even further degrade the group.

Even if ISIS likely will survive in some form in both Iraq and Syria, its many enemies ought to be able to contain or even further degrade the group. For that, however, both countries need to be spared new external shocks that could disrupt counter-ISIS efforts. Most urgently, the U.S. and its allies should work to convince Turkey to halt its invasion of the north east, which could damage Turkey’s international political standing and its domestic security. That could allow time for a new interim arrangement that addresses Turkish security concerns pending a final agreement on the area. Failing that, the alternative is for the SDF, likely with Russian mediation, to negotiate a settlement directly with the Syrian regime that might forestall a Turkish attack. Governments should also repatriate as many of their civilian nationals as is feasible from the north east’s displacement camps, before children in the camps are engulfed by conflict.

Local actors need to take steps, too. With help from its international partners, the Iraqi government ought to redouble its efforts to secure ISIS-affected rural areas if neighbouring Syria devolves into chaos. Baghdad should also prioritise reconstruction of war-damaged areas and return of the displaced, including “ISIS families”. If Turkey’s attack can be put off or limited, the SDF will still have to allow its local partners to play a more active role in governance and security, including in Deir al-Zour, and help defend them against ISIS predation.

An ISIS resurgence in Iraq and Syria can still be prevented. But it requires sustained efforts by the group’s local and international adversaries, who must avoid deadly conflict among themselves that could give ISIS new life.

Beirut/Istanbul/Baghdad/Deir al-Zour/Brussels, 11 October 2019

I. Introduction

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been “defeated” more than once. In 2010, the U.S. announced that U.S. and Iraqi forces had killed or captured most of the group’s leadership, calling into question its ability to regroup.[fn]Thom Shanker, “Qaeda leaders in Iraq neutralized, U.S. says”, The New York Times, 4 June 2010.Hide Footnote  But just three years later, ISIS expanded from Iraq into Syria and founded a militant proto-state. In 2014, it proclaimed a global “caliphate” and unleashed attacks worldwide, even as it went on murderous rampages in both Iraq and Syria.[fn]ISIS perpetrated a genocide against Iraq’s Yezidi minority, in addition to its many offences against other Iraqi and Syrians, including against Sunni Arabs who opposed the organisation or transgressed its draconian behaviour codes. For UN experts’ finding that ISIS committed a genocide against Iraq’s Yezidis, see Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, “‘They Came to Destroy’: ISIS Crimes against the Yazidis”, 15 June 2016. Crisis Group’s previous reports on ISIS include Crisis Group Middle East Report N°144, Make or Break: Iraq’s Sunnis and the State, 14 August 2013; Crisis Group Middle East Report N°150, Iraq: Falluja's Faustian Bargain, 28 April 2014; Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016; and Crisis Group Middle East Report N°204, Squaring the Circles in Syria’s North East, 31 July 2019.Hide Footnote  World powers responded by teaming up with Iraqi and Syrian forces to defeat the central ISIS organisation. In December 2017, the Iraqi government declared victory over the group, while the U.S. and its Syrian partners announced they had eliminated its last pocket of territory in eastern Syria in March 2019.[fn]Al-Abadi announces ‘liberation’ of Iraq from ‘Islamic State’ organisation, Washington welcomes”, France 24, 9 December 2017 (Arabic); Syrian Democratic Forces, “Breaking news: our forces (SDF) are flying their flags over [Baghouz] and declare victory over ISIS”, 23 March 2019; White House, “The United States and Our Global Partners Have Liberated All ISIS-Controlled Territory”, 23 March 2019.Hide Footnote

Even as ISIS was losing its physical “state”, however, it had begun to shift from open, semi-conventional combat to guerrilla warfare. It has since waged asymmetric campaigns in both Iraq and Syria, with the avowed aim of depleting its enemies’ ranks before, eventually, returning to claim territorial control.

When ISIS announced its “caliphate”, it claimed dominion over Sunni Muslims worldwide and renamed itself simply “the Islamic State”. With this move, the group ostensibly decoupled its identity from any given territory and from its original home base in Iraq. As ISIS has lost territory in both countries, it has shifted its media focus to some of its more far-flung “provinces” in places such as Nigeria and Afghanistan, where it can demonstrate momentum.[fn]For more on ISIS affiliates in the Lake Chad basin, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°273, Facing the Challenge of the Islamic State in West Africa Province, 16 May 2019.Hide Footnote  Notionally, the writ of ISIS’s “caliphate” extends everywhere, and its command can be anywhere.

In practice, though, Iraq and Syria remained the transnational organisation’s effective centre. Officials believe that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi national, and the rest of the group’s top leadership are somewhere in Iraq or Syria.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, U.S. officials, Washington, April 2019.Hide Footnote  Per ISIS’s own reporting, its operations are concentrated in these two countries.[fn]ISIS, “In the company of the leader of the faithful”, Al-Furqan Media Foundation, 29 April 2019 (Arabic).Hide Footnote U.S. officials believe that ISIS’s central command issues broad guidance to the organisation’s affiliates and supporters around the globe, though it does not direct them on a day-to-day basis.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, U.S. officials, Washington, January and April 2019.Hide Footnote

The most imminent threat is in Syria, where Turkey has launched a military intervention in the north east.

Since 2017, officials and experts have regularly warned of a resurgent “ISIS 2.0” in Iraq and Syria, yet the organisation’s strength in each country has been difficult to gauge.[fn]For example, see Phil Stewart, “U.S. to fight Islamic State in Syria ‘as long as they want to fight’: Mattis”, Reuters, 14 November 2017.Hide Footnote  It can no longer be measured in mechanised columns or in square kilometres of territory. From the ground, ISIS’s “resurgence” has seemed overstated.

That could change. The most imminent threat is in Syria, where Turkey has launched a military intervention in the north east against the U.S.’s main Syrian partner in the fight against ISIS, following U.S. President Donald Trump’s abrupt 6 October decision to step aside. But even beyond that, other dangers loom.

This report looks at current ISIS activity in Iraq and Syria, as well as the risk of its return. It is based primarily on Crisis Group field work in Iraq and Syria, including more than 150 interviews in cities in those two countries, Washington, Beirut and Amman, with civilian and security officials, local and foreign; civil society and communal leaders; humanitarian aid workers; and others. It also builds on Crisis Group’s previous reports and briefings on both Iraq and Syria.

Destruction in Mosul after the city's recapture from ISIS, March 2019. CRISISGROUP/Sam Heller

II. Iraq: The New ISIS Insurgency

In Iraq, ISIS is waging an active, deadly insurgency. Yet it is an insurgency that is diminished, not just from ISIS’s capabilities at its height in early 2015, but also from the long campaign that preceded the group’s 2014 surge. ISIS’s current war is also one limited mostly to the country’s rural periphery. In much of Iraq today, security is better than it has been for years – despite the violence amid recent protests, which has marred the relative calm.[fn]A senior Western diplomat said: “Everyone says it’s a fragile situation. Nobody denies that, given recent Iraqi history. And the security situation is the product of endogenous and exogenous effects. But the facts are that ordinary Iraqi citizens have less possibility of being wounded or killed in an explosion or a terror attack than at any time in the last fifteen or sixteen years”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, February 2019.Hide Footnote

ISIS units have taken refuge in some of Iraq’s most forbidding terrain.

ISIS is now mainly active along a rural spine that runs across the northern third of Iraq from southern Ninewa to northern Diyala province, including the Hamrin and Makhoul mountains. It also operates in the Jazira and Anbar deserts in Iraq’s west, as well as scattered pockets elsewhere.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi officials and Western diplomats, Iraq, February, March and June 2019.Hide Footnote  ISIS units have taken refuge in some of Iraq’s most forbidding terrain, including mountains and caves, remote desert, orchards, river groves and islands. They also shelter in destroyed and abandoned villages. These rugged areas give ISIS natural cover, allowing fighters to hide by day, then move by night in small groups on foot or by motorbike.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Baghdad, Kirkuk, Erbil, Baquba, February, March and June 2019.Hide Footnote  For sustenance and armament, they rely on hidden caches of food and weapons, as well as supplies from collaborators.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Iraqi security official, Baghdad, 27 February 2019.Hide Footnote  In the desert, ISIS disappears into subterranean bases, with some militants reportedly traversing open expanses posing as shepherds.[fn]According to an Anbar security official, ISIS buried large containers in the desert and now uses them as underground hideouts invisible to passing patrols. They additionally shelter in trenches and Bedouin camps. Crisis Group interview, Ramadi, June 2019. The head of Iraq’s Hawks intelligence cell has described a tunnel network ISIS dug in south-western Ninewa province. Saad al-Sammak, “Hawks Cell foils largest terror plot in 2019”, al-Sabah, 28 July 2019 (Arabic).
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According to an Anbar security official, ISIS buried large containers in the desert and now uses them as underground hideouts invisible to passing patrols. They additionally shelter in trenches and Bedouin camps. Crisis Group interview, Ramadi, June 2019. The head of Iraq’s Hawks intelligence cell has described a tunnel network ISIS dug in south-western Ninewa province. Saad al-Sammak, “Hawks Cell foils largest terror plot in 2019”, al-Sabah, 28 July 2019 (Arabic).
 

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This terrain can be nearly impassable for Iraqi security forces’ vehicles or so exposed that these forces cannot approach without alerting insurgents far in advance.[fn]A Ninewa military official said: “These are areas that are difficult to reach, where they can hide. ... When aircraft come, they can retreat; they have their intelligence network. It takes us a day to get to Baaj, and their vehicles are faster than ours, which are heavy and armoured”. Crisis Group interview, Mosul, March 2019.Hide Footnote  These areas cannot be permanently “held” by Iraqi forces, only watched and periodically patrolled and cleared. Many are traditional insurgent havens, only tenuously under the government’s control.[fn]An Iraqi presidential adviser said: “Hamrin was always a place for rebels; even under Saddam, the state didn’t have full control”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 26 February 2019.Hide Footnote

From these natural redoubts, ISIS units can prey on civilians in lightly policed outlying areas. In bands of five to ten, they can support themselves by kidnapping and extorting civilians at night.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security officials, Kirkuk and Ramadi, March and June 2019. According to a Kirkuk security official: “They threaten people [in rural areas] and demand food. If someone has collaborated with the security services, they abduct him or blow up his house”. A resident of Hawija in Kirkuk province told Crisis Group that hungry ISIS members “use their weapons to get a sandwich, like cowboys”. Crisis Group interview, Kirkuk, February 2019.Hide Footnote  “It’s not big groups”, said a Ninewa military official. “They work like thieves, killing and taking money”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Mosul, March 2019.
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 Indeed, some ISIS activity is nearly indistinguishable from banditry.[fn]ISIS also reportedly extorts the trucking companies plying Iraq’s highways. Crisis Group interviews, Hisham al-Hashemi, ISIS expert, Baghdad, 24 February 2019; and Iraqi journalist and security analyst, Baghdad, February and June 2019.
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 ISIS is said to have accumulated large amounts of money during its period of territorial control, some of which it may have stashed inside Iraq or abroad.[fn]Some governments estimate that ISIS still has as much as $300 million. UN Security Council, “Twenty-fourth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities”, 15 July 2019. In one high-profile case, Iraqi and Kurdish special forces, with Coalition assistance, disrupted a money transfer network that was moving millions of dollars around the world for ISIS. U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury designates key nodes of ISIS’s financial network stretching across the Middle East, Europe and East Africa”, 15 April 2019.Hide Footnote  For now, though, the group likely does not need much – its level of violence seems both inexpensive and self-sustaining.[fn]See Lead Inspector General, “Operation Inherent Resolve: Lead Inspector General report to the United States Congress”, 6 August 2019, p. 16.
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ISIS units also engage in violence that is more overtly political. They systematically kill local state representatives, including mukhtars (village headmen) and members of the security forces. The seeming aim is to terrorise residents into non-cooperation with the Iraqi security forces.[fn]A Diyala journalist said: “There’s still this fear. For these people, the organisation is closer to them than the security forces are”. Crisis Group interview, Baquba, June 2019.Hide Footnote  Militants additionally attack checkpoints and target security forces with roadside bombs, ambushes and sniper attacks. According to a senior Coalition officer:

[ISIS attacks] tend to be more basic, which marries up with them moving to insurgent-type tactics. More complex attacks require more people, experience, materials. … With these insurgent-type tactics, they’re working in small, dispersed groupings, which are harder to detect.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, July 2019.Hide Footnote

ISIS attacks are often propaganda of the deed, in that their violence also carries a political message aimed at multiple audiences.[fn]A Kirkuk security official said: “[ISIS] conducts operations that have a media impact, so it can restore terror to people’s hearts and say it’s present on the battlefield”. Crisis Group interview, Kirkuk, March 2019.Hide Footnote Its assassinations of mukhtars are one example of operations that have both functional and performative value. Mukhtars are responsible for knowing the residents of a city neighbourhood or town and managing their interactions with the government.[fn]A mukhtar described his cooperation with the security services, including maintaining records of residents, supervising new arrivals and facilitating law enforcement. “Anything that happens, I hear about it first, before the government”. Crisis Group interview, Ramadi, June 2019. ISIS has highlighted the security role played by mukhtars in its media releases. See ISIS, “May God grant you victory”, Iraq Province-Diyala media office, 14 April 2019 (Arabic).Hide Footnote They also serve as a key node of communication between residents and Iraq’s security services, giving the latter insight into what is happening locally. When ISIS kills mukhtars, it both blinds the state and intimidates civilians. The group then amplifies the murders’ effect with media releases that publicise them and sometimes even include video footage of the killings, bringing the organisation’s night-time home invasions in rural Iraq to national and global audiences, including its own members and supporters.[fn]ISIS evidently wants to communicate that these killings are systematic, even if, in practice, some may be more opportunistic. In a June 2019 video, for example, ISIS staged a scene in which its militants scroll through a spreadsheet of assassination targets. The narrator says: “They prepared the silencers and worked their way down these lists of criminals”. ISIS, “The splitting of heads 2”, Iraq Province-Dijla media office, 11 June 2019 (Arabic). ISIS has previously highlighted its killing of mukhtars as a key operational metric, as in an infographic in the 6 September 2018 issue of its weekly newsletter, al-Naba. “However many of you mukhtars there are, we’ll liquidate you all soon”, an apparent ISIS member wrote to one mukhtar in a text message the mukhtar showed to Crisis Group. Crisis Group interview, June 2019.Hide Footnote

Since 2017, ISIS has carried out few complex, multi-stage attacks, such as car bombings and mass-casualty suicide attacks, that require developed logistical networks.[fn]ISIS has claimed a handful of high-casualty attacks, including one by two suicide attackers in a Baghdad suburb that ISIS said killed and wounded 70. Al-Naba, 18 July 2019. Local reporting does not back up these purported body counts.Hide Footnote  The group’s reluctance to expend men in suicide attacks may indicate that it is conserving manpower.

There are few foreigners left in ISIS ranks in Iraq; as aliens, they cannot easily survive.

Many active ISIS militants seem to be Iraqis and natives of their respective areas of operation. There are few foreigners left in ISIS ranks in Iraq; as aliens, they cannot easily survive.[fn]Hisham al-Hashemi estimates there are still 200 to 300 foreigners fighting with ISIS in Iraq, mostly in Anbar. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 24 February 2019. Senior Iraqi security officials and a senior Coalition officer said the flow of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq has slowed to a trickle. Crisis Group interviews, Baghdad and by phone, February and July 2019.Hide Footnote Locals, on the other hand, are intimately familiar with the human and physical terrain – who is who and where to run. In Kirkuk, residents say they can distinguish between ISIS assaults and normal criminality because they know these ISIS attackers individually as local ISIS fugitives.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, officials and residents, Kirkuk, February-March 2019. A Kirkuk security official told Crisis Group: “[Residents] can tell the difference. Most of these people are known to them as ISIS, wanted men. … There will be four or five locals, with two or three strangers. … Locals know the roads, how to get food and drink, how to disappear”. Crisis Group interview, Kirkuk, March 2019.Hide Footnote  These ISIS fighters themselves know area residents, and in some places can rely on family to supply them.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, officials and residents, Baghdad, Baquba and Kirkuk, March and June 2019. According to a Kirkuk tribal sheikh: “[ISIS members] return to their families to get bread and water. ISIS members in the area are in the places they lived. They’re all sons of the area; maybe 2 or 3 per cent are outsiders. … These locals are more difficult to eliminate. They have some safe haven”. Crisis Group interview, Kirkuk, March 2019.
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Among ISIS’s Iraqi guerrillas, some may be committed ideologues, but all are wanted men, whatever their motives. They have few obvious alternatives to militancy, aside from the gallows. According to a Diyala journalist: “These are local ISIS, who got involved with the organisation, and for whom there’s now no going back”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baquba, June 2019.Hide Footnote  ISIS’s ranks are much diminished since the days when it was a de facto governing authority and semi-conventional military force. But at least some of its cadres have survived and could be the base for a future large-scale mobilisation.[fn]A senior Iraqi security official distinguished between the organisation’s ideological elite and a larger group who might be enlisted by that core under the right circumstances. “It’s based on conditions. Since ISIS’s defeat, you have a higher proportion of ideologues. But it was different when ISIS was on the advance, when it was victorious, when it had tamkin (territorial and administrative control)”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 27 February 2019. According to a diplomat from a Western Coalition member country: “The most worrying thing is [ISIS’s] cadre structure. They will always find soldiers to work for it, labour. What they need is a management and planning capacity, and that’s something they’ve kept. We haven’t managed to neutralise everyone”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, February 2019.Hide Footnote

Many Iraqis interviewed by Crisis Group said ISIS is not winning recruits at present, though some thought it was trying.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security officials and local residents, Baghdad, Kirkuk, Ramadi, Baquba, February, March and June 2019. Coalition officials, on the other hand, assert that ISIS is actively recruiting. Crisis Group phone interview, senior Coalition officer, July 2019; “Operation Inherent Resolve: Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress”, op. cit., pp. 42-43.Hide Footnote  One Kirkuk official said ISIS cells seem not to regenerate after being hit by Coalition airstrikes, in part because they are not recruiting and cannot easily bring reinforcements from elsewhere: “Groups that have been bombed go quiet. They come back, but not like they were”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kirkuk, March 2019.Hide Footnote  ISIS militants have difficulty travelling long distances undetected, though they may have greater freedom of movement in open desert.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Anbar security official and senior Coalition official, May and June 2019.Hide Footnote  Some have infiltrated Iraq via its desert Syrian border, which has remained to some extent porous.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi security officials and Western diplomats, Baghdad, Mosul and Washington, February-April 2019. A senior Iraqi security official said Iraqi forces could prevent large-scale infiltrations, but not small groups crossing. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 27 February 2019.Hide Footnote  ISIS units seem to be in communication with one another and follow top-level guidance – in one likely example, the targeting of mukhtars – but to operate largely autonomously.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi security officials and Western diplomats, Washington, Baghdad, Kirkuk and Mosul, January-March 2019. The Coalition reports, however, that ISIS militants fleeing to Iraq from Syria “brought more funding for attacks, a more stable [command and control] node, and a logistics node for coordination of attacks”. See “Operation Inherent Resolve: Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress”, op. cit., p. 42.Hide Footnote

ISIS also benefits from its enemies’ failures of coordination.

ISIS also benefits from its enemies’ failures of coordination, including along the disputed internal boundaries between Baghdad-controlled Iraq and the Kurdish region.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°194, Reviving UN Mediation on Iraq’s Disputed Internal Boundaries, 14 December 2018.Hide Footnote  ISIS exploits unguarded spaces between hostile Iraqi and Kurdish forces, from which the group can attack both sides.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, U.S. officials and security analysts, Washington and Baghdad, April and June 2019; “Operation Inherent Resolve: Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress”, op. cit., pp. 44-45.Hide Footnote  Federal Iraqi and Kurdish forces have maintained some coordination since the former expelled the latter from disputed areas in October 2017.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kurdish security officials, Iraqi security analyst, Western diplomats, Erbil, Baghdad and by messaging app, March, June and July 2019.Hide Footnote Still, distrust runs deep between the two sides: Kurdish officials accuse Baghdad of allowing ISIS to run amok in formerly stable areas, while some local Arabs and Turkmen allege that the Kurds have deliberately destabilised these areas to justify the Kurdish security forces’ return.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kurdish security officials and Kirkuk and Diyala residents, Kirkuk, Erbil, Baghdad, Baquba, March and June 2019.
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Since 2017, ISIS has seemed unable to penetrate Iraq’s cities, including not only the capital Baghdad but also smaller municipalities such as Falluja.[fn]A senior Iraqi security official said: “In the mountains, it’s easy for, say, four men to hide. And in Anbar, these are wide open, sprawling areas. But [ISIS] can’t establish itself or operate in the cities”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 27 February 2019.Hide Footnote  That does not mean the organisation is not trying; officials say they have frustrated plots targeting urban areas.[fn]Hawks Cell foils largest terror plot in 2019”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  What violence has occurred in cities – including several unclaimed bombings in Mosul and Kirkuk – is difficult to attribute to ISIS. Many suspect that the attackers were not affiliated with ISIS and were motivated instead by criminal rackets or local political rivalries.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security analysts and Western diplomats, Erbil, Baghdad and by phone, March, May and June 2019. Mosul’s investigative court announced it arrested an ISIS cell allegedly responsible for March 2019 bombings in Mosul. “Judiciary: Terrorists responsible for Mosul explosions arrested”, Al-Sumaria News, 31 March 2019 (Arabic).Hide Footnote  Iraq’s cities are crowded with armed actors, any of whom might resort to violence for various reasons. Some might be interested in exaggerating the role of ISIS, as it makes for a convenient scapegoat.[fn]One Diyala resident said: “So maybe there’s an attack by an ISIS sniper – or maybe it’s by someone from a militia, and it gets blamed on ISIS”. Crisis Group interview, Baquba, June 2019.Hide Footnote  There are also persistent fears that ISIS sleeper cells lie in wait across the country.

Destruction in Mosul after the city's recapture from ISIS, March 2019. The wall graffiti says: "Warning. Contaminated area. Corpses present." CRISISGROUP/Sam Heller

III. ISIS’s Cyclical Strategy

Even as ISIS in Iraq is much reduced from its 2015 height, Iraqis and their foreign partners are, understandably, still worried about the organisation’s possible resurgence. As one Western diplomat put it:

The big question is whether this trajectory is a path or a circle. Is this the top of the circle, where things are looking good for the moment, but where we should expect a slow descent?[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, February 2019.Hide Footnote

ISIS may be counting on that sort of cyclical pattern. Its leadership has warned Iraq’s Sunnis to “repent”, promising that it “is returning to the areas from which it withdrew, either sooner or later”.[fn]Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, “He was true to God, so [God] was true to him”, Al-Furqan Media Foundation, 18 March 2019 (Arabic).Hide Footnote According to its own propaganda, its ultimate objective is a return to tamkin – “empowerment”, or territorial and administrative control.[fn]One instance in which ISIS articulated this progression was in an editorial in its weekly newsletter after the fall of Baghouz in north-eastern Syria, in which it reminded supporters that it confronted the Iraqi military head on only after years of grinding asymmetric warfare. “The mujahideen in Iraq didn’t seize cities and realise tamkin overnight, as some imagine, nor did they organise the caliphate’s army and immediately enter a frontal war with the polytheists. Rather, they persisted in an exhausting war of attrition for years”. Al-Naba, 18 April 2019.Hide Footnote  ISIS frames its struggle as protracted. “Our battle today is one of attrition and outlasting the enemy”, said the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in his 29 April 2019 video appearance.[fn]ISIS, “In the company of the leader of the faithful”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  This strategy is not novel.[fn]An Anbar security official noted that ISIS had previously come back from near-defeat: “They’re trying now to rebuild themselves, and working like they did in 2010, 2009 – security detachments, assassinations, IEDs”. Crisis Group interview, Ramadi, June 2019. For one distillation of ISIS’s past strategy, see Craig Whiteside, “War, interrupted, part I: the roots of the jihadist resurgence in Iraq” and “War, interrupted, part II: from prisoners to rulers”, War on the Rocks, 5 and 6 November 2014.Hide Footnote  It is a plan, however, to which ISIS has evidently devoted considerable thought.

If given the chance, the group will likely supplement its continuing low-grade vio-lence with more complex, resource-intensive attacks.

Per ISIS’s own literature, the group’s approach in Iraq seems tailored to difficult conditions, with the aim of incremental progress toward tamkin.[fn]For one example of the group’s thinking, see a column in its weekly newsletter, in which it provided guidance as to the appropriate mix of low-cost, high-volume violence and resource-intensive, high-impact attacks, depending on context and timing. Al-Naba, 25 July 2019, p. 8, available in translation at “Islamic State: Substantial, continuous ‘returns’”, Abu al-Jamajem (blog), 11 August 2019.Hide Footnote  ISIS’s leaders recognise that counter-insurgency operations are meant to keep the movement off balance and prevent it from escalating its own campaign.[fn]Ibid., p. 3, available in translation at “Islamic State: ‘In the eyes of his enemies an army of heroes…’”, Abu al-Jamajem (blog), 11 August 2019.Hide Footnote  If given the chance, the group will likely supplement its continuing low-grade violence with more complex, resource-intensive attacks.[fn]Ibid., p. 8. The column recommends that, as the ISIS unit strengthens, it carry out a mix of high- and low-cost operations to make full use of its capabilities.Hide Footnote

Even as ISIS carries out its strategy, however, the group’s success also depends on circumstance: it operates in an Iraq that has changed substantially since 2014, mostly to the jihadists’ detriment. Key shifts in Iraqi politics, security and society may present an opportunity to prevent ISIS’s cyclical return.

A. Breaking the Cycle

Iraqis describe a major change in the country’s mood, and, in particular, in Iraqi Sunni Arabs’ relationship to the body politic.[fn]ISIS presents itself as the champion of all Sunnis, regardless of ethnicity or nationality. In Iraq, though, it has traditionally drawn its strength mainly from Sunni Arabs and (to some extent) Sunni Turkmen. Sunni Kurds have been much less involved.Hide Footnote

ISIS surged in 2013 and 2014 at a period of exceptional sectarian polarisation in Iraq. Sunni Arab political forces had mounted nationwide protests as part of a broad-based mobilisation against the government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – “Shiite Baghdad”, as many Sunni Arabs saw it. Iraqis describe a confluence of motivations among Sunni Arabs who opposed Baghdad at the time, including resentment of the security services’ heavy-handed treatment; rejection of the post-2003 Iraqi political order, which apportioned power along ethno-sectarian lines and turned Sunni Arabs into a political minority; and hostility to Iranian influence. These sentiments were mutually reinforcing and, for many at the time, not easily distinguishable.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Make or Break, op. cit.; Crisis Group Report, Falluja’s Faustian Bargain, op. cit.Hide Footnote

ISIS is a sectarian supremacist organisation; its sole constituency and recruiting pool is Sunnis. The group is strengthened if it can polarise Iraq on sectarian lines and pit the country’s (non-Kurdish) Sunnis, as a bloc, against the rest of the country. Its violence has long aimed to aggravate the sectarian divisions that emerged after the 2003 U.S. invasion and reshape Iraqi politics along those lines.[fn]Sectarian polarisation was the central premise of the strategic framework that ISIS forefather Abu Musab al-Zarqawi pitched to al-Qaeda’s international leadership circa January 2004. U.S. Department of State, “Zarqawi Letter”, February 2004.Hide Footnote

In 2019, however, in the wake of Iraq’s military campaign against ISIS, sectarian political polarisation seems to have faded. Sectarian division persists on a social level. Local controversies sometimes take on a sectarian dimension, and criticism of Iran is occasionally difficult to distinguish from anti-Shiism.[fn]A dispute between Mosul’s Sunni and Shiite Islamic endowments over custodianship of properties around the city has upset a larger segment of local Sunnis, for example. See Adnan Abu Zeed, “Sunnis accuse Shiites of expanding influence in Mosul”, Al-Monitor, 17 July 2019. One Mosul resident told Crisis Group that the Saddam-era military officers populating the city were responsible for tinging this dispute with sectarian animus: “It was planted in their minds that their first enemy is Iran, before Israel. … Even an atheist can be sectarian”. Crisis Group interview, Mosul, March 2019.Hide Footnote  Still, on the whole, Iraq is moving away from sectarian politics. Iraqi politicians and leaders (with a few exceptions, most of whom live in exile) have abandoned sectarian agitation as a rhetorical theme.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraq, February, March and June 2019.Hide Footnote  Rejection of Iraq’s post-2003 order, as a political rallying point for Sunni Arabs, also seems to have dropped off.[fn]ISIS tapped revisionist energy regionally, with its ostentatious erasure of the Iraqi-Syrian border and repudiation of all the Arab world’s “Sykes-Picot” boundaries. See ISIS, “Breaking the borders”, al-Itisam Media Foundation, 29 June 2014 (Arabic). For more on the struggle over Iraq’s post-2003 order and the salience of sectarian politics, see Fanar Haddad, “The Waning Relevance of the Sunni-Shia Divide”, The Century Foundation, 10 April 2019.Hide Footnote While it is debatable how much Iraqi political elites – of all sects – represent the Iraqi public, those elites tend now to cooperate across sectarian lines.[fn]According to a Western diplomat: “Since 2018, the elite factions have learned to accommodate each other through a loose set of rules. ISIS is obviously excluded from that, but so is the electorate”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, February 2019.
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 On the grassroots level, the experience of the war against ISIS also played an important role in mobilising young Iraqis to participate in cross-sectarian civic activism.[fn]Activists have organised trips for Anbar youth to neighbouring Najaf and Karbala provinces, for example. Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi activists, Baghdad and Ramadi, June 2019.
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When protests turned to armed rebellion, some “tribal revolutionaries” and “military councils” saw ISIS as a useful ally.

Iraq’s Sunni Arabs also now have a clearer idea of what ISIS represents. The group existed before 2014, but before then had never managed to impose its full, draconian control on any community. In 2013 and 2014, ISIS infiltrated a Sunni mass movement led by politicians, tribal figures and clerics, one that encompassed various political trends. When protests turned to armed rebellion, some “tribal revolutionaries” and “military councils” saw ISIS as a useful ally.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Falluja’s Faustian Bargain, op. cit. According to an Anbar tribal sheikh: “People started to be convinced that they needed an armed wing, to support the Sunnis. They said, ‘The Shiites have the army, the police, militias. And the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. So some tribal leaders began to have meetings with ISIS commanders. Not so [ISIS] could take over, but so they might back them up, as a force that’s present and capable”. Crisis Group phone interview, 7 July 2019.Hide Footnote  At least at the outset, ISIS coexisted with other insurgent forces.[fn]According to a Falluja activist, ISIS originally entered the city as “tribal revolutionaries”: “They told people, ‘I want to achieve your goals and demands – a Sunni region, separate from the central government’. And people accepted that. Then they started to impose their control”. Crisis Group interview, Falluja, June 2019.Hide Footnote  It also made effective use of general confusion nationwide; amid the chaotic collapse of the Iraqi security forces in June 2014, for example, it was not clear to some Mosul residents who had actually captured their city.[fn]One Mosul resident said some locals celebrated because they thought the city’s fall marked the return of the Iraqi Baath Party. Crisis Group interview, Mosul, March 2019.Hide Footnote Sunni residents of these areas had an approximate understanding of ISIS as a continuation of the “resistance” and “jihad” against U.S. forces and Baghdad that began in 2004.[fn]A Mosul resident told Crisis Group: “There had been a duality in the personality of someone from Mosul [before the city’s fall]. If someone wasn’t ISIS, he wouldn’t want to live with ISIS. But so long as he wasn’t hurt by it directly, he’d turn a blind eye. And if he saw ISIS blow up the security forces, inside he’d feel a little happiness”. Crisis Group interview, Mosul, March 2019.Hide Footnote  It was only after ISIS took over and imposed its total, brutal control that they grasped how ISIS differed from other opposition trends. By then it was too late.

For most residents of areas seized by ISIS, the organisation’s control was a sudden fait accompli. As ISIS recruited locals to scale up into a mass force, most of those who joined appeared not to be ideologues. Residents of these areas believe that most of the recruits were local youth with no defined ideological direction who were uneducated, aggrieved or seeking money and power.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kirkuk, Mosul, Falluja, Ramadi, February, March and June 2019. One Mosul resident said men in the city joined for a job or for status. “Just joining the organisation forced everyone to respect you. However low or suspect we knew someone had been in the past, as soon as he pledged allegiance, we were forced to pay him respect”. Crisis Group interview, Mosul, March 2019.Hide Footnote

Ordinary residents who were not drawn into ISIS had to survive first the group’s brutal rule, and then the wrenching experience of liberation by Iraq’s security forces, which left swathes of cities razed. After that, Iraqis say, most of them want no more of ISIS.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Baghdad, Kirkuk, Mosul, Baquba, Falluja and Ramadi, February, March and June 2019.Hide Footnote  One Anbar native said locals would accept nearly anything else. “Even the idea of Shiite or Iranian influence is totally accepted”, he said. “It’s better than ISIS. They’re both bad, but ISIS is worse”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ramadi, June 2019.Hide Footnote  There is little evident appetite in these shattered towns and cities for opposing Baghdad, for fear of inviting ISIS back. Next to ISIS, a dysfunctional Iraqi state is preferable.

That change in the Sunni mood has contributed to a more functional relationship between Sunni Arabs and the security forces, as those forces have, for their part, worked to deal more respectfully with the local population.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, February, March and June 2019.Hide Footnote  Iraqi officials say the security forces’ previous mistreatment of Sunni Arab residents – which had included humiliating treatment at checkpoints, arbitrary arrests and sweeping terror prosecutions – had to improve.[fn]A Kirkuk security official said: “It’s very important to win [people’s] trust. Not for the security forces to come in and say, ‘You’re all ISIS, you all welcomed them’”. Crisis Group interview, Kirkuk, March 2019.Hide Footnote  According to officials, residents of these areas now cooperate with the security forces, reporting on local ISIS movements.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi civilian and security-military officials, Mosul, Ramadi, Falluja, March and June 2019.Hide Footnote  “Things are good because of the people, not the security forces”, said a Ninewa military official. “The mood has changed; it’s not like before. Before, people worked like an intelligence service for al-Qaeda and ISIS”.[fn]A civilian Mosul official echoed this view: “[ISIS] used to have wells of support, people who would welcome them into their homes, and who knew they would blow up the army”. Now, he said, locals readily report known ISIS elements or suspicious strangers in their neighbourhoods. Crisis Group interview, Mosul, March 2019.Hide Footnote

ISIS has also lost the clandestine networks it spent years building in places like Mosul before 2014, with which it extorted, assassinated and generally terrorised local residents.[fn]One Mosul public employee recalled that when ISIS commandeered the municipal and provincial administrative apparatus, it installed the operatives previously responsible for secretly extorting employees in various public offices as those offices’ heads. Crisis Group interview, Mosul, March 2019. For one account of ISIS’s mafia-style control in Mosul, see Letta Taylor, “Before the Fall”, Foreign Policy, 13 June 2014.Hide Footnote  When the group seized control, it pulled many of its underground agents and sympathisers to the surface.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, analyst Michael Knights, March 2019; Iraqi security official and Iraqi security analyst, Baghdad, June 2019. In areas ISIS never overran, its networks may still be intact. One Iraqi security analyst said: “In areas that were under ISIS, the sleeper cells appeared. They haven’t been allowed to come back since – now they’re known, and they’ve been cleaned out. But not somewhere like [Baghdad suburb] Tarmiya; those working with ISIS weren’t exposed”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, June 2019.Hide Footnote  That these people are now exposed may be one reason why ISIS has retreated to natural cover in mountains and deserts.

 

A civilian Mosul official echoed this view: “[ISIS] used to have wells of support, people who would welcome them into their homes, and who knew they would blow up the army”. Now, he said, locals readily report known ISIS elements or suspicious strangers in their neighbourhoods. Crisis Group interview, Mosul, March 2019.Hide Footnote

With time, Iraqi Sunnis’ bad memories of ISIS could fade but are unlikely to vanish entirely.

Reconstituting these support networks will be a major undertaking, one that many Sunni Arabs now seem prepared to resist. Officials and residents appear confident that they know who worked with ISIS and even who, in their eyes, was too close to the group’s members as friends or family to be trusted now.[fn]A Kirkuk security official said: “Villagers know who was ISIS and who wasn’t. The ones who are known are arrested. So, in a village, we’ll know there were twenty ISIS members, and who among them has been killed or detained”. Crisis Group interview, Kirkuk, March 2019.
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They seem ready to keep those people out of their towns and villages. (The exclusion of those civilian residents marked as “ISIS-affiliated” poses its own risks for Iraq’s social cohesion and stability – see below, on “ISIS families”.) Moreover, Iraqis’ tight communal ties facilitate a return of effective state control. With liaisons like mukhtars between the security services and ordinary people, the government can frustrate ISIS attempts to re-enter most towns.[fn]According to a Ramadi mukhtar, “We have a system: ‘No strangers live here’”. Crisis Group interview, Ramadi, June 2019.
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With time, Iraqi Sunnis’ bad memories of ISIS could fade but are unlikely to vanish entirely.

ISIS militants will not lay down their arms just because most Iraqis dislike them. Indeed, Iraqis suspect that part of the reason for the group’s persistence is that it retains some base of sympathisers and collaborators.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Baghdad, Mosul and Baquba, March and June 2019.Hide Footnote  But to fully reassert itself ISIS would presumably have to augment its core with new recruits – Iraqis who might become involved with the group’s activities only if circumstances push them to it. An unfriendly Sunni population seems likely to hamper reconstitution of national ISIS networks, constraining its numerical and geographic expansion.

ISIS’s military defeat has boosted the security forces’ morale.

On the battlefield, the Iraqi military and security forces have kept the initiative against ISIS.[fn]Since July 2019, for example, Iraqi security forces have carried out a series of large-scale joint operations branded Will of Victory. “Launch of Operation Will of Victory to pursue cells in several provinces. … Statement of ‘support’ from Abdel Mahdi”, NAS News, 7 July 2019 (Arabic).Hide Footnote  These forces, chronically weak since the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority gutted them in 2003, collapsed before ISIS’s advance in 2014. Today, they still lack key capabilities, which has limited their progress against ISIS.[fn]The Coalition says gains from Iraqi clearing operations have been “limited” because Iraqi security forces lack sufficient forces to hold areas that have been cleared, which allows ISIS fighters to withdraw and then later return. “Operation Inherent Resolve: Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress”, op. cit., p. 43.Hide Footnote  They remain a patchwork of formal units and paramilitary forces, including al-Hashd al-Shaabi (the Popular Mobilization Forces) formed in response to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s fatwa in 2014. They also suffer problems of internal coordination, including among competing intelligence agencies. Still, ISIS’s military defeat has boosted the security forces’ morale, and Coalition support has reinforced units such as the elite Counter-Terrorism Service.

Where the Iraqi security forces lack capacity, they can rely on the U.S.-led international coalition. Coalition member countries provide training and equipment to various elements of the Iraqi security forces.[fn]This assistance includes specialised training in, for example, paramilitary policing. Crisis Group interviews, senior Coalition officer and Western diplomats, Washington, Baghdad and by phone, February and July 2019.Hide Footnote  Coalition members also contribute to ongoing counter-ISIS operations, though their forces no longer regularly accompany Iraqi security forces on the battlefield. Instead, they play a primarily advisory role, providing Iraq with vital technical capabilities, including intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and air support.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi security officials and Coalition officials, Baghdad, Kirkuk, Mosul, Washington and Beirut, January-June 2019.Hide Footnote  Iraqi security forces rely on these capacities to maintain pressure on ISIS in rural environs.[fn]A Kirkuk security official told Crisis Group that the areas in which ISIS is now concentrated require overhead surveillance provided by the Coalition. “It’s a wide area”, said a local tribal paramilitary leader about Kirkuk’s Hawija countryside. “The only way to control it is from the air”. Crisis Group interviews, Kirkuk, March 2019.Hide Footnote  Despite Coalition partners’ efforts to build up Iraq’s air force, for now Iraq depends on the Coalition.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Coalition officer, phone, 23 July 2019.Hide Footnote

B. Or Another Turn of the Wheel?

Still, drivers of insecurity and conflict persist in Iraq. Some of these directly benefit ISIS, while others threaten Iraq’s stability in ways that ISIS could exploit.

Iraq will not be able to rely on Coalition assistance in pursuing ISIS for ever.

First, Iraq will not be able to rely on Coalition assistance in pursuing ISIS for ever. Some Iraqi political and paramilitary factions have raised objections to the continuing U.S. role in Iraq, particularly after airstrikes on Iran-linked Hashd units allegedly carried out by Israel in July and August 2019. Powerful Hashd figures have accused the U.S. of complicity in the strikes, which coincided with Israeli strikes on Iran’s local partners in Lebanon and Syria and came amid sky-high U.S.-Iranian tensions regionally.[fn]Al-Muhandis reveals results of investigations into bombing of arms storehouses … and announces ‘deterrent’ measures”, NAS News, 21 August 2019 (Arabic). U.S. officials speaking anonymously have said Israel is responsible for several strikes in Iraq, though other officials have disputed those accounts. Alissa J. Rubin and Ronen Bergman, “Israeli airstrike hits weapons depot in Iraq”, The New York Times, 22 August 2019. The Pentagon has denied any role in attacks in Iraq in 2019, saying it supports Iraqi sovereignty and “has repeatedly spoken out against any potential actions by external actors inciting violence in Iraq”. U.S. Department of Defense, “Statement on recent attacks in Iraq”, 26 August 2019.Hide Footnote  Parliamentarians have previously proposed legislation demanding that U.S. and other foreign forces leave Iraq; already suspicious of U.S. intentions, they are no longer convinced of the need for a U.S. presence.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, Iraqi analyst and adviser to the prime minister’s office, 10 August 2019. The Iraqi parliament’s Hashd-linked Fatah Coalition echoed doubts about the U.S. presence in a 25 August statement condemning airstrikes on Hashd units that day: “We believe that this American presence, which supposedly protects [Iraqi] airspace even as it provides cover for all these Zionist attacks, is not necessary”. “Fatah Coalition”, Facebook, 11:24pm, 15 August 2019 (Arabic).Hide Footnote

At present, it seems unlikely that Iraq’s parliament will vote to push international forces out of the country. Still, if regional U.S.-Iranian tensions spill into Iraq, they could prompt attacks by Iraqi paramilitary factions against U.S. targets. The results would be unpredictable, but at least one possibility is that the foreign Coalition presence in Iraq could become increasingly untenable. If U.S. forces leave, so will most other international Coalition partners, which rely on the U.S. to operate in Iraq.[fn]According to a Coalition member country diplomat: “The problem is that if you get rid of the Americans, you don’t have the infrastructure to support the rest of the Coalition. So the rest would be swept out, even if they’re not included in a resolution”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, February 2019.Hide Footnote  Iraq will lose Coalition member contributions of training and materiel that might help Iraq ultimately achieve self-sufficiency, as well as the Coalition’s technical capabilities that, in the near term, enable Iraq’s counter-ISIS efforts on the battlefield.

If Iraqi forces struggle to patrol the country’s mountains and desert, ISIS will have space to coalesce.

If Iraqi forces struggle to patrol the country’s mountains and desert, ISIS will have space to coalesce. That refuge, in turn, could allow it to mount more sophisticated attacks. A senior Iraqi military officer put it bluntly: “We cannot defeat ISIS without air support from Coalition forces”.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, senior Iraqi military officer, 5 August 2019. See also Crisis Group Briefing, Evading the Gathering Storm, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Many Iraqi officials privately recognise the continued necessity of U.S. and Coalition support, and U.S. troops have consciously adopted a less visible role in Iraq so as not to look like an occupying force and thus inflame Iraqi opinion.[fn]U.S. forces mainly remain inside Iraqi military bases. Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi and Western officials, Washington and Baghdad, January-February 2019. According to one U.S. official: “We constantly emphasise our respect for Iraqi sovereignty, and that we’re there at their request. We say, ‘We’re here for you,’ in public and private. And privately, everyone understands the ISIS threat”. Crisis Group interview, Washington, January 2019.
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Still, if the Hashd comes under attack again from Israel or any other foreign party, or U.S.-Iranian tensions escalate, the U.S. and Coalition role in Iraq could come to an abrupt and unplanned end.[fn]In a television interview, the commander of one major Iran-linked Hashd faction said: “If a war happens, the Americans [in Iraq] are all hostages of the Resistance’s factions”. “Perspective – exclusive audience with the Secretary-General of Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, Abu Alaa al-Walai” (Arabic), video, YouTube, 28 August 2019.
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Even with Coalition assistance, Iraq faces the challenge of securing its periphery, including areas like rural Ninewa and Kirkuk’s Hawija countryside. That challenge is, in turn, related closely to the continuing displacement of those areas’ residents. A reported 1.7 million Iraqis remain internally displaced after the war with ISIS. Many are unwilling to return to destroyed towns, with no jobs and public services.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi officials, Iraqi and international humanitarian workers, Baghdad, Baquba and by phone, February, June-July 2019. See also REACH, “National level movement intentions of IDPs in camps  Feb 2019”, 22 April 2019.Hide Footnote Some have gone home, only to find living there impossible, and left again.[fn]According to a local mukhtar responsible for a displacement camp: “I’ve had people leave for home for five or six months, then return here. They were just sitting around, with no work”. Crisis Group interview, June 2019.
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 The threat of night raids by ISIS is another barrier to return. Residents do not trust the security forces to defend them.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi humanitarian workers and Kirkuk residents, Baquba and Kirkuk, February, March and June 2019.Hide Footnote  Yet their reluctance to return also perpetuates the ISIS threat. One Kirkuk security official said:

When displaced people don’t return, that leaves their villages empty. That gives terrorists space to enter those villages and use them as bases for operations. And village residents are an important source of information [for the security forces].[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kirkuk, March 2019.Hide Footnote

Protracted internal displacement has other risks for the estimated 450,000 Iraqis living in camps.[fn]REACH, “IDP camp directory: comparative dashboard & camp profiles: round XI”, April 2019.Hide Footnote Iraqis and humanitarian workers describe harsh conditions in these camps, as residents suffer violations including sexual abuse and exploitation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi and foreign humanitarian workers, Baghdad, Baquba, Ramadi, February, March and June 2019. For more on the hardships of displacement in Iraq, see Belkis Wille, “Iraq: Not a Homecoming”, Human Rights Watch, 14 June 2019.Hide Footnote Some report lasting psychological effects on camp residents and those who have returned from the camps to their home areas.[fn]An Iraqi humanitarian worker said camp residents seem “brutalised”, particularly children. “With families who’ve come back from the camps, when we come to distribute food or non-food items, it’s impossible to organise them or to order them by name. They just pounce”. Crisis Group interview, Ramadi, June 2019.
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Iraqis fear that the camps, if they persist, could become hothouses of anger and militancy.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi civilian and security officials, Baghdad, Mosul and by phone, February, April and June 2019.
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 Iraqi security forces also worry that camp residents will provide aid to local militants.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior Coalition officer and humanitarians, Ramadi and by phone, June and July 2019.Hide Footnote  Still, humanitarian agencies have resisted government efforts to evict families from camps, pushing instead for residents’ voluntary return to their homes.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian workers, Ramadi and by phone, June and July 2019. According to one: “You don’t want a child to grow up in a camp. It’s in everybody’s best interest for the camps to close. But we also don’t want them to suffer a new trauma”. Crisis Group interview, Ramadi, June 2019. The return of displaced people is also complicated by local politics. Some Iraqis allege that officials and others use camps to carry out corrupt schemes and to muster votes for electoral advantage. Crisis Group interviews, residents, Kirkuk, Baquba and Mosul, February, March and June 2019.
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“ISIS families”, as they are popularly known in Iraq, present an additional dilemma.

“ISIS families”, as they are popularly known in Iraq, present an additional dilemma. These civilians, including women and children, have been expelled by their home areas because of their alleged family ties to ISIS militants.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraqis, Baghdad, Baquba, Mosul, Ramadi, Falluja, February and June 2019. For more, see Elizabeth Tsurkov and Basma Alloush, “Among displaced Iraqis, one group is worse off than the rest”, Foreign Policy, 29 April 2019.
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Many are marooned in displacement camps. In some cases, they are prevented from returning by unresolved investigations into their relatives’ activities or their own lack of documentation, which also precludes them from gaining access to services and enrolling their children in school.[fn]Iraq: School Doors Barred to Many Children”, Human Rights Watch, 28 August 2019.
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Many also face the threat of violence from their own communities.[fn]According to an Iraqi humanitarian worker who works with the displaced: “Some people have gone back home for less than a week before returning [to the camp], because of threats and violations. Some have had husbands kidnapped or killed, one or two days after getting back. … Some people say they’re ISIS, then people come and kill them”. Crisis Group interview, June 2019.Hide Footnote  Collective punishment of “ISIS families” represents the dark side of Iraq’s tightly knit communities and their willingness to police themselves.[fn]A Ramadi mukhtar said local residents knew who the “ISIS families” were and refused to let them return. “People who lived here under ISIS know them; they know who ate and drank with ISIS”. Crisis Group interview, Ramadi, June 2019. A Sunni politician said: “[These people are] being punished for something we [in Iraq’s government and society] did: the government abandoned them when ISIS took over, and they were left there for four years. Now they’re in these open-air prisons. It’s against international law, Iraqi law, the Sharia”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 21 June 2019.
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 As time passes and those still in camps are increasingly assumed to be “ISIS families”, that perception may translate into harsher treatment for all the displaced.[fn]Several Iraqi officials told Crisis Group that a majority of camp residents are “ISIS families”. Crisis Group interviews, Mosul, Ramadi and by phone, March, June and July 2019.
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Many Iraqis recognise that “ISIS families” need to be reintegrated into society, not permanently ostracised. Some militants’ relatives have managed to facilitate their own return by formally renouncing their family members in court.[fn]An Anbar tribal sheikh acknowledged that it was difficult for some to renounce their family members. But he also said: “There are people who’ve refused to renounce [their family members who joined ISIS]. But those people have no place here. … When [someone] doesn’t renounce [his son who fought with ISIS], he becomes loyal to ISIS, loyal to those murderers”. Crisis Group phone interview, 7 July 2019.Hide Footnote  The Iraqi government has helped mediate individual settlements, but it has been unable to devise a comprehensive solution.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi officials, Baghdad, Ramadi and by phone, February and July 2019. For one discarded draft plan, see “Iraq: Confining Families With Alleged ISIS Ties Unlawful”, Human Rights Watch, 7 May 2019. Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi officials, June 2019. There seems to be little discussion of third-area resettlement of these families.Hide Footnote  Without action, these people could become a permanent underclass. Even “ISIS families” able to live in their home areas face discrimination.[fn]An international humanitarian worker described one community meeting: “They clearly told me, ‘We have a situation’, where the children of ISIS family members are not even accepted by schools. Some families have indicated that if you see the kids of so-and-so, they were the ones who killed your father, or your brother”. Crisis Group phone interview, 9 July 2019.Hide Footnote  If they cannot reintegrate, some Iraqis fear, their children will themselves subsequently turn to militancy or seek revenge.[fn]An Iraqi journalist said: “Even if a mother doesn’t raise her child on jihadist thought, if a son sees his mother in a camp, if his mother is raped, what will the result be? He’ll ask, ‘Why am I in a camp, just because my father was in ISIS?’” Crisis Group phone interview, 1 April 2019. A Sunni politician said: “Imagine the generation that will emerge from this. A child who hates his father, and hates his community, who has no TV or school. He can’t understand why. He’s a child, and he doesn’t know what happened”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 21 June 2019.Hide Footnote Yet this very stigma – the notion that these children could be “radicalised” – also risks pushing them into dangerous behaviour. (Iraqis additionally worry about the effects of ISIS’s occupation, whether the group’s ideological influence or the trauma of the war, on all children who lived through its control.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kirkuk and Mosul, February-March 2019. Many children missed years of school during ISIS’s reign, though some have returned with the help of “catch-up” classes. Crisis Group interviews, Ramadi residents, Ramadi, June 2019.
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)

Efforts to bring ISIS members to justice will deepen the country’s divisions.

Some also fear that efforts to bring ISIS members to justice will deepen the country’s divisions. Iraqis describe episodes of spontaneous revenge by security forces and local residents as they retook areas from ISIS.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Mosul, Baquba, Ramadi, March and June 2019. See also “Ruinous Aftermath”, Human Rights Watch, 20 September 2015; “Iraq: Execution Site Near Mosul’s Old City”, Human Rights Watch, 19 July 2017.Hide Footnote  Since then, Iraq’s legal system has reasserted itself. Yet Iraq’s post-ISIS justice seems primarily retributive. Prosecutions rely largely on Iraq’s sweeping counter-terrorism law, which criminalises ISIS membership or aid to the group and carries punishments of life imprisonment and death.[fn]The counter-terrorism law entails less demanding evidentiary standards and can deliver indiscriminate sentences irrespective of an ISIS member’s individual crimes. Judges can also issue reduced sentences at their discretion. “Flawed Justice”, op. cit. For the law’s text, see Supreme Judicial Council, “Counterterrorism Law no. 13/2005” (Arabic).Hide Footnote  The UN has said Iraq’s legal system is “marred by very serious structural problems”.[fn]UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “UN Expert Urges Efforts from France for the Return of 7 Nationals Awaiting Execution in Iraq”, 12 August 2019.Hide Footnote  Thousands accused of ISIS membership or related offences have been convicted and sentenced to death.[fn]Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Susannah George, “Iraq holding more than 19,000 because of IS, militant ties”, Associated Press, 22 March 2018.
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Iraqi courts have also been vulnerable to error and abuse, as confusion between names on lists of fugitives and false, malicious charges of ISIS involvement have landed innocents in extended detention before Iraq’s slow-moving judicial bureaucracy can clear them.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, residents and officials, Mosul, March 2019. In a report leaked in March 2019, an Iraqi parliamentary fact-finding commission reported malicious filing of false accusations of ISIS involvement in Iraqi courts. “Al-Sumaria News publishes Ninewa fact-finding commission report”, Al-Sumaria News, 14 March 2019 (Arabic). On harsh prison conditions, see, for example, “Iraq: Thousands Detained, Including Children, in Degrading Conditions”, Human Rights Watch, 4 July 2019.
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 Investigatory and judicial processes have improved in some courts, but not necessarily system-wide.[fn]Iraq: Key Courts Improve ISIS Trial Procedures”, Human Rights Watch, 13 March 2019. Security officials say they are aware of these problems and are working to address them. Crisis Group interviews, Iraqi security officials, Mosul and Ramadi, March and June 2019.
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Authorities hold ISIS and non-ISIS prisoners in the same detention facilities, raising concerns that ISIS members might recruit or organise other inmates, as happened before in Iraqi prisons mismanaged by the U.S.[fn]Fears of new jihadist ‘academies’ as Iraqi jails fill up”, France 24, 9 May 2019. One security official said he was unconcerned about this mixing. He said his staff monitor the inmates and recruit prison informants to disrupt any plotting. Crisis Group interview, Ramadi, June 2019. An interior ministry official told the Associated Press that Iraq would never allow a repeat of what happened in U.S.-run prisons: “The Americans freed their captives; under Iraq, they will all receive the death penalty”. “Iraq holding more than 19,000 because of IS, militant ties”, op. cit.
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Fears of new jihadist ‘academies’ as Iraqi jails fill up”, France 24, 9 May 2019. One security official said he was unconcerned about this mixing. He said his staff monitor the inmates and recruit prison informants to disrupt any plotting. Crisis Group interview, Ramadi, June 2019. An interior ministry official told the Associated Press that Iraq would never allow a repeat of what happened in U.S.-run prisons: “The Americans freed their captives; under Iraq, they will all receive the death penalty”. “Iraq holding more than 19,000 because of IS, militant ties”, op. cit.
 

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Some Iraqis question the fairness of post-ISIS justice, or ask about the fate of those who disappeared during and after the military campaign against the group.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Baquba, Kirkuk and Mosul, February, March and June 2019. One Kirkuk resident said some of those convicted for ISIS membership might not deserve the death penalty. He added: “One of the problems that created ISIS was that there was no justice”. Crisis Group interview, Kirkuk, February 2019.Hide Footnote But most Iraqis who spoke to Crisis Group seemed unconcerned about the consequences of harsh, punitive measures, for which there is a large popular constituency. Many Iraqis who lived through ISIS’s relentless violence – not only from 2014, but from its predecessors in previous years – seem comfortable with an unforgiving approach.

Some residents of areas retaken from ISIS now feel that Iraqis elsewhere in the country regard them as complicit in the group’s actions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kirkuk, Mosul, Baquba, February, March and June 2019.Hide Footnote  According to one Diyala sheikh:

One of a thousand people was ISIS. But because of that one person, that’s held against five hundred households. There were ISIS members in those areas, but you could count them on your fingers.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baquba, June 2019.Hide Footnote

Some Hashd factions’ behaviour in post-ISIS areas also upsets residents. The Hashd still plays an important part in providing security nationwide, and critically discussing the Hashd’s role can be sensitive; many Iraqis are fiercely defensive of the paramilitary groups and their fighters’ sacrifices in the fight against ISIS.[fn]The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency has said the Hashd’s effect on countering ISIS is still a “net positive”. “Operation Inherent Resolve: Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress”, op. cit., p. 53. Crisis Group Middle East Report N°188, Iraq’s Paramilitary Groups: The Challenge of Rebuilding a Functioning State, 30 July 2018.Hide Footnote  Still, residents of some Sunni-majority areas resent non-local Hashd factions that have remained after the battle and intervened unaccountably in local politics and business.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomats and Iraqi civilians, Baghdad, Kirkuk, Mosul and by phone, February-July 2019. In a 1 July edict, Prime Minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi directed the Hashd’s factions to cease political activities and close “economic offices”, among other steps. Office of the Prime Minister, “Cabinet Head and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Mr. Adel Abdel-Mahdi issues administrative order no. 237 on the mobilisation, out of belief in its fighters and in order to guarantee and safeguard its forces and provide for the continuity of their work”, 1 July 2019 (Arabic). See also Isadora Gotts, “PMU economic offices undermine fragile stability in Mosul”, Al-Monitor, 27 May 2019.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomats and Iraqi civilians, Baghdad, Kirkuk, Mosul and by phone, February-July 2019. In a 1 July edict, Prime Minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi directed the Hashd’s factions to cease political activities and close “economic offices”, among other steps. Office of the Prime Minister, “Cabinet Head and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Mr. Adel Abdel-Mahdi Issues Administrative Order No. 237 on the Mobilisation, Out of Belief in Its Fighters and in Order to Guarantee and Safeguard Its Forces and Provide for the Continuity of Their Work”, 1 July 2019 (Arabic). See also Isadora Gotts, “PMU economic offices undermine fragile stability in Mosul”, Al-Monitor, 27 May 2019.
 

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Iraq also faces numerous non-ISIS threats to its stability, including state weakness, a lethargic economy, under-investment in public services and infrastructure, and a mental health crisis compounded by decades of war.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iraq, February and June 2019. See also Annie Slemrod, “Iraq’s growing mental health problem”, The New Humanitarian, 16 January 2017.
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These are national problems, felt in Iraq’s southern Basra province as much as in Diyala, and have helped drive the country’s latest wave of unrest.[fn]Ahmed Aboulenein and Ahmed Rasheed, “Stagnant politics, graft and slow recovery fuel new Iraqi unrest”, Reuters, 2 October 2019.Hide Footnote  Still, these Iraq issues manifest particularly acutely in some of Iraq’s post-ISIS areas, even as their traumatised residents have not joined in the protests that have taken place nationwide.

In the two years since defeating ISIS, the Iraqi government has made only minimal progress rebuilding post-ISIS areas and reviving their local economies.

In the two years since defeating ISIS, the Iraqi government has made only minimal progress rebuilding post-ISIS areas and reviving their local economies. Residents report that reconstruction has been halting or non-existent; wreckage is hard for a visitor to miss. These locals blame the government for its failure to rebuild their areas or pay out compensation for war damage, and additionally complain that international donors have failed to deliver.[fn]Crisis Group interviews and observations, February, March and June 2019. One Kirkuk resident said: “The community feels despair”. Crisis Group interview, Kirkuk, February 2019. Baghdad’s international partners have also been alarmed by what they consider the Iraqi government’s failure to take post-ISIS stabilisation and reconstruction seriously. Crisis Group interviews, Western officials, Baghdad and Beirut, February, May and June 2019. One said: “I don’t want to be so pessimistic. What would make me more relaxed would be if I got the sense the [Iraqi] government itself sensed the urgency – that it sees the problem and gets the needs. I don’t get that sense”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, February 2019.Hide Footnote  There is no reason to assume local resentment will lead residents directly back to ISIS, particularly given their bitter recent experience with the group’s rule. Still, both Iraqis and Iraq’s foreign partners worry about what might happen if these areas remain ruined and economically depressed.[fn]According to a Ramadi imam: “The best way to make Iraqis love their country is to satisfy them materially. Everyone who turned to ISIS did it because they thought it might improve their lives. Part of combating terrorism is combating poverty”. Crisis Group interview, Ramadi, June 2019. A U.S. official noted that ISIS may now be hiding out in rural Anbar, but asked: “What is its ability to operate in Ramadi, if, in eighteen months, unemployment is 60 per cent?” Crisis Group interview, Washington, April 2019.Hide Footnote

Mosul, ISIS’s former de facto capital, is an extreme example of post-war dysfunction.

Mosul, ISIS’s former de facto capital, is an extreme example of post-war dysfunction.[fn]Roughly one fifth of all Iraq’s internally displaced persons are from Mosul. “Mosul: Over 300,000 Still Unable to Go Back Home Two Years since End of War”, Norwegian Refugee Council, 4 July 2019.Hide Footnote  Two years after the jihadists’ defeat, security in the city is the best it has been in years.[fn]Local officials described how militants would terrorise the city in the years before 2014, targeting minorities and state representatives. One said: “Before 2014, it was impossible to walk in the street in Mosul. No one in the local government would walk in the street or go to [visit] neighbours”. Crisis Group interviews, Mosul, March 2019.
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Yet key infrastructure is demolished, and large swathes of the city’s Right Side – the western bank of the Tigris River, including the Old City, which suffered the city’s most destructive fighting in 2017 – are in ruins.[fn]The city still has no fully functioning hospital, though it does have working health centres. Right Side residents live amid destroyed buildings marked with spray paint to indicate the unexploded ordnance and dead bodies within. Crisis Group observations and interviews, residents, Mosul, March 2019.Hide Footnote  Only one of the five bridges across the Tigris is intact, preventing Right Side residents from participating in an economy now centred in the Left Side.[fn]Municipal authorities have “patched” two other bridges with connectors, allowing a limited number of vehicles to cross. Crisis Group interview, city official, Mosul, March 2019.
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 One resident said: “If I had money, I’d leave. … We’d all be on the Left Side, if we could”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Mosul, March 2019.Hide Footnote  What smaller-scale rebuilding has taken place has mostly been the work of individual residents with some assistance from international non-governmental organisations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, city and Ninewa provincial officials and residents, Mosul, March 2019.Hide Footnote  Yet major public works like repairs to the bridges require large-scale investment by the federal government.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local officials, Mosul, March 2019. According to one: “The local government can keep providing services and removing rubble, but it doesn’t have the means to rebuild a city. Restoring the Right Side is beyond its means”. Crisis Group interview, Ninewa official, March 2019.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group interviews, local officials, Mosul, March 2019. According to one: “The local government can keep providing services and removing rubble, but it doesn’t have the means to rebuild a city. Restoring the Right Side is beyond its means”. Crisis Group interview, Ninewa official, March 2019.
 

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On the Right Side, residents living in ruins say they do not want ISIS back.[fn]One Old City resident told Crisis Group: “If the organisation tries to return, we’ll be lying in wait for it. No more ISIS. No more”. Crisis Group interview, Mosul, March 2019.Hide Footnote But unless something changes, what sort of future awaits them? A Ninewa military official said:

Three months ago, we captured a group of youth who had rejoined ISIS. We asked them, ‘Why?’ They said, ‘We don’t have any resources to live’. ISIS had started giving them 60,000 Iraqi dinars [$30] a month.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Baghdad, Kirkuk, Falluja, February and June 2019. Iraq’s post-ISIS areas have witnessed some stirrings of protest, but unrest since 2017 has mostly been concentrated in the country’s centre and south. The clearest example of protest in the country’s ISIS-affected areas was Mosul’s angry demonstrations against then-Ninewa Governor Nawfal al-Agoub after a ferry capsized and drowned nearly 100 people in March 2019. Alissa Rubin and Falih Hassan, “Iraq ferry accident sets off political upheaval in Mosul”, The New York Times, 24 March 2019. On Iraq’s summer 2018 protest wave, see Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°61, How to Cope with Iraq’s Summer Brushfire, 31 July 2018.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group interview, Mosul, March 2019.
 

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Many Iraqis who spoke to Crisis Group expressed concern about a new iteration of militancy – not ISIS, necessarily – that could tap this popular discontent.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Baghdad, Kirkuk, Falluja, February and June 2019. Iraq’s post-ISIS areas have witnessed some stirrings of protest, but unrest since 2017 has mostly been concentrated in the country’s centre and south. The clearest example of protest in the country’s ISIS-affected areas was Mosul’s angry demonstrations against then-Ninewa Governor Nawfal al-Agoub after a ferry capsized and drowned nearly 100 people in March 2019. Alissa Rubin and Falih Hassan, “Iraq ferry accident sets off political upheaval in Mosul”, The New York Times, 24 March 2019. On Iraq’s summer 2018 protest wave, see Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°61, How to Cope with Iraq’s Summer Brushfire, 31 July 2018.
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Iraqis speculate that a new militant Sunni Islamist group could appear, or that ISIS could somehow rebrand.

ISIS’s leadership seems intent on exploiting Iraqi Sunnis’ litany of complaints to its own ends. Its spokesman touched on the notion of Sunni suffering in a March 2019 audio address, referring to “Safavid rejectionist militias” running rampant and Sunni women and children languishing in camps because of alleged ISIS ties.[fn]“Safavid” (safawi) refers to the Islamic Safavid Empire, which ruled from what is now Iran between the 16th and 18th centuries. Saddam Hussein’s regime employed the term to stoke hostility to Iran (and decry alleged Persian influence in Iraq) during the two countries’ eight-year war. The word is not sectarian, per se, but it can easily blur into anti-Shiism. “Rejectionist” (rafidhi) is a nakedly sectarian epithet referring to Shiites’ “rejection” of the legitimacy of the Prophet Muhammad’s elected successors Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman. Shiites believe that leadership of Muslims should have passed immediately to Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. Sunni Muslims, by contrast, regard Abu Bakr, Omar and Othman as the first three “rightly guided caliphs” and Ali as the fourth.Hide Footnote “Sunnis in Iraq”, he intoned. “What is the Islamic State but your lifeboat and your impregnable fortress in the face of this Safavid Iranian tide?”[fn]Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, “He was true to God, so [God] was true to him”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

ISIS may also benefit from Iraq’s changing regional context. Recently, it has been less able to avail itself of chaos and civil conflict in neighbouring Syria. In the early years of Syria’s war, a sluice of fighters, weapons and money had run into Syria via Turkey, then spilled into Iraq. That flow has now gone mostly dry. Syria’s war does not electrify Iraqi domestic politics as it did between 2012 and 2014, when Iraqi Sunni opinion was charged by Baghdad’s perceived alignment with the Syrian regime and its key backer Iran.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Falluja’s Faustian Bargain, op. cit.Hide Footnote Other neighbours, such as Saudi Arabia, are now interested in normal relations with Iraq, after years of estrangement.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°186, Saudi Arabia: Back to Baghdad, 22 May 2018.Hide Footnote  Gulf-based satellite channels no longer fan sectarian resentment, nor promote opposition to Baghdad, as they did in 2014.

Yet Turkish intervention in north-eastern Syria, and the chaos that could ensue, may endanger Iraq’s stability all over again. ISIS is already most active in eastern expanses of Syria that are tightly linked, geographically and historically, to the organisation’s areas of operation across the frontier. ISIS’s enemies have worked to reimpose the formal international border separating the two countries, but ISIS elements continue to move back and forth.[fn]See footnote 35.Hide Footnote  If Syria’s north east erupts into open conflict, Iraq will be at risk.

Destruction in Mosul after the city's recapture from ISIS, March 2019. CRISISGROUP/Sam Haller

IV. ISIS in Syria: Nearly Defeated – But for How Long?

On 9 October, President Erdoğan announced the launch of Operation Peace Spring.

Turkey’s intervention in north-eastern Syria, following President Trump’s 6 October decision, has put ISIS’s near defeat in Syria in question. After a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Trump announced that Turkey would launch a military operation in northern Syria and that U.S. forces “will no longer be in the immediate area”. He also said that Turkey would be responsible for captured ISIS fighters held there.[fn]White House, “Statement from the Press Secretary”, 6 October 2019.Hide Footnote  Trump’s statement seemingly gave a green light to the unilateral Turkish military intervention in Syria’s north east of which Turkish officials had repeatedly warned in the preceding days.[fn]For example, see Faruk Zorlu, “Turkey ready for operation east of Euphrates in Syria”, Anadolu Agency, 5 October 2019.Hide Footnote

Not surprisingly, Trump proceeded to amplify and, in the process, muddy his message. He threatened to “destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy if Turkey “does anything [Trump considers] to be off limits”.[fn]Tweet by Donald J. Trump, @realDonaldTrump, U.S. president, @realDonaldTrump, 6:38pm, 7 October 2019. Trump’s decision has attracted broad criticism from U.S. politicians, including from his own Republican party. See the statement by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, “McConnell Statement on Turkey and U.S. Partners in Syria”, 7 October 2019.Hide Footnote He later tweeted:

“We may be in the process of leaving Syria, but in no way have we [abandoned] the Kurds. … Turkey ... understands that while we only had 50 soldiers remaining in that section of Syria, and they have been removed, any unforced or unnecessary fighting by Turkey will be devastating to their economy and to their very fragile currency. We are helping the Kurds financially [and with] weapons!”[fn]Tweets by Donald J. Trump, @realDonaldTrump, U.S. president, @realDonaldTrump, 3:55pm, 8 October 2019.Hide Footnote

Trump’s erratic messaging seems not to have dissuaded Turkey. On 9 October, President Erdoğan announced the launch of Operation Peace Spring to “prevent the creation of a terror corridor across [Turkey’s] southern border and to bring peace to the area”.[fn]Tweet by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, @RTErdogan, president of Turkey, 4:20pm, 9 October 2019.
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Simultaneously, Turkey began bombarding positions inside Syria along the border with artillery and from the air.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, resident, Qamishli, 9 October 2019.
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 The Turkish military has since announced that its ground incursion into north-eastern Syria has begun.[fn]Tweet by T. C. Millî Savunma Bakanlığı, @tcsavunma, Turkish Ministry of National Defence, 10:37pm, 9 October 2019.Hide Footnote

Tweet by T. C. Millî Savunma Bakanlığı, Turkish Ministry of National Defence, @tcsavunma, 10:37pm, 9 October 2019.
 

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Ankara is resolved to clear the strip of north-eastern Syria along the Turkish border of “terrorists”, whom it argues have been empowered by the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS. The Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS’s primary Syrian partner has been the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a multi-ethnic force led by the mainly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG in turn is organically linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), with which Turkey has fought a decades-long war, and which Turkey, the U.S. and the EU have designated a terrorist organisation. With Coalition backing, the SDF drove ISIS out of most of north-eastern Syria, in the process capturing nearly one third of the country and much of its resource wealth. Turkey considers a large, internationally sponsored zone of YPG control on its southern border a grave threat to its national security. In his announcement of Turkey’s intervention, President Erdoğan said it would target “PKK/YPG and [ISIS] terrorists”.[fn]Tweet by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, @RTErdogan, president of Turkey, 4:20pm, 9 October 2019, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Ankara has repeatedly threatened to intervene militarily against the YPG in north-eastern Syria, as it did in the north-western enclave of Afrin in early 2018. When Turkey previously warned of unilateral military action in December 2018, it prompted Trump to order a surprise withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°66, Avoiding a Free-for-all in Syria’s North East, 21 December 2018.Hide Footnote Trump subsequently modified this decision, allowing for a numerically reduced but open-ended U.S. presence on the ground.[fn]For more, see Crisis Group Report, Squaring the Circles in Syria’s North East, op. cit.
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Only days prior to Trump’s tweet, a senior U.S. official, while not ruling out a Turkish incursion, said that the U.S. and Turkey were working remarkably well together on the ground.

After Turkey again threatened to intervene in the north east, Washington agreed with Ankara on 7 August 2019 to jointly establish a “safe zone” in Syria’s north east that would address Turkey’s security concerns.[fn]U.S. State Department, “Statement on joint military talks regarding Syria”, 7 August 2019. The U.S. has since preferred to refer to the area as a “security mechanism” rather than a “safe zone”.Hide Footnote The two took gradual steps toward the agreement’s implementation, including joint patrols and overflights of the border zone, as the SDF has destroyed some defensive fortifications on the border.[fn]For example, see U.S. European Command, “U.S. and Turkey Begin Joint Ground Patrols”, 9 September 2019; U.S. Central Command, “U.S. and partner forces implement security mechanism in northeast Syria”, 28 August 2019.
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 Only days prior to Trump’s tweet, a senior U.S. official, while not ruling out a Turkish incursion, said that the U.S. and Turkey were working remarkably well together on the ground, including through the joint patrols.[fn]Crisis Group interview, New York, September 2019.
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Still, President Erdoğan repeatedly said the end of September was the deadline for establishing the safe zone.[fn]For example, see Enes Kaplan, “‘N. Syria safe zone should be formed till end of Sept.’”, Anadolu Agency, 8 September 2019.
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As that deadline passed, Turkish officials said implementation had fallen short and again signalled they would take unilateral action.[fn]Sarp Ozer, “Turkey, US defense chiefs to discuss safe zone plans”, Anadolu Agency, 3 October 2019.
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That led to Trump and Erdoğan’s 6 October phone call.

The full scope of Turkish intervention in the north east remains unclear, as does the extent of U.S. withdrawal, but Turkish officials have told Western counterparts that they intend to secure the full “safe zone” they have mooted publicly – 32km wide and 480km long.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Western diplomats, Brussels, 9 October 2019.
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The few (roughly 50) U.S. military personnel present on the border have left their positions (but not Syria).[fn]Coalition forces withdraw from border areas with Turkey”, Hawar News Agency, 7 October 2019. Trump has sought to minimise the number of troops withdrawn from the border, saying it was “only … 50 soldiers”. Tweet by Donald J. Trump, @realDonaldTrump, U.S. president, 8 October 2019, op. cit.Hide Footnote Trump and Erdoğan seem likely to discuss Syria during the Turkish leader’s announced trip to Washington on 13 November.[fn]Presidency of the Republic of Turkey, “Phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump”, 6 October 2019.Hide Footnote

Presidency of the Republic of Turkey, “Phone Call with U.S. President Donald Trump”, 6 October 2019.
 

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Conflict between Turkey and the SDF along the Syrian-Turkish border will likely relieve at least some pressure on ISIS, which lost its last territorial foothold in eastern Syria in May 2019 but persists as a deadly insurgency. Since May, the SDF has continued to pursue ISIS remnants across the north east, and to hold thousands of ISIS detainees. The SDF has warned that it would be forced to redirect its forces toward Syria’s northern border should Turkey attack, with potentially disastrous consequences for counter-ISIS efforts.[fn]For example, see Sirwan Kajjo, “Kurdish leader: Turkish offensive will help re-emergence of IS in Syria”, Voice of America, 5 August 2019.Hide Footnote The SDF believes it needs to mount strong resistance to a Turkish incursion to blunt any advance.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, senior SDF political representative, 9 October 2019.
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A. A New ISIS Insurgency

The presence of ISIS across Syria reflects the fact that the country is a patchwork of territorial control. In Syria, ISIS was ultimately defeated by several enemies, including the SDF with U.S. and Coalition support; the Syrian regime, with assistance from Iran and Russia; and opposition rebels backed by Turkey. These forces divided the swathe of territory ISIS once held among themselves, and each force continues to pursue ISIS remnants in its respective zone. Each zone has its own particularities, and its own security regime; accordingly, ISIS has adopted a different operational mode in each area. The group has vowed to teach “lessons” to all sides in Syria’s war.[fn]ISIS, “The reward belongs to the righteous”, Syria Province media office, 20 August 2019 (Arabic).
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ISIS, “The reward belongs to the righteous”, Syria Province media office, 20 August 2019 (Arabic).
 

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In Syria’s north west, including rebel-held Idlib province, ISIS’s underground cells have targeted rebels with bombings and assassinations.[fn]ISIS has apparently attempted to direct international attacks from this area. Sam Heller, “A Glimpse into the Islamic State’s External Operations, Post-Caliphate”, War on the Rocks, 29 May 2019. In Idlib, Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has made apparently credible efforts to break up ISIS networks in the area. HTS detailed the makeup and function of one ISIS cell it dismantled in “Kharijite cell in ‘Aleppo Province’”, 16 April 2019 (Arabic). HTS is the latest iteration of Jabhat al-Nusra, the group founded by the mostly Syrian expeditionary force that ISIS (then ISI) sent from Iraq to Syria in 2011, as unrest was spreading across the country. The group rebuffed ISIS’s attempt to re-absorb it in 2013 and instead pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda before later splitting with that organisation as well. For more, see Crisis Group Middle East Report N°197, The Best of Bad Options for Syria’s Idlib, 14 March 2019.Hide Footnote ISIS has likewise claimed attacks elsewhere in Syria, including in regime-held Daraa in Syria’s south west.[fn]For example, see Al-Naba, 6 June 2019.Hide Footnote  By contrast, in the open expanse of Syria’s central Badiya desert ISIS is able to mount larger attacks on regime forces. The group has set up camp in the Badiya’s rocky outcroppings and caves, from which it launches periodic raids on exposed Syrian military and auxiliary positions outside the crossroads city of Palmyra.[fn]Crisis Group phone interviews, Badiya residents and humanitarian workers, April-June 2019.Hide Footnote ISIS’s Badiya units can seemingly traverse the desert and attack in numbers that it cannot muster in Syria’s SDF-controlled north east, with U.S.-led Coalition aircraft overhead.[fn]ISIS reports substantial casualty tolls among the regime forces it attacks. For example, see Al-Naba, 2 May 2019.Hide Footnote  

A reported 9 October attack by ISIS in al-Raqqa city could indicate that the security situation is deteriorating.

The SDF-held north east comprises much of what had been ISIS’s Syrian territory, and it is now the main theatre for ISIS’s insurgency. Still, even within this SDF zone, ISIS has varied its tactics by area. The group is thought to have more sophisticated clandestine networks in al-Raqqa and al-Hasaka provinces, where it perpetrates relatively complex and ambitious attacks.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, U.S. official, 18 May 2019. Among the more prominent examples is ISIS’s 16 January 2019 suicide attack on a U.S. military convoy in Manbij, a city in Aleppo province, which killed nineteen, including four Americans. Ben Hubbard and Eric Schmitt, “A favorite restaurant in Syria led ISIS to Americans”, The New York Times, 17 January 2019. In a more recent example, ISIS carried out three near-simultaneous bombings in Hasaka in July. Al-Naba, 18 July 2019; “Three bombings in al-Hasaka within two hours”, ANF News, 11 July 2019 (Arabic).
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Residents consider these areas relatively safe, with occasional jarring interruptions.[fn]Crisis Group observations, north-eastern Syria, March 2019.
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A reported 9 October attack by ISIS in al-Raqqa city could indicate that the security situation is deteriorating, however, and that could worsen further as a Turkish intervention draws closer.[fn]ISIS attack in al-Raqqa simultaneously with expected Turkish attack”, Hawar News Agency, 9 October 2019 (Arabic).
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ISIS attack in al-Raqqa simultaneously with expected Turkish attack”, Hawar News Agency, 9 October 2019 (Arabic).
 

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In the eastern countryside of Deir al-Zour province, by contrast, the group has kept up a steady drumbeat of low-level violence throughout. Even as ISIS was fighting a losing battle for the Deir al-Zour town of Baghouz in early 2019, the group was already ramping up an insurgency behind SDF lines.[fn]Walid Al Nofal and Justin Clark, “Suspected IS sleeper cells step up assassinations, attacks in eastern Syria after SDF ‘victory’ in Baghouz”, Syria Direct, 27 March 2019.
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With the conventional fight over, ISIS has loosed a wave of attacks, including roadside bombings, drive-by shootings and assassinations of local SDF collaborators. As in Iraq, ISIS may not be behind all these incidents; some violence may be local score settling. Nonetheless, ISIS has claimed many of them and locals believe the group is responsible. ISIS’s attacks have been technically simple but competently executed and frequent.[fn]For one tally of ISIS attacks in Deir al-Zour, see Amaq News Agency’s 19 May 2019 infographic on attacks targeting the “PKK” (the group’s typical epithet for the SDF), available via tweet by Christopher Anzalone, @IbnSiqilli, researcher, 10:33pm, 19 May 2019. A humanitarian aid agency’s security adviser said: “They’re not complex attacks. But these are well-drilled people. … The fact that they’re doing it time and again, and they’re not caught – it shows their recon is good, and their targeting is good”. Crisis Group phone interview, 24 May 2019. According to a U.S. military official: “[ISIS doesn’t] need to do something complex now. The organisation can do targeted assassinations, some bombings. The other thing that’s really scary is that ISIS is strategic – they plan for the long term. So they wait, and recuperate, and do what they need to get their ducks in a row, until they pull the trigger and then come back”. Crisis Group interview, Washington, April 2019.Hide Footnote It has also carried out one suicide car bombing against an SDF base, in the Deir al-Zour town of al-Tayyana in July 2019, which may signal that the group is reconstituting a capacity for complex, collective action.[fn]More than 15 killed and wounded in car bomb explosion at SDF base in Deir al-Zour”, STEP Agency, 12 July 2019 (Arabic).
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The group’s attacks have been concentrated in a strip along the Euphrates River between the towns of al-Buseira and al-Tayyana.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western officials and Deir al-Zour journalist, Amman and by phone, May-July 2019.Hide Footnote

ISIS attacks have been an apparent attempt to terrorise the local Arab population into non-cooperation with the YPG.

ISIS has targeted the SDF’s local Arab element in particular. With U.S. and Coalition support, the YPG has mobilised a large, ethnically mixed force in the SDF, including many local Arabs. In this context, ISIS attacks have been an apparent attempt to terrorise the local Arab population into non-cooperation with the YPG, collapsing local governance bodies and depriving the YPG of the local knowledge necessary for effective counter-insurgency efforts.[fn]ISIS spokesman Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir said as much in his March 2019 address, warning Arabs in eastern Syria to pull their sons out of the ranks of “atheist Kurds” and “repent” before it was too late. Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, “He was true to God, so [God] was true to him”, op. cit.Hide Footnote The SDF’s would-be local partners in these front-line areas have said they feel they have been left vulnerable to assassination by ISIS.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, Deir al-Zour military commander, September 2019.
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 In ISIS’s first video from Deir al-Zour (which it calls al-Kheir) since it lost Baghouz, the group said its men, through their “security operations”, “had demonstrated the falsity of claims by the imams of infidelity that they have ended the caliphate’s presence in Syria”.[fn]ISIS, “The epic battle of attrition”, Syria Province–al-Kheir media office, 11 August 2019 (Arabic).
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ISIS, “The epic battle of attrition”, Syria Province–al-Kheir media office, 11 August 2019 (Arabic).
 

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The YPG-led SDF has struggled to forge ties with Deir al-Zour’s Arab residents, identify trusted local interlocutors or involve residents in counter-ISIS efforts.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Squaring the Circles in Syria’s North East, op. cit.
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Moreover, complaints about insufficient services and the division of the area’s oil revenues have fuelled local resentment of the SDF, as has collateral damage from the SDF’s night-time counter-ISIS raids.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, tribal notables, Deir al-Zour, March 2019.Hide Footnote The SDF’s international Coalition partners have attempted to help provide basic services and restart the local economy, so as to offer residents an alternative to militancy, but resources have been limited and Deir al-Zour is geographically remote.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, U.S. officials and humanitarian workers, Washington, Amman and by phone, April, May and July 2019. A U.S. official said: “When people talk about the reintegration or reconciliation process with ISIS guys, they frequently say they need jobs, livelihoods and education. If these people come back and have nothing to do, they’ll just get up to mischief again”. Crisis Group phone interview, 18 May 2019.
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On the ground, ISIS has worked to further sap confidence in the SDF and its related civilian institutions. In one notorious example, ISIS posted lists of SDF enlistees and civilian employees on mosques in a Deir al-Zour town, with a demand that they “repent”.[fn]ISIS in eastern Deir al-Zour: ‘We see you, but you don’t see us!’”, al-Modon, 7 September 2019 (Arabic).
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The SDF has also laboured to accommodate large numbers of ISIS detainees, Syrian and foreign. Its capacity to hold ISIS detainees has been stretched to breaking point, and, in an attempt to win over local tribal constituencies, it has released Syrian ISIS detainees ostensibly “without blood on their hands” who have been vouched for by tribal leaders.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, SDF commander and Coalition member country diplomats, Syria, Beirut and by phone, March, May and July 2019.Hide Footnote But the approach has alarmed some residents, as the result has been the release of ISIS-linked men of uncertain character, with no clear program to track and reintegrate them after they return home.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kurdish security official and Deir al-Zour residents, Deir al-Zour and Qamishli, March and May 2019. See also Liz Sly, “Captured ISIS fighters get short sentences and art therapy in Syria”, Washington Post, 14 August 2019.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group interviews, Kurdish security official and Deir al-Zour residents, Deir al-Zour and Qamishli, March and May 2019. See also Liz Sly, “Captured ISIS fighters get short sentences and art therapy in Syria”, Washington Post, 14 August 2019.
 

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More broadly, the SDF has had to deal with thousands of foreign ISIS fighters and ISIS-affiliated civilians – women and minors, some dangerous in their own right – in SDF-secured detention centres and displacement camps.[fn]The SDF now holds approximately 8,000 Iraqi and Syrian ISIS fighters and 2,000 third-country nationals, in addition to non-combatant affiliates including women and children. “Operation Inherent Resolve: Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress”, op. cit., p. 23. Regarding women and children who left Baghouz and are now housed in a camp in al-Hol, a Coalition officer said: “Now, among those 73,000, there are real victims. There are also real ISIS members, even if they are female”. Crisis Group interview, May 2019.
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U.S. and other Coalition officials believe that ISIS leaders directed remaining fighters and affiliates in Baghouz to surrender to the SDF in order to conserve manpower and recuperate.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, U.S. officials, Washington, April 2019.
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Guarding these fighters and affiliates has represented a substantial resource drain on the SDF.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Syrian Democratic Council official, U.S. officials, Qamishli and Washington, March and April 2019.
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Yet the SDF’s Western Coalition partners have been legally unable to contribute more than limited funds to reinforce existing detention facilities and turn buildings such as schools into “pop-up prisons”.[fn]Counter-ISIS Train and Equip Fund support, per its U.S. Congressional mandate, cannot be used to build new structures. The U.S.’s Coalition partners face legal challenges building prisons in support of a non-state actor, the SDF. Crisis Group interviews, Western officials, Washington and remotely by messaging app, April and August 2019.
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SDF partners have been concerned that ISIS could target these makeshift prisons for jailbreaks or that prisoners could stage riots that turn into mass escapes, a threat that will become all the more serious now that Turkey and its allies are entering north-eastern Syria and the SDF will have to redirect its resources to confronting them.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, U.S. officials and Coalition officers, Washington and Middle East, April, May and July 2019.
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Left unguarded, prisons and camps now holding ISIS militants and affiliates could become easy targets for jailbreaks.

The north east’s vulnerabilities seem clear, including an energetic ISIS insurgency and generally precarious situation in Deir al-Zour, and overfull, exposed prisons and camps holding ISIS militants and affiliates. Turkish intervention and a confrontation between Turkey and the SDF on Syria’s northern border seem likely to dramatically worsen these problems. The diversion north of SDF units now securing ISIS-affected southern areas and continuing to pursue ISIS cells could allow ISIS elements that are now disparate and covert to regroup and escalate their operations. Order could break down not only in Deir al-Zour but also in other marginal, Arab-majority areas such as al-Raqqa, as ISIS mounts new attacks and some locals – believing the tide to be turning against the SDF – potentially mount their own resistance or throw in their lot with ISIS.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, senior SDF political representative, 9 October 2019.Hide Footnote  Left unguarded, prisons and camps now holding ISIS militants and affiliates could become easy targets for jailbreaks. SDF commander Mazloum Kobani has already said that holding ISIS prisoners has become a “second priority” as the SDF prepares for a defensive battle with Turkey.[fn]Courtney Kube and Mosheh Gains, “Top Kurdish general: Watching over ISIS prisoners now a ‘second priority’”, NBC News, 8 October 2019.Hide Footnote  One U.S. official warned: “If an attack diverts the SDF toward the border, there will be an ISIS resurgence. I will say that as a matter of fact”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Washington, April 2019.
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V. Preventing an ISIS Resurgence

Though it is likely impossible to wholly eliminate ISIS in Iraq and Syria, it has seemed feasible to inhibit its capabilities and reach. As a senior Iraqi security official framed the challenge: “In the current situation, there’s a chance to keep the organisation small, with limited influence and in remote areas. As for ending it totally, that’s very difficult”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 27 February 2019.Hide Footnote  Now Turkish intervention and open conflict in Syria’s north east risk giving ISIS new life.

Preventing ISIS’s resurgence requires, first and foremost, either halting or mitigating the impact of a Turkish intervention against the SDF. After the withdrawal of U.S. troops from their positions on the Syrian-Turkish border, there are no longer American lives on the line to discourage a Turkish attack. Still, Trump has threatened to target Turkey’s economy if Ankara engages in “unforced or unnecessary fighting” against the U.S.’s Kurdish allies in Syria, and vowed that a Turkish incursion could do lasting damage to Turkish-U.S. bilateral relations.[fn]U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, for one, has threatened bipartisan Congressional sanctions on Turkey if it moves forward with its attack. See tweet by Lindsey Graham, Republican senator from South Carolina, @LindseyGrahamSC, 5:47 pm, 7 October 2019.Hide Footnote Washington’s Coalition allies have condemned Turkey’s offensive and called on Turkey to stop.[fn]For example, see the tweet by the German Foreign Office, @GermanyDiplo, 5:45pm, 9 October 2019.
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 The U.S. and its Coalition allies should further urge Turkey to pause its attack, an attack for which Ankara could pay a high price diplomatically and that could even risk new violence inside Turkey, if the PKK resumes its own attacks.

If Turkey can be convinced to reel in its invasion, or at a minimum to stop after establishing a limited beachhead, there may be time for the U.S. to broker some new compromise arrangement. It could also use any such respite to encourage a deal for the north east that could withstand an eventual U.S. exit, namely one between the SDF and the Syrian regime that gradually reintegrates the area into unitary, state-led Syria on the basis of decentralised governance.

 
The U.S.-led Coalition should work with the SDF to devolve governing and security responsibility to local Arab actors in order to consolidate post-ISIS gains.

If Turkey can be dissuaded from pushing further into the north east, the SDF will still need near-term Coalition assistance to pursue ISIS elements and stabilise areas taken from the group. The U.S.-led Coalition should work with the SDF to devolve governing and security responsibility to local Arab actors in order to consolidate post-ISIS gains. Yet those local Arab partners also need continued assistance from the SDF and its international partners, including materiel and logistical support, if they are to defend themselves against ISIS. Coalition countries should also help reinforce the SDF detention facilities now holding ISIS-linked foreigners, even if they are unable to build new ones.

If it looks as if the U.S. cannot or will not deter Turkey, then the best and only remaining option for the YPG will be to negotiate directly with the Syrian regime for the return of Syrian state sovereignty to Syria’s north east. In this situation, Russia could mediate between the regime and YPG, and also intercede with Turkey, backing the redeployment of regime forces to Syria’s Turkish border even as it assures Turkey that the regime’s return will be substantive, not just symbolic. Russia has previously argued for reactivating Syria and Turkey’s 1998 Adana Agreement, which gives Turkey the right to conduct “hot pursuit” counter-terrorism operations inside Syria even as it entails mutual bilateral recognition.[fn]The Adana Agreement is based on Damascus considering the PKK a terrorist organisation and prohibiting its presence, activities and affiliates on Syrian soil. In accordance with the deal, Damascus shut down the PKK’s bases in Syria and expelled its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, which paved the way for his eventual capture by Turkey in 1999. See “Proposed Russian control of Syria border unlikely to appeal to Turkey”, The New Arab, 25 January 2019.Hide Footnote

The YPG’s bargaining position would be weak, as Turkey would be bearing down on the north east. Still, for the YPG, even a bad deal with Damascus seems preferable to Turkey reproducing the Afrin experience in an extended border zone that includes nearly every Kurdish population centre in Syria. Damascus, too, has at least some incentive to be flexible, lest Turkey occupy large sections of Syria’s east for the long term.[fn]For more on the multiple negotiations over the north east and the various sides’ positions, see Crisis Group Report, Squaring the Circles in Syria’s North East, op. cit.Hide Footnote

For more on the multiple negotiations over the north east and the various sides’ positions, see Crisis Group Report, Squaring the Circles in Syria’s North East, op. cit.
 

Hide Footnote  Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on 9 October that Russia is encouraging dialogue between Damascus and “representatives of the Kurds”, a statement to which the SDF’s civilian governing authority responded positively.[fn]US policy on Kurds may affect entire Middle East region — Russian top diplomat”, Tass, 9 October 2019; “Autonomous Administration: We view Lavrov’s statements on dialogue with Damascus positively”, ANF News, 9 October 2019 (Arabic). Damascus was less enthusiastic, with the state-run news agency saying “some Kurdish organisations” bear responsibility for Turkey’s intervention, since they relied on the U.S. for protection. The statement added, however, that Syria remains “prepared to embrace its misguided sons if they return to their senses”. “Syria renews its determination to resist Turkish aggression by all legitimate means”, SANA, 9 October 2019 (Arabic).Hide Footnote

As a Ninewa security official said: If Syria gets a cough, Iraq gets the flu.

As the situation in Syria’s north east evolves quickly, countries such as France and Germany whose nationals are now in the north east’s camps should repatriate as many as seems feasible. They should prioritise the repatriation of children, whether orphans or minors who are themselves blameless but may be attached to ISIS-affiliated mothers who represent a security concern. Repatriation of ISIS-affiliated civilians is politically controversial and, in some cases, may be risky in security terms. Yet leaving children to be engulfed by oncoming conflict is irresponsible.

If eastern Syria spins into chaos, Iraq will invariably suffer, as fighters and materiel again flow across the border. As a Ninewa security official said: “If Syria gets a cough, Iraq gets the flu”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Mosul, March 2019.Hide Footnote

So far, Iraqi security forces have seemed capable of containing ISIS and potentially degrading it further. Maintaining that progress will require concerted efforts by Iraqis and their international partners, particularly if the situation in Syria deteriorates. To that end, Iraq and its international partners should be careful not to allow U.S.-Iranian or Israeli-Iranian tensions to spill into Iraq. Iraqis are keen that their country not become an arena, once more, for outsiders’ score settling.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing, Evading the Gathering Storm, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group Briefing, Evading the Gathering Storm, op. cit.
 

Hide Footnote If U.S.-Iranian rivalry in the region or continued Israeli airstrikes on Iran’s Iraqi allies lead to violence against U.S. and other foreign forces in Iraq, the situation in Iraq inevitably will deteriorate and could even make an international Coalition presence untenable. ISIS would benefit. In this sense, Washington’s strategy of “maximum pressure” on Iran – and especially any attempt to press Iraq into joining its campaign – may come at the cost of allowing ISIS’ revival.[fn]One U.S. official said that attempting to counter Iranian influence in Iraq, as opposed to supporting the campaign against ISIS, could provoke a hostile reaction from Iraqi factions: “When you’re doing counter-ISIS, it doesn’t generate antibodies in the same way”. Crisis Group interview, Washington, April 2019.Hide Footnote

But if the U.S. should exercise restraint, so too should Iran and its Iraqi allies. The temptation to target U.S. forces may well exist, but Tehran and its allies should weigh it against the near-term necessity of a U.S. and Coalition role in Iraq to maintain military pressure on ISIS. Coalition members’ training and equipment of Iraqi forces is also key if Iraq is to develop the military capacities it now lacks. That capacity building is meant to eventually make foreign support unnecessary.

With Coalition support, the Iraqi government ought to continue working to secure the peripheral areas in which ISIS still operates. It should use the space provided by a reinforced security presence to rebuild these areas and enable residents to return. Security, renewed economic activity and the return of displaced residents are all mutually reinforcing in these areas, and the government needs to pursue them in parallel. Additionally, clearing the way for returnees will allow many to leave the toxic environment of Iraq’s displacement camps. Stabilising formerly ISIS-held areas will also require working toward a compromise on Iraq’s disputed territories between Baghdad-controlled Iraq and the country’s Kurdish region, without which the two will be unable to coordinate their security efforts, leaving gaps for ISIS to exploit.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Reviving UN Mediation on Iraq’s Disputed Internal Boundaries, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group Report, Reviving UN Mediation on Iraq’s Disputed Internal Boundaries, op. cit.
 

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Too, the Iraqi government will need a solution for “ISIS families”. Its officials say they are working, in consultation with UN agencies, to develop a new plan to facilitate these families’ safe return to their places of origin, likely to include rehabilitation and dialogue with communal representatives of their home neighbourhoods and towns.[fn]Crisis Group interview, two Iraqi officials, Baghdad, June 2019.Hide Footnote  The plan’s details aside, Iraq ought not allow these civilians to become permanent exiles in their own country.

More broadly, the Iraqi government should continue to prioritise rebuilding the parts of the country that were under ISIS control – not just front-line areas still suffering ISIS attacks, but also places like Mosul. Given ISIS’s diminished threat and the many other pressing issues facing Baghdad, there is a danger that the government will lose sight of post-ISIS reconstruction. Yet it must not do so if it hopes to break the country’s debilitating cycle of violence and turn to prosaic but important issues such as services and economic development. Reconstruction requires Baghdad's continued commitment, as well as the additional involvement of local communities and civic organisations.

VI. Conclusion

ISIS has been on shaky ground, but it could still regain its footing. The many local and international actors who beat back the organisation in Iraq and Syria can still prevent its resurgence. This task will demand sustained local action in both Iraq and Syria to combat the group and realise post-ISIS stability. It also will require efforts to halt or mitigate new, destructive conflict – whether between Turkey and the SDF in Syria or between Iran and the U.S. – that could reverse hard-fought gains against ISIS and allow the group to return.

Beirut/Istanbul/Baghdad/Deir al-Zour/Brussels, 11 October 2019

Appendix A: Map of Iraq

Map No. 3835 Rev 6 UNITED NATIONS

Appendix B: Map of Syria

Map No. 4204 Rev. 3 UNITED NATIONS