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Shiite Huthi rebels drive a truck past a flag of Ansar al-Sharia in Almnash, Rada, which was once the main Yemeni stronghold of this local arm of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. 22 November 2014. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi
Report 174 / Middle East & North Africa

Yemen’s al-Qaeda: Expanding the Base

Thriving on conflict, sectarianism, and local opportunism, al-Qaeda’s affiliates are stronger than ever in Yemen. To shrink their growing base will require better governance in vulnerable areas, not treating all Sunni Islamists as one enemy, and above all ending Yemen’s civil war.

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Executive Summary

The Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda (AQ) is stronger than it has ever been. As the country’s civil war has escalated and become regionalised, its local franchise, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is thriving in an environment of state collapse, growing sectarianism, shifting alliances, security vacuums and a burgeoning war economy. Reversing this trend requires ending the conflict that set it in motion. This means securing an overarching political settlement that has buy-in from the country’s diverse constituencies, including Sunni Islamists. As this will take time, steps must be taken now to contain AQAP’s growth: improving governance in vulnerable areas, disaggregating Sunni Islamist groups and using military tools judiciously and in coordination with local authorities. These efforts will be imperilled if states interested in fighting AQAP and Yemen’s nascent Islamic State (IS) branch, such as the U.S., take military actions that ignore the local context and result in high civilian casualties, like the Trump administration’s 29 January 2017 raid on AQAP affiliates in al-Bayda, or fail to restrain partners who tolerate or even encourage AQAP/IS activities.

Prior to Yemen’s 2011 popular uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, AQAP was a small yet lethal branch of AQ, focused primarily on Western targets. With at most several hundred members, it had limited local appeal and was both sustained and constrained by complex and sometimes contradictory relationships with the governing authorities and tribes. A primary security concern for the West and especially the U.S., AQAP was a sideshow for most Yemenis, at times tolerated by the government and routinely used by local elites for financial and/or political advantage. It was far less threatening to state stability than growing regime infighting, southern separatist sentiment or Huthi militancy in northern areas.

AQAP and, later and to a much lesser extent, a new outcrop of IS, emerged arguably as the biggest winners of the failed political transition and civil war that followed. AQAP adapted to the rapidly shifting political terrain, morphing into an insurgent movement capable of controlling territory and challenging state authority. Its main success derives from its demonstrated pragmatism: working within local norms, forging alliances with Sunni allies, assimilating into militias and embedding itself in a political economy of smuggling and trade that spans the various fighting factions, including the Huthi/former President Saleh alliance. It has at times controlled territory in the country’s south and appears ever more embedded in the fabric of opposition to the Huthi/Saleh alliance, dominant in the north, that is fighting the internationally recognised, Saudi-backed interim government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

IS, with its more brutal tactics, has been less successful in gaining recruits or capturing territory, but war has opened space for it to operate in places that have experienced sectarian-tinged violence, such as the southern port city of Aden. There, the group has turned its sights on the Hadi government and local security personnel through assassinations and bombings that have, indirectly, benefited the Huthi/Saleh front by weakening its common enemies and repeatedly underscoring the lack of security in Aden, the government’s temporary capital.

Virtually all local and foreign fighting parties in Yemen claim to be enemies of AQAP and IS, yet all have contributed to their rise. The Huthis, who as Zaydi/Shiites are AQAP’s primary ideological enemies, strengthened their foes through their February 2015 military push into predominantly Shafai (Sunni) areas, allowing AQAP to present itself as part of a wider “Sunni” front against Huthi/Saleh expansion. The Huthi/Saleh bloc’s willingness to conflate the Sunni Islamist party Islah and southern separatists with AQ and IS does not help. Their opponents, especially a gamut of Salafi fighting groups that the war has pushed to the foreground, as well as their Gulf backers, have poured fuel on the fire, at times crudely labelling Huthis as Iranian proxies who are part of a “Shiite agenda” in the region.

The logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, coupled with a long legacy of politicians using jihadists in power struggles against foes, has allowed AQAP to forge tacit alliances with a range of anti-Huthi/Saleh forces. The Saudi-backed coalition’s almost single-minded focus on defeating the Huthi/Saleh bloc has been a boon to AQAP, which has controlled territory unimpeded for stretches of time, in the process indirectly gaining weapons from the coalition and mining new funding streams by raiding banks and controlling ports. The United Arab Emirates dislodged AQAP from its Mukalla stronghold in April 2016, but such successes are fragile and could easily be reversed in the absence of more effective and inclusive governance.

The evolution of AQAP into an insurgent force with the ambition and capacity to govern territory, showing pragmatism and sensitivity to local concerns, does not negate the international risk posed by the group. AQ’s long-game strategy, combined with the immediate benefits from Yemen’s war, means that it, along with its local affiliates, will likely outlast the swift global rise of IS and its Yemeni subsidiary, which has pursued a more aggressive approach. The continuation of an increasingly fractured conflict greatly enhances AQAP’s unprecedented ability to expand local support and amass financial and military resources. Countering its gains poses a complex long-term challenge and will require an urgent yet measured response, focused on bringing the civil war to a negotiated end.

Recommendations

To reverse AQAP/IS gains

To all Yemeni and regional belligerents:

  1. End the war by agreeing to a ceasefire followed by negotiations toward a political settlement that contains: 
    1. buy-in from a full range of Yemeni stakeholders, including Sunni Islamists (the Islah party and Salafi groups willing to participate in politics) and groups with a regional base, such as Hiraak in the south;
    2. recognition of the need for regional autonomy, particularly for the south, and creation of a mechanism to determine the future state structure; and
    3. interim security arrangements in various war-torn localities under the state umbrella but with local buy-in.
       
  2. Avoid sectarian language and end media campaigns and mosque sermons that label adversaries in sectarian terms. 

To donor governments assisting Yemenis in combatting AQAP/IS:

  1. Engage in regular assessments of local and regional partners who may at times tolerate or even encourage AQAP/IS activities for political or economic gain, and press them to change course, threatening to suspend counter-terrorism cooperation if they do not.
     
  2. Decouple development from counter-terrorism assistance to reduce the incentives for the (current or future) Yemeni government to benefit financially from AQAP/IS’s presence.
     
  3. Enhance security measures at ports and border crossings with an increased maritime security focus on AQAP/IS sea supply routes along vulnerable coastlines.
     
  4. Encourage and support Track-II and local civil society efforts to heal inter-confessional divides, building on Yemen’s history of tolerance.
     
  5. Where there are opportunities to open lines of communication with AQAP leaders independent of tribal or political elites, those should be explored and if possible used to help de-escalate violence.

To states and groups operating in areas previously under or vulnerable to violent jihadist control, especially, but not limited to, the Hadi government, government-linked militias and the United Arab Emirates:

  1. Prioritise basic security, justice – particularly quick and transparent dispute resolution – and service provision.
     
  2. Disaggregate rather than conflate various Sunni Islamist groups by:
     
    1. including Islah in local governance and security initiatives; and
    2. communicating and negotiating with supporters of Ansar al-Sharia (AQAP’s local insurgency arm), who may not adhere to AQAP’s global ideology, and work to separate them from AQAP by addressing their legitimate locally- grounded grievances.
       
  3. Use military and policing tools judiciously and in compliance with local laws and norms by:
     
    1. avoiding heavy-handed military campaigns in cities and, when possible, working with local leaders to negotiate violent jihadists’ exit from urban areas, as happened in Mukalla; and
    2. using local forces against AQAP/IS when possible, but without creating legally unaccountable militia structures outside the state’s umbrella; bringing local militias, including popular committees, the Security Belt forces and the Elite forces in Hadramout, fully under government authority and under a legal system that ensures transparency and protects human rights.

To the Huthi/Saleh bloc:

  1. Disaggregate rather than conflate various Sunni Islamist groups, and work with those willing to engage in peace talks and operate within the political process.
     
  2. Refrain from military advances into predominately Shafai/Sunni areas that can only further inflame growing sectarian tensions and provide fodder to AQAP/IS propaganda.

Brussels, 2 February 2017

I. Introduction

This report examines the nexus of regional and local factors fuelling al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State (IS)’s gains in Yemen. It builds on Crisis Group’s comparative study of the evolving global jihadist landscape, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, by exploring the case of Yemen as a subset of this milieu.[fn]This report will follow the use of the term “jihadist” as explained in Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016: “The root of the word ‘jihad’ in Arabic refers to striving in the service of God. Many Muslims find its use in the context of political violence imprecise and offensive. It reduces a complex religious concept, which over centuries has taken many, often peaceful forms, to war-making. In the view of the vast majority of Muslims, today’s ‘jihadists’ pervert Islam’s tenets. It is hard, however, to escape the term. First, the groups this report addresses mostly self-identify as ‘jihadist’…. Secondly, while jihad has long been an element of virtually all schools of Islam, a nascent ‘jihadist’ ideology has emerged that is more than a reflection of this history …. Though big differences exist between ‘jihadist’ groups, they share some ideological tenets: fighting to return society to a purer form of Islam; violence against rulers whose policies they deem in conflict with Islamic imperatives (as jihadists understand them); and belief in a duty to use violence when Muslim rulers abandon those imperatives. Our use of ‘jihadist’ is not meant to add legitimacy to this interpretation or detract from efforts to promote alternative interpretations”. As in the Exploiting Disorder report, this report examines only a subset of jihadist groups, namely Sunni jihadists, in this case, AQAP and IS in Yemen.Hide Footnote In many ways, AQAP’s and IS’s rapid growth in Yemen follow regional trends. The collapse of Yemen’s Arab Spring transition and the chaos that followed have catalysed their expansion, providing them with new political opportunities, money, weapons and recruits. As in Syria, Iraq and Libya, growing enmity between regional states, mainly Saudi Arabia and Iran, has fuelled sectarian tensions and led them to prioritise traditional rivals over violent jihadists, in some cases leveraging the latter as proxies.

Yet, the challenge that AQAP and IS present in Yemen is embedded in the country’s unique history and local political dynamics that both sustain and limit them. A record of regime co-optation of and collaboration with jihadist groups means that AQAP in particular is already intertwined with political actors and integrated into the economy. This creates obstacles in suppressing the group in that these actors may have incentives to use it to advance their own political and economic interests. Yet as AQAP is a Yemeni organisation with legitimate local demands – justice provision, services, jobs – efforts could be made to co-opt it and weaken its transnationally focused leadership by addressing these local grievances. Devising effective policy options for countering AQAP – or IS – cannot be based on a cookie-cutter approach but requires attention to both regional factors and local idiosyncrasies, lest the problem be aggravated, not overcome.

II. Al-Qaeda in Yemen

Yemen has long grabbed headlines as a hotbed for al-Qaeda (AQ) activity, and indeed it holds a special place in jihadist eschatology.[fn]According to a hadith (saying of the Prophet Mohammed), during the end of days, “Out of Aden-Abyan will come 12,000, giving victory to the [religion of] Allah and His Messenger. They are the best between me and them”. Musnad Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal hadith collection, vol. 3, no. 379.Hide Footnote Its common caricature is as the Middle East’s “wild west”, where gun-toting tribesmen, rugged mountains, weak governance and a deeply religious, rural population offer a breeding ground for outlaw groups. This stereotype not only risks oversimplification but can result in incorrect assumptions about AQ (that tribal areas necessarily provide safe haven, government actors are automatically the group’s foes or AQ cannot thrive equally in urban areas) and problematic, even counterproductive, policy prescriptions.[fn]“A False Foundation? AQAP, Tribes and Ungoverned Spaces in Yemen”, Combating Terrorism Centre, September 2011.Hide Footnote

Western analysis tends to explore AQ’s relationship with local tribes but less often examines the group as a tool for Yemen’s political elite to resort to subterfuge for financial and military gain.[fn]Gregory D. Johnsen, The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia (New York and London, 2012), and Sarah Philips, “The Norm of State-Monopolised Violence from a Yemeni Perspective”, in Charlotte Epstein (ed.), Against International Relations Norms (forthcoming, 2017), are notable exceptions.Hide Footnote Yemenis, by contrast, view domestic political dynamics as fundamental to understanding and countering AQ and similar jihadist groups.[fn]Yemenis generally identify three factors in facilitating Sunni radicalisation and AQAP expansion. The spread of ideas from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 1960s and 1970s, and from Saudi Arabia through support for religious schools in the 1980s and the return of Yemeni migrant workers in the early 1990s, allegedly formed an ideological foundation for groups such as AQAP. The second factor is poverty. Most important for many interlocutors is state orchestration of jihadist groups for political and financial gain. Crisis Group interviews, Yemeni politicians, journalists and analysts, September 2010-August 2016.Hide Footnote

The history of AQ and related movements in Yemen is tied to both domestic politics and shifting trends in global jihadism. In the early 1990s, fighters from the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad, known as Afghan Arabs, returned – as part of the first wave of global jihadist violence after the end of the Cold War – just as north Yemen (the Yemen Arab Republic) unified with the socialist south (the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, PDRY) to form the Republic of Yemen.[fn]“Afghan Arab” is used to describe the non-Afghan Muslims from Arab, and some non-Arab, nations who travelled to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets. Those who subsequently travelled to Yemen included non-Yemenis as well as returning nationals.Hide Footnote While most Arab states were turning against Islamists, Sanaa continued to align with them.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°8, Yemen: Coping with Terrorism and Violence in a Fragile State, 8 January 2003.Hide Footnote Islah, a Sunni Islamist party created in 1990 and encompassing the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood, provided a political outlet for many returnees as it formed a governing coalition with President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) following elections in 1993. More militant Afghan veterans – such as Tariq al-Fadhli – joined with southerners to form the Islamic Jihad Movement (IJM). On 29 December 1992, IJM leader Jamal al-Nahdi attempted to kill U.S. marines in Aden, the first AQ-linked attack targeting the U.S.[fn]IJM was the first formal Islamist group in Yemen with ties (financial and personal, not organisational) to Osama bin Laden and AQ in Afghanistan, known as “al-Qaeda Central”. Bin Laden later took credit for the failed bombing. Al-Nahdi was arrested but escaped from prison.Hide Footnote

During this time, jihadists and the Saleh regime were aligned against the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP). Prior to the 1994 north-south civil war, Afghan Arabs allegedly killed YSP cadres with the help of northern-linked security services.[fn]The killings – at least 150 between 1990 and 1994, according to the YSP – were a key instigator of the war. Brian Whitaker, The Birth of Modern Yemen (e-book, 2009); and Noel Brehony, Yemen Divided: The Story of a Failed State in South Arabia (London, 2011).Hide Footnote In the war, Saleh and his senior military commander, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (who married al-Fadhli's sister and today is Yemen’s vice-president aligned with the Saudi-led coalition confronting the Huthi/Saleh alliance), used the Afghan Arabs as a proxy. Following a quick and decisive northern victory, some IJM members were given positions in the GPC and security services.[fn]During the 1994 war, al-Fadhli was made a colonel in the Yemen army. After the civil war, al-Nahdi joined the GPC’s governing organisation, the permanent committee, and Saleh appointed al-Fadhli to the upper house of parliament. Gregory D. Johnsen, The Last Refuge, p. 51.Hide Footnote  

In the mid-1990s, a second wave of global jihadist violence saw AQ focus on attacking what it called the “far enemy”. In Yemen, AQAP’s precursors started doing the same. IJM remnants and others who refused co-optation by the state gathered under Yemeni Afghan veteran Zain al-Abidin Abubakr al-Mihdar to create the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army (AAIA), the first jihadist group with a transnational agenda. It pledged support to Osama bin Laden and engaged in international messaging.[fn]The AAIA, probably created between 1994 and 1997, was known under various names inspired by a hadith, including the Army of Aden-Abyan and the Islamic Army of Aden. In a message to Agence France-Presse (AFP) in August 1998, it replicated bin Laden’s declaration calling for “total war” on U.S. interests in Yemen. AQAP propaganda referred to the AAIA in 2010.Hide Footnote

Although AAIA’s influence dwindled in the late 1990s, jihadist attacks on Western interests increased. On 12 October 2000, an explosives-laden skiff rammed into the USS Cole, a U.S. warship docked off Aden port, killing seventeen marines. AAIA claimed responsibility, but the mastermind behind the attack was Abd-al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi AQ member who was bin Laden’s head of operations in the Gulf. The attack propelled Yemen into the spotlight as a critical state in the U.S. fight against AQ. Under U.S. pressure, Yemeni authorities rounded up scores of suspects – but not al-Nashiri.[fn]Four months later, Saudi officials reportedly spotted al-Nashiri in Sanaa with the deputy director of the PSO. “Yemen, an uneasy ally, proves adept at playing off old rivals”, The New York Times, 19 December 2002. Ahmed Abdullah al-Hasani, head of the navy at the time of the Cole attack, said its perpetrators were “well known by the regime and some are still officers in the national army”. “Britons’ killers ‘linked to Yemeni army chief’”, The Sunday Times, 8 May 2005.Hide Footnote Following the 9/11 attack in the U.S. and to avoid political isolation, Saleh moved decisively against AQ, largely defeating it by the end of 2003.

That year, the U.S. invasion of Iraq inspired a new generation of fighters (a third wave of global jihadism) that revived and altered AQ’s Yemeni branch. In February 2006, 23 AQ members escaped Sanaa PSO prison. Among them were Nassar al-Wuhayshi and Qasim al-Raymi, both of whom later became AQAP founding members.[fn]Several prison officials, including warden Salah al-Muradi, were arrested on suspicion of facilitating the escape. “Yemen: Al-Qa'ida escape”, U.S. embassy Sanaa cable, April 2006, as published by WikiLeaks, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/06SANAA973_a.html. The timing raised questions, as Yemen had just lost $300 million of aid from the U.S. and the World Bank.Hide Footnote The event once again focused U.S. attention on the country as a front-line state against AQ. In 2007, funding from the U.S. Defense Department to Yemen increased to $26 million from $4.3 million the previous year.[fn]U.S. funding soared to $67 million in 2009 following two attacks on the U.S. embassy in Sanaa in 2008, and to $155.3 million in 2010, which U.S. officials said was largely due to AQAP’s attempted bombing of the U.S.-bound passenger jet on Christmas Day, 2009. “Yemen: Background and U.S. Relations”, Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, 1 November 2012. “Report to Congressional Committees”, U.S. Government Accountability Office, February 2012. This pattern of increased funding in response to attacks demonstrated the financial and military gains the state could make from AQ’s activities.Hide Footnote Yet, between 2007 and 2009, Sanaa and Washington were distracted by, respectively, the conflict with the Huthis and the war in Iraq, allowing a new generation of AQ leaders under al-Wuhayshi to rebuild the organisation from scratch.[fn]Crisis Group email interview, Gregory Johnsen, 10 January 2017. Al-Wuhayshi became the emir, or leader, of AQ in the land of Yemen (AQLY) in June 2007. On 13 March 2008, AQLY renamed itself AQ in the Southern Arabian Peninsula (AQSAP). AQLY/AQSAP carried out attacks against Western interests, including oil facilities in Hadramout and Marib in 2006, the U.S. embassy in 2008 and South Korean tourists in Marib in 2009.Hide Footnote In January 2009, they formed AQAP from the merger of AQ’s Yemeni and Saudi branches. AQAP launched high-profile attacks against Western interests and the Yemeni security and intelligence forces, especially in the south.[fn]Prior to 2009, there were two AQ groups: AQSAP (the renamed AQLY) and a splinter group, the Yemen Soldiers Brigade, quickly wiped out by Saleh in 2008. Following attacks in Saudi Arabia between 2003 and 2006, a crackdown pushed many Saudi members into Yemen, resulting in the franchises’ coalescence. The group’s founders included non-Yemenis and individuals with close ties to AQ Central’s leadership. Al-Wuhayshi’s leadership – as former secretary to Osama bin Laden and a native Yemeni – combined the valuable attributes of someone with both local ties and a strong connection to AQ’s leadership and its transnational aims.Hide Footnote

By 2011, AQAP was seen in the U.S. as AQ’s most lethal branch, but its influence in Yemen was still circumscribed.[fn]The U.S. put its membership at “several hundred” in 2010 and at “a few thousand” in 2011. “Briefing by Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano, assistant to the president for counterterrorism and homeland security, Brennan, and Press Secretary Gibbs”, White House Office of the Press Secretary, 7 January 2010. “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” in “Country Reports on Terrorism 2011”, U.S. State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, 31 July 2012.Hide Footnote Saleh walked a fine line: balancing the U.S. drone campaign against AQ’s leadership and the local population’s resentment toward perceived violations of national sovereignty and the causalities from these strikes.[fn]Notably, a missile attack on al-Maajala in Abyan governorate on 17 December 2009 killed 41 civilians. The Yemeni government claimed responsibility, but photographs of remnants of U.S.-made bombs disputed this. In 2010, Saleh reportedly told General David Petraeus, then U.S. Central Command chief: “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours”. “General Petraeus’ meeting with Saleh on security assistance, AQAP strikes”, U.S. embassy Sanaa cable, January 2010, as published by WikiLeaks, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/10SANAA4_a.html.Hide Footnote AQAP was a relatively small component of the domestic balance of power, used by the state to win financial and military support from the U.S. While a top priority for the West, AQAP was far less important for the state and most Yemenis than the growing strength of the Huthis (a revivalist movement in the north based on Zaydism, a version of Shiite Islam), separatist sentiment in the south and an increasingly brittle regime in Sanaa.

III. The Fourth Wave

A. Fertile Ground for Jihadism

Yemen’s fourth wave of jihadist violence is its most potent because of the underlying currents propelling it, including state collapse and sectarianism.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Exploiting Disorder, op. cit.Hide Footnote While IS’s ideological innovations and territorial gains dominate the fourth wave in other parts of the Middle East, in Yemen, AQAP has taken the lead, evolving and adapting in the rapidly shifting post-2011 environment. Its expansion has roughly occurred in two phases: the first in the wake of the 2011 popular uprising against Saleh and the second in the context of a failed political transition and the subsequent war.

1. Uprising

During the uprising, AQAP evolved from a primarily internationally focused jihadist organisation to one with a significant local insurgency component, seeking to strike deeper roots into Yemeni society and establish territorial control. In 2011, it created a parallel group, Ansar al-Sharia (AAS, “Supporters of Islamic Law”), to widen its domestic appeal and separate its local component from its international brand, which many Yemenis view as a regime instrument, infamous for its attacks against the West and likely to trigger a military backlash, especially from the U.S., against communities that support it.[fn]Sheikh Abu Zubayr Adel bin Abdullah al-Abab, a senior AQAP religious official, explained: “The name Ansar al-Sharia is what we use to introduce ourselves in areas where we work to tell people about our work and goals, and that we are on the path of Allah”. Recorded 18 April 2011, posted on YouTube 25 April 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=js_fbKJN23s.Hide Footnote The move also attempted to address the organisation’s long-running “double-bind” of balancing global objectives – targeting the West and expelling unbelievers from the Arabian Peninsula – with its need to address local grievances, such as corruption and lack of effective justice.[fn]Vahid Brown presents this double-bind as the interplay between two inter-related tensions: the global/local dichotomy, which illustrates the friction between the global range of AQ’s stated plan and the local concerns of those it seeks to win over; and the global/classical dichotomy, in relation to AQ’s concept of violent jihad as the only course of action, an extremist interpretation contested by more authoritative and influential clerical proponents of a classical definition of legitimate jihad. Vahid Brown, “Al‐Qa’ida Central and Local Affiliates”, in Assaf Moghadam and Brian Fishman (eds.), “Self-Inflicted Wounds Debates and Divisions within al-Qa’ida and its Periphery”, Combating Terrorism Center, 2010, pp. 69-100.Hide Footnote In practice, AAS acts as a local insurgent arm and domestic diffusion brand, while AQAP continues to call for strikes against the West, particularly by encouraging “lone-wolf” attacks.[fn]AQAP is hierarchical, structured around a senior leadership whose members are dispersed over committees and councils (such as the media, security and military committees and the Shura council, which advises AQAP’s emir and reports back to al-Qaeda Central). This structure, along with creating a consultative mechanism, allows it to better absorb the impact of assassinations. From 2013 until his death in June 2015, AQAP emir al-Wuhayshi played an additional role as AQ Central’s “general manager” and second-in-command under Ayman al-Zawahiri. The military committee functions as the insurgency’s command structure. Mid-level leaders are province (wilaya) commanders, known as emirs, along with district and city commanders under provincial command. AQAP propaganda regularly refers to these commanders, who are not limited in movement and operations as their title might suggest, as AAS. Jalal Baleedi, killed in February 2016, was both a mid-level AQAP commander and a senior AAS leader. AQAP and AAS have separate media wings for propaganda releases, but these outlets often collaborate. At entry level, AAS recruits are not required to pledge allegiance (bay’a) to AQAP, but senior commanders are. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Yemeni analysts and journalists, AQAP members, Yemen, 2011-2016. For the purpose of this report, AQAP and AAS are used interchangeably except when AAS has expressly profiled itself separately. AQAP’s calls for “lone-wolf” attacks underline its continued desire to carry out international operations but may also indicate frustration at its lack of international prowess in recent years. According to a U.S. government official, “AQAP’s ability to balance both local and global objectives has been the key to its sustained relevance and a persistent threat to U.S. interests. AQAP has prioritised a ‘Yemen-first’ approach as the societal instability is far too advantageous for them …. That said, there has been an increase in AQAP’s calls for lone operatives to target the west in its social media, Telegram Channels, and newer traditional media such as Inspire Guides”. Crisis Group email interview, January 2017.Hide Footnote

Under the AAS banner, AQAP captured several towns, including the capital of the southern province of Abyan in May 2011, and governed these areas for more than a year.[fn]This went against Osama bin Laden’s advice in a letter to AQAP leader al-Wuhayshi. Bin Laden also expressed concerns about getting bogged down in the focus on the “internal enemy”, in this case the Yemeni government, rather than on the “far enemy”. SOCOM-2012-0000016, in “Letters from Abbottabad”, Combating Terrorism Center, 3 May 2012.Hide Footnote In keeping with AQ’s global strategy, it has increasingly pursued a gradualist approach, beginning with establishing acceptance among the local population, with the aim of gaining its active support and having civilians join in defending AQAP-controlled territory. This local backing and territorial control – with the aim of creating multiple emirates that should ultimately lead to the creation of a caliphate – would subsequently offer potential for AQAP to launch attacks outside Yemen.[fn]Ayman al-Zawahiri, “General Guidelines for Jihad,” As-Sahab Media, 14 September 2013. This is AQ’s blueprint for a more restrained strategy with an emphasis on localism. AQ groups in Syria, most notably Jabhat al-Nusra, have pursued such tactics. And like its Yemeni counterpart, in July 2016 al-Nusra disassociated itself from the AQ brand and changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS). See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°155, Rigged Cars and Barrel Bombs: Aleppo and the State of the Syrian War, 9 September 2014.Hide Footnote

Initially, AQAP suffered a setback under Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s transitional president, who took power from Saleh as part of a political deal known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative in February 2012. In May 2012, a combination of Yemeni security services and local militias, known as Popular Committees, ousted AQAP from Abyan, ending its first experiment with governance.[fn]Although fighting on the same side as government troops, the “Popular Committees” were mostly southern secessionists and openly opposed Hadi. By 2014, Huthis used the same name for their militias.Hide Footnote Reeling from its defeat, it switched back to asymmetrical attacks, which became more sophisticated and larger in scale than before 2011.[fn]These attacks included: a 21 May 2012 suicide bombing in Sanaa that killed more than 100 soldiers; a 30 September 2013 storming of the military’s Zone-2 headquarters in Mukalla, which AQAP militants held for two days; and a similar attack on the defence ministry in Sanaa on 5 December 2013 that left more than 50 dead and included an assault on al-Urdi hospital inside the compound that killed seventeen patients and staff, for which AQAP later apologised.Hide Footnote The interim president also gave the U.S. carte blanche to pursue its drone campaign against jihadists. Yet, military moves against AQAP proved woefully inadequate in the face of expanding political opportunities.

2. Derailed transition

By 2014, Yemen’s political transition was buckling under the weight of corruption and political infighting. The national dialogue conference, a transition cornerstone aimed at constitutional reform, failed to resolve pivotal issues, including the future state structure. In this environment, the biggest winners were the Huthis, a Shiite movement and militia that had previously fought six rounds of conflict with the Saleh regime (2004-2010). They presented themselves as political outsiders opposed to the GCC initiative, which had divided power between established political parties.

Over the course of the transition, the Huthis upended the military power balance in the north by defeating Sunni Islamist and tribal opponents, including an alliance of Salafi fighters, Islah members, Ali Mohsen-aligned military forces and the powerful al-Ahmar clan (no relation to Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar) from the Hashid tribal confederation, in a series of battles in 2013 and 2014.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°154, The Huthis: From Saada to Sanaa, 10 June 2014.Hide Footnote They also forged an alliance with their former enemies, Saleh and his GPC supporters, who felt marginalised by the GCC-led transition and sought revenge against the Mohsen/Ahmar/Islah alliance that had joined the 2011 popular uprising.

With support from the GPC, the Huthi militia captured Sanaa in September 2014. By February 2015, a dispute over the constitution prompted them to oust the Hadi government. One month later, alarmed by the Huthis’ military advances, which they attributed to Iranian meddling, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Sunni Arab states, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), backed by the U.S., UK and France, launched a military intervention and imposed a naval and air blockade to reinstate the Hadi government.[fn]For an overview of the Huthi coup, the group’s expansion southward and the Saudi-led military intervention, see Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°45, Yemen at War, 27 March 2015.Hide Footnote

As Yemen plunged into war, AQAP and IS flourished. AQAP declared war against the Huthis in early 2011, but then rarely acted on its strong rhetoric, carrying out only a handful of attacks.[fn]The most notable AQAP attack against the Huthis was the car bombing of a Huthi festival on 24 November 2010 that killed 23 people. AQAP claimed responsibility, stating it had killed the Huthis’ spiritual leader, Badr-al-Din al-Huthi. They also claimed a follow-up attack on 26 November targeting a convoy on its way to al-Huthi’s funeral. AQAP’s Sada al-Malahem magazine, 15 February 2011.Hide Footnote This changed in 2014, as Huthi forces broke out of their Saada stronghold. By mid-December 2014, AQAP had claimed responsibility for 149 attacks against the Huthis in fourteen governorates in less than 90 days.[fn]Oren Adaki, “AQAP claims 149 attacks in Yemen since late September”, The Long War Journal (www.longwarjournal.org), 19 December 2014.Hide Footnote  Al-Bayda, a crossroads governorate between north and south that borders eight provinces, was a focus of these assaults, as the Huthis moved into the area in October under the pretext of fighting Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), a term the Huthis have used loosely to characterise a wide range of their opponents.

At the same time, IS, an AQAP competitor, took advantage of increasing sectarianism and violence. It made its Yemen debut on 20 March 2015 in four coordinated suicide attacks against mosques frequented by Huthis in Sanaa, a day after fighting broke out between Saleh loyalists and Hadi-aligned fighters in Aden. The IS bombings provided justification for the Huthi push into Aden as a necessary fight against the growing security void, which the Huthis viewed as intentionally created by their political rival, President Hadi, and filled by AQ and other violent jihadists.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Huthi supporters, August and September 2015.Hide Footnote

Only a week after the Saudi-led coalition began attacking Huthi-Saleh forces from the air, AQAP moved once again to capture territory, this time in the eastern governorate of Hadramout. Unchallenged by local military units, it easily took control of the provincial capital, Mukalla, and large swathes of the province’s coastline.[fn]AQAP denied it had seized Mukalla, saying instead it had been a “Sunni tribal takeover” by the “Sons of Hadramout”. However, local residents and the international community regarded Mukalla as an AQ-controlled city from April 2015 to April 2016. This report refers to AQAP as having seized the city, which it then controlled through local administrative bodies, some of which included non-AQAP members. The name AAS is not referred to in this context, as it was used by neither residents nor the militants to describe themselves during this period.Hide Footnote There, it exhibited improved governance skills by applying lessons learned from its previous experience in Abyan. AQAP held Mukalla for over a year, as the coalition was fighting Huthi/Saleh forces elsewhere.

After nearly two years of war, AQAP/AAS is now deeply enmeshed in the on-going battle against the Huthi/Saleh bloc on a number of fronts, including al-Bayda, Shebwa, Marib, Jawf and Taiz governorates. Its numbers, while difficult to assess, have swelled, reaching approximately 4,000 by 2015 according to U.S. State Department estimates.[fn]Compared to 1,000 in 2014. “Country Reports on Terrorism 2015”, U.S. State Department, 2 June 2016.Hide Footnote Equally importantly, its staying power has grown through a vast war chest. It also has acquired a wide range of new weaponry, including heavy weapons from Yemeni military camps or acquired indirectly from the Saudi-led coalition, which has been supplying arms to a range of anti-Huthi fighters.[fn]AQAP has reportedly plundered thirteen army units across Yemen since March 2015. “Midterm update of the Panel of Experts on Yemen established pursuant to Security Council resolution 2140 (2014)”, unpublished report, August 2016. Eyewitnesses reported seeing tanks seized by AQAP from Mukalla’s two military bases being transported toward northern Hadramout, destination unknown. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Mukalla, March 2016.Hide Footnote While AQAP was forced to withdraw from Mukalla in the face of a UAE-led, U.S.-assisted military campaign in April 2016, the group is far from defeated and has instead relocated to adjoining governorates or blended into the local population. It continues to exercise on-again, off-again control of areas in Abyan and neighbouring Shebwa.

IS has not seized territory, and its following remains small.[fn]In May 2016, a U.S. State Department official estimated IS numbers in Yemen at around 150. Crisis Group interview, Washington, May 2016. A suicide bomber from Aden said in a phone call with friends shortly before his June 2016 death in Mukalla that IS’s Yemen membership was as low as 70. Crisis Group consultant phone interview in former capacity, friend of the suicide bomber, 27 June 2016.Hide Footnote Yet, it has found fertile ground in cities such as Aden, which suffered sectarian-tinged violence in the aftermath of the Huthi takeover and subsequent removal. IS has taken credit for a number of high-profile attacks against both Huthi forces and the Hadi government and its allies in the south.[fn]Including for two suicide bombings against Yemeni security personnel in Aden that killed 57 on 10 December 2016 and over 50 on 18 December 2016.Hide Footnote

B. Drivers of AQAP and IS Expansion

1. Opportunity in chaos

An important factor in AQAP’s steady gains has been its ability to capitalise on the near-collapse of weak state institutions, particularly the security services. In the past, the Yemeni state at times lent tacit support to violent jihadist groups for political or financial gain. Yet, prior to 2011, there were limits to AQAP’s activities. The group never, for example, held or governed territory. This changed in 2011 when state security services split, one side remaining loyal to Saleh and the other, led by Ali Mohsen, joining protests against him. This fracturing accelerated during the 2015 war. Now, members of the security services are either fighting with the Huthi/Saleh front or the Saudi-led coalition or staying at home. In this environment, not only is there no unified effort to put AQAP on a leash, but the group can step into local political and security vacuums.

Each time AAS has captured significant territory, there has been little or no resistance from the security services, regardless of the latter’s political alignment. This was the case, for example, on 29 May 2011 when militants took over Zinjibar, Abyan, and later five more towns across Abyan and Shebwa provinces. Some observers suggest that Saleh’s allies were preoccupied with the battle for Sanaa as the uprising unfolded and the army split. Local residents in Abyan, who witnessed AQAP’s territorial gains, said security forces abandoned their positions and handed over municipal buildings to barely a handful of militants.[fn]Zinjibar residents said that fewer than a dozen men took control of the town with minimal, if any, effort to repel them. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Aden, Jaar and Zinjibar, 30 and 31 May 2011, 22 and 23 May 2012 and 13 and 14 June 2012.Hide Footnote Saleh’s opponents viewed the Abyan events as a ruse by the besieged president to persuade his international allies to support him and to draw attention from events in Taiz, where, on the same day, his forces had razed an anti-government protest camp, killing and injuring more than 270 demonstrators.[fn]Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Yemeni political analyst, Sanaa, June 2011; Yemeni politician who defected from Saleh’s GPC party, Sanaa, 12 June 2011. Defected general Ali Mohsen said Saleh had “handed over Abyan to terrorist gunmen”. Quotes in al-Hayat, June 2011. For details of the Taiz crackdown see, “No Safe Places: Yemen’s Crackdown on Protests in Taizz”, Human Rights Watch, 6 February 2012.Hide Footnote Whatever the reasons for the swift takeover of southern cities, security services failed to act and thus AQAP became the major beneficiary.

In Mukalla, too, state security forces were either unwilling or unable to oppose an AQAP takeover in April 2015. Local residents reported that they failed to put up a fight when the group entered the town and even prevented tribal fighters from stopping it.[fn]Army commanders fled the Zone-2 military headquarters in Mukalla to join the 27th mechanised brigade at al-Riyan airbase, north east of the city. When local tribal fighters attempted to enter the city to fight AQAP, they were blocked by the military, who preferred negotiating their safe withdrawal; clashes ensued between soldiers and tribal fighters. At the time of the takeover, soldiers’ and commanders’ loyalties were murky. The military commanders of Zone-2 and the 27th mechanised brigade were Hadi appointees. Yet, many of the troops in the area are affiliated with Saleh or Ali Mohsen. AQAP allowed the soldiers to leave as long as they deposited all but their personal weapons; it provided transport and cash handouts to them; and it encouraged them to continue to collect their government salaries in Mahra, a neighbouring province, and northern Hadramout, but made them pledge not to fight AQAP or AAS in the future. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, soldier and army officer present on the 27th mechanised brigade base in April 2015 and evacuated by AQAP, Hadramout, 15 March 2016; Mukalla resident party to the negotiations between AQAP and the army, 14 March 2016; Sheikh Amr bin Habrish, head of the Hadramout Tribal Confederacy, PetroMasila, 15 March 2016.Hide Footnote

Equally important, once in control of cities, AQAP/AAS has presented itself as a viable and indeed better alternative to the state by providing more reliable services and dispute adjudication. In Abyan between May 2011 and 2012, AAS provided services such as water and electricity, as well as education and an efficient justice system based on Sharia (Islamic law), and went as far as compensating families which had lost their homes to U.S. drone and airstrikes. AAS’s popularity was clearly based on its comparatively efficient governance more than on its ideology.[fn]Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, imam of Jaar central mosque, local lawyer from Jaar, teenage girls and their mothers, male Jaar residents, Jaar, Abyan, May 2012.Hide Footnote

After being evicted from Abyan, the group applied lessons from its experience there to Mukalla. It further softened its approach by socialising with residents and refraining from draconian rules.[fn]AQAP executed spies, but permitted women to be outside their homes after dark. AQAP leader al-Wuhayshi wrote to the leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) after the group’s withdrawal from Abyan in 2012 to give advice on how to govern. This included tips on the implementation of Islamic punishments. He wrote: “Try to avoid enforcing Islamic punishments as much as possible, unless you are forced to do so”. “The al-Qaida Papers”, Associated Press, February 2013.Hide Footnote As part of this effort, it put in place a local ruling council – the Hadramout National Council (HNC) – rather than instituting direct rule.[fn]The fifteen members of the HNC also included local dignitaries (some of whom had served on the pre-existing local Council of Sunni Scholars) and prominent non-AQAP Hadramis. According to a resident, “The council [HNC] is widely viewed as a front to legitimise AQAP’s hold on power, but locals see it as an acceptable way to deal with the outside world”. Crisis Group interview, April 2015; consultant interview in former capacity, Mukalla, March 2016.Hide Footnote AQAP appointed local members as religious police. It also launched infrastructure projects, provided social services, such as food distribution for families in need and medical supplies and equipment for hospitals, and staged community events and street festivals.[fn]Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, AQAP officials, residents, Mukalla, March 2016. AAS’s propaganda channel, al-Atheer, released pictures and videos of its community work. These efforts extended to areas under its control in Abyan and Shebwa.Hide Footnote The infamous rayat al-sudaa’, AQ’s black banner, was hard to find in the city, and by order of AQAP’s then-leader, al-Wuhayshi, it was not displayed during the militants’ takeover.[fn]AQAP’s then-spokesman spent considerable time trying to persuade international media that it was not AQAP or AAS seizing the city, but a Sunni tribal takeover led by the so-called “Sons of Hadramout”. This may have been an attempt to avoid drawing U.S. airstrikes, which later killed the spokesman and other senior AQAP leaders in Mukalla. Crisis Group consultant multimedia interview in former capacity, AQAP spokesman Muhannad Ghalleb, April 2015.Hide Footnote

Residents in AQAP-controlled areas, while not supporting the group’s ideology, have regularly praised its prioritisation of security, basic services and a mechanism to resolve grievances, such as long-running land disputes.[fn]Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, civilians living in AQAP-controlled territory, Abyan and Hadramout, 2011-2016.Hide Footnote According to a Mukalla resident in 2015:

We view the [Hadramout National] Council positively, because it has managed to continue to pay government salaries …. It has kept public services at a much better level than what is available in the rest of the county …. The AQAP judicial system is fair and swift and therefore preferred over the government’s corrupt system. Many prominent cases that had lingered for years were resolved in a single day.[fn]Crisis Group email interview, Mukalla resident, April 2015.Hide Footnote

AQAP also avoided a bloody fight to hold territory once it became clear that Saudi-led forces, especially the UAE, were determined in May 2016 to drive the group out. Its experience in Abyan in 2011-2012 had taught it that defending territory in a conventional conflict against foreign-backed forces was costly and risked alienating local populations it had spent months winning over. AQAP reportedly arranged its exit from Mukalla in coordination with coalition-allied forces prior to the UAE/Yemeni government assault.[fn]Members of the Saudi-led coalition and supporters of the Hadi government argued there was no agreement with AQAP to allow its fighters to leave the city. Instead, they said, AQAP fled, possibly with local help in the face of the impending UAE/Yemeni military onslaught. Crisis Group interviews, August, September 2016. However, AQAP officials said they received ample advance warning of the coming offensive and the fact that it would be preceded by airstrikes, and began sending their fighters out a month in advance. A former HNC member said AQAP coordinated its withdrawal with the coalition in Riyadh to allow a westward retreat. The eventual push by coalition-supported troops beginning on the night of 23/24 April 2016 was preceded by several days of airstrikes targeting empty AQAP military camps and facilities. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, AQAP officials, former HNC member, Mukalla, March 2016; AQAP official, April 2016; and phone interviews, residents of Mukalla, witnesses in coastal Shebwa, April 2016.Hide Footnote

2. Huthi expansion, sectarianism and new alliances

Arguably, AQAP has most benefited from a combination of Huthi military expansion and growing sectarianism, as these have opened new opportunities for forging local alliances. Huthi inroads in predominantly Shafai/Sunni areas south and east of Sanaa sparked a series of opportunistic alliances with a range of anti-Huthi forces, who called themselves “resistance fighters”.[fn]When anti-Huthi forces pushed south in 2015, local guerrilla forces became known as the “Southern Resistance” in the fight for Aden and southern governorates. In Taiz, these fighters identify as “the Resistance”. Although all fighting on the Yemeni government’s side, these paramilitary forces are not by default pro-Hadi government. In the south, the name specifically denotes the armed separatist movement Hiraak. The southern resistance consists of local residents taking up arms to defend their homes, as well as former soldiers of the PDRY.Hide Footnote This happened on key battle fronts such as Taiz, Marib and al-Bayda, all provinces of the former north Yemen. It also happened in territories of former south Yemen, including Aden, before Huthi/Saleh forces were pushed out in July and August 2015.

The majority of anti-Huthi/Saleh fighters do not share AQAP’s ideology but reject northern/Zaydi domination. In the south, fighters are predominantly separatists, often leftist in orientation. Their tacit alliance with AQAP broke down as soon as Huthi/Saleh forces had been driven out of Aden. Indeed, both AQAP and IS started attacking their erstwhile tactical friends. In response, southern security forces, with the help of the UAE, have launched a number of military operations against them.

More importantly, growing sectarian sentiment has provided political/social space for groups such as AQAP and IS to recruit and establish more durable footholds in local communities. Yemenis are quick to point out that Zaydism and Shafaism (a Sunni school of jurisprudence) are relatively tolerant, have converged over time to the extent that Zaydis and Shafais pray in each other’s mosques, and do not have a history of violent relations. In the past, even AQAP acted pragmatically in light of these social constraints by avoiding direct confrontation with the larger Zaydi community and instead focusing its critique on Twelver Shiites, predominant in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.[fn]Barak Barfi, “AQAP’s Soft Power Strategy in Yemen”, CTC Sentinel, November 2012.Hide Footnote Yet, Yemen’s legacy of tolerance is becoming a casualty of the civil war, and AQAP is taking advantage.

The Huthis and their opponents share responsibility for the growth in sectarian sentiment. The Huthis often conflate Islah, Salafi groups, southern separatists and others with AQAP and IS, referring to all of them as takfiris, al-Qaeda or Daesh.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Huthi representatives, June, August and September 2015; consultant observations in former capacity, Aden, Taiz, Sanaa and Saada, May-November 2015.Hide Footnote They justify their original push south from Sanaa by the need to fill the security void and associated threat posed by Daesh/AQ, which they said were gaining strength and allied with Hadi.[fn]Crisis Group consultant interview in former capacity, Huthi representative, Sanaa, May 2015. Crisis Group phone interviews, Huthi supporters, May-June 2015.Hide Footnote However, at that time, IS did not exist in Aden. It was the war, triggered by the Huthis’ capture of Sanaa, and subsequent chaos that gave rise to the group. In other governorates, such as al-Bayda, the Huthis’ military progress had a similar catalysing effect on sectarianism.[fn]A researcher from al-Bayda noted that, prior to the Huthi advance into the governorate, any differences between local mosques concerned political affiliation: GPC versus Islah. As conflict spread, however, mosques began to segregate along Shafai versus Zaydi lines. Crisis Group consultant interview in former capacity, Abdulsalam al-Rubaidi, Sanaa, 11 November 2014.Hide Footnote

The layering of Saudi-Iranian competition in the Gulf onto Yemen’s civil war has further amplified the sectarian dimension, with the Saudis accusing the Huthis of being Iranian proxies, a charge echoed by Hadi supporters.

In addition, the alliance with Saleh and his networks, which are strongest in the Zaydi highlands, has reinforced a common perception among their opponents that the war has a north/Zaydi versus south/Shafai dimension.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Salafi politician, Aden, February 2015; Yemeni businessman, Sanaa, March 2015; phone interviews, adviser to Hadi government, October 2015; Yemeni activist from Ibb, November 2015.Hide Footnote Sectarian language is common among anti-Huthi fighters. They accuse the Huthis of harbouring an agenda that either includes the promotion of Zaydis, and particularly Hashemites (a subset of Zaydis claiming to be descendants of the Prophet Mohammed), or converting to Twelves Shiism. Some even refer to them as rawafedh (“rejectionists”) and murtadeen (apostates), terms laden with anti-Shiite connotations.[fn]The term rawafedh is used by some Salafis and Wahhabis to denote Shiites for their rejection of what Sunnis consider the legitimate line of succession from the Prophet – the issue that gave rise to the Sunni-Shiite split. In this line of thinking, Shiites are then also murtadeen, apostates from the true belief.Hide Footnote The layering of Saudi-Iranian competition in the Gulf onto Yemen’s civil war has further amplified the sectarian dimension, with the Saudis accusing the Huthis of being Iranian proxies, a charge echoed by Hadi supporters.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Yemeni government officials and GCC diplomats, May and June 2015; “Arab states send complaint letter against Iran to the UN”, al-Arabiya English, 13 November 2016. For a review of growing sectarianism see Farea al-Muslimi, “How Sunni-Shia Sectarianism is Poisoning Yemen”, Carnegie Middle East Center, 29 December 2015.Hide Footnote

AQAP has purposefully blurred the lines between its followers and the wider Sunni and anti-Huthi population. In August 2014, AAS leader Jalal Baleedi led an unusually brutal attack in Hadramout against unarmed soldiers he accused of being Huthis, and then warned of a sectarian war if the Huthis were to take Sanaa.[fn]Baleedi led a team of fighters in the beheading of four and shooting execution of ten off-duty soldiers in Sayoun, Hadramout, in August 2014, claiming they were Huthis. In response to journalist Iona Craig’s question, AQAP ideologue Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi later denounced such beheadings in a video release billed by the group as their “first international press conference”, Al-Malahem Media, 8 December 2014. Baleedi’s association with IS is a point of confusion in Yemen. In Exploiting Disorder, op. cit., Crisis Group reported that Baleedi had pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi based on reports from a Yemeni consultant and Yemeni media sources. However, when he died in February 2016, it became apparent he had remained loyal to AQAP. AQAP released an audio eulogy from its leader, Qasim al-Raymi, who had replaced al-Wuhayshi, and subsequently it produced a lengthy propaganda video of a “Special Forces Battalion” training centre named in Baleedi’s honour.Hide Footnote When that happened, AQAP promptly called all Sunnis to arms.[fn]AQAP chastised Sunni leaders’ support for the “rafidi” Huthi takeover and made a call to arms for Sunnis. “Statement Regarding the Crimes of the Huthi Faction Against the Sunnis”, with the strapline “A Call to Sunnis, AQAP official statement disseminated by AAS social media channels, 23 September 2014.Hide Footnote

As the conflict has unfolded, AQAP has used the pretext of a “Sunni” defence against the “Shiite” Huthis to blend with local tribes and Salafi sympathisers. A senior AQAP official compared the Huthis’ “Shiite” control of Yemen after they captured Sanaa with a Shiite-dominated Iraq after the U.S. overthrew Saddam Hussein; contended that AAS was the only remaining Sunni defence in southern governorates against Huthi expansion after the Hadi government fled into exile and the military collapsed; and that one of AQAP’s main roles was to provide military experience and expertise to local tribesmen, saying: “We are as one with the [Sunni] tribes like never before. We are not al-Qaeda now. Together we are the Sunni army”.[fn]The senior AQAP official repeatedly reiterated AAS’s position as gathering “Sunni tribesmen” against what he called Yemen’s takeover by Shiites. Crisis Group consultant multimedia interviews, AQAP senior official, September 2014 and April 2015.Hide Footnote

The group’s strategy of blurring lines between core membership and sympathisers has also allowed it to extend its reach broadly into local communities. The creation of AAS in particular lowered the bar for would-be recruits by enabling them not to bind themselves to AQAP and its ideology through a formal pledge of allegiance (bay’a).[fn]In AQAP’s case, bay’a is a pledge of allegiance that formally binds an individual to the organisation, itself tied by bay’a to AQ Central. The concept of bay’a goes back to the time of the Prophet Mohammed, who expected bay’a from his followers. By comparison, a mere pledge of support does not imply a binding relationship.Hide Footnote AQAP has similarly used the “Sons of” designation for affiliate groups, as in its takeover of Mukalla. There, it presented the Sons of Hadramout as a local Sunni collective brought together to fight the common Huthi enemy. A senior AQAP official quipped that it was Western obsession with labelling that had motivated the group to use the “Sons of” tag: “You [Westerners] call us all sorts of names and the names may change. But to us, we are all Muslims, we are all brothers”.[fn]According to AQAP, the Sons of Abyan and Sons of Hadramout (in addition to other geographically-linked “Sons of” groups) are not full AQAP/AAS members but “might become so in the future”. They receive basic military training and religious teaching with a specific mandate of fighting the Huthis. They have not pledged allegiance to AQAP. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, AQAP official, Yemen, April 2015, April 2016. Other analysts have put the difference down to little more than semantics. “The Hadramawt: AQAP and the Battle for Yemen’s Wealthiest Governorate”, The Jamestown Foundation, 10 July 2015. The exact relationship between AQAP and the “Sons of” movements is unclear. The opaqueness of the “Sons of” groups allows greater opportunity for AQAP to act as a sleeper movement, particularly after its withdrawal from territory, to be activated at an opportune moment.Hide Footnote

3. AQ as priority number two for regional actors

In prosecuting the war, the Saudi-led coalition has relegated confronting AQAP and IS to a second-tier priority. Its stated primary rationale has been to roll back Huthi gains and reinstate the Hadi government, which requested the military intervention. Saudi motivations to enter the war were based on their perception that the Huthis, as alleged Iranian proxies, posed an existential threat, and on internal political dynamics in which a successful intervention in Yemen would boost the prospects of its main architect, Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman.[fn]A reason cited less often is that Saudi Arabia and the UAE saw a need to manage a Sunni uprising against the Huthi/Saleh alliance. Crisis Group interviews, Saudi official, Yemeni businessman with Saudi ties, June 2015. According to a UAE official, the UAE and Saudi Arabia were forced to act to prevent a Syrian-style civil war, a scenario in which Sunnis, lacking protection or backing, would turn to groups such as AQAP or IS for support. Crisis Group interview, May 2015.Hide Footnote

This prioritisation, much to the U.S.’s frustration and embarrassment, has facilitated AQAP’s efforts to blend in with the anti-Huthi opposition, which has given it access to weapons and new sources of income. During AQAP’s occupation of Mukalla, it robbed state banks, looted weapons caches and embedded itself in the local economy. AAS has regularly fought alongside Saudi-led coalition forces in their effort to dislodge Huthi/Saleh forces from Aden and other parts of the south, including Taiz, indirectly obtaining weapons from them.[fn]Crisis Group consultant observations in former capacity, Aden, May-August 2015, Lahj, July, August 2015, Taiz, September 2015; consultant interview in former capacity, Adeni doctor taken by UAE troops to treat AAS fighters in a military camp, Aden, July 2015. AAS’s media wing has also released several videos over the course of the conflict purportedly showing AAS members taking part in fighting against the Huthis during the battle for Aden and Abyan in 2015, as well as Taiz in 2015-2016 and al-Bayda in 2016. Wilayat Aden, September 2015: https://justpaste.it/ADEN; Wilayat Abyan, June 2015: https://justpaste.it/ltlz; Wilayat Taiz, January 2016: http://tinyurl.com/jn62seb.Hide Footnote

It is only in southern territories from which Huthi/Saleh forces have been removed that the UAE, in particular, has begun to confront AQAP and IS, working with a variety of southern groups. In Aden, they have worked with some success with the security chief and governor to drive AQAP and IS from the city.[fn]Both AQAP and IS were prepared for the eventual reversal, taking full advantage of the Saudi-led coalition’s fight against the Huthi/Saleh bloc to stockpile money and weapons. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, AQAP members, Mukalla, March 2016; AQAP supporters, Aden, August 2015. Both groups gathered heavy weapons left behind by retreating Huthi/Saleh forces. In preparation for expected later confrontations with UAE troops and allied forces, IS was also able to acquire UAE-supplied armoured vehicles for suicide bombings against coalition forces. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, two field commanders of anti-Huthi resistance forces and colonel commanding the Decisive Salman Brigade, Aden, July and August 2015.Hide Footnote The UAE and local allies, supported by a small group of U.S. military advisers, also retook Mukalla in April 2016 without serious fighting and have a continued troop presence there.[fn]Official Saudi-led coalition statements indicated that 800 AQAP militants were killed in the “battle for Mukalla”. AQAP said that twelve of their fighters were killed at a checkpoint on the edge of AQAP-controlled territory (some 100km outside Mukalla), but that no lives were lost in the withdrawal from the city. Crisis Group consultant multimedia interview in former capacity, April 2016. A commander of Hadrami soldiers taking part in the offensive said they killed around twenty AQAP militants at the checkpoint marking the northern entry to their territory and no fighting took place inside the city. Crisis Group consultant phone interviews in former capacity, April 2016.Hide Footnote Similar efforts to evict AQAP/ASS from Abyan and Shebwa have been less successful; AQAP and AAS fighters have repeatedly re-emerged in areas they had vacated or, in some cases, never fully left.

Saudi-led coalition statements that fighting the group is a top priority and announcements of military victories against AQAP in the south are belied by events.[fn]In May 2016, during UN-sponsored peace talks between Yemeni parties in Kuwait, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said that the coalition’s priority had shifted from the Huthis to AQ. “Saudi FM: Fighting al-Qaeda is now a priority in Yemen”, al-Arabiya English, 14 May 2016.Hide Footnote In northern Yemen, where the battle against Huthi/Saleh forces continues, the coalition has engaged in tacit alliances with AQAP fighters, or at least turned a blind eye to them, as long as they have assisted in attacking the common enemy. Indeed, three Hadi associates have appeared on a U.S. Treasury list of “global terrorists” for allegedly providing financial support to, and acting on behalf of, AQAP.[fn]These include: Abd al-Wahhab al-Humayqani, one of Hadi’s delegates to UN peace talks in Geneva in June 2015, Nayif Salih Salim al-Qaysi, governor of al-Bayda, and Hassan Ali Ali Abkar, a militia commander and member of the Consultative Council from Jawf. “Treasury Designates Al-Qaida, Al-Nusrah Front, AQAP, And Isil Fundraisers And Facilitators”, U.S. Department of the Treasury, 19 May 2016; and U.S. Department of the Treasury, Resource Center, Counter Terrorism designations, 7 December 2016.Hide Footnote The focus on the Huthis in some ways makes short-term sense for Saudi Arabia, where the threat of Iranian encirclement resonates widely domestically, as opposed to the threat from Sunni extremists, which is a more complicated sell, given local pockets of sympathy and support. Yet, AQAP also seeks to topple the Saudi monarchy, which it views as corrupt and tied to the West, a threat that grows as the organisation gains ground in Yemen.

In the south, where the UAE has shifted its priorities to fighting AQAP/IS, its efforts are complicated by the latter’s ability to find temporary safe havens when needed. Moreover, lack of a unified southern leadership or plan to address security and governance challenges in chronically neglected and impoverished governorates like Abyan and Shebwa continues to provide a receptive environment for violent jihadist groups. According to a resident of Jaar:

A successful strategy for combating al-Qaeda should focus on governance and service provision. Ideologically, AQAP and IS don’t have much in the south. In Jaar, however, many young people have joined Ansar Sharia because they are poor, have little education and see no future for themselves. Ansar provides these young people with an income and a purpose.[fn]Crisis Group interview, September 2016.Hide Footnote

As long as the war, infighting among southern elites and chronic governance challenges continue, the much publicised military initiatives against AQAP and IS will probably not amount to more than temporary victories.

4. The war economy

AQAP’s progress is also in no small part the result of its financial gains. During the evolving conflict, the group has expanded its war chest by raiding banks and controlling seaports and smuggling routes. Its most successful feat was its looting of the Mukalla bank in April-May 2015, which netted approximately 24 billion Yemeni riyals ($111 million).[fn]A U.S. strike sometime between May and August 2015 reportedly destroyed 9 billion Yemeni riyals ($41 million). Crisis Group consultant interview in former capacity, former security official, Mukalla, March 2016. In addition to central bank funds, local bankers estimate that AQAP acquired about 6 billion Yemeni riyals (approximately $24 million) and more than 20 million Saudi riyals (approximately $5.3 million) from commercial banks on 2 April 2015. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Mukalla, April 2016.Hide Footnote It also imposed import levies at the Mukalla and Ash-Shihr seaports, collecting a fee for every litre of fuel and every cargo container offloaded.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Mukalla resident, phone interview, April 2015; north Yemen tribal sheikh, Hadrami politician, September 2016.Hide Footnote Ironically, much of the imported fuel found its way to northern markets, which were largely cut off from the outside world by the Saudi-led coalition embargo, through a chain of local intermediaries who purchased fuel in Hadramout for resale to Huthi/Saleh forces.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, Mukalla resident, August 2016.Hide Footnote

A UAE official described Mukalla as “al-Qaeda’s lungs”, and indeed the loss of the port was a significant blow to its funding stream.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UAE official, Abu Dhabi, December 2016.Hide Footnote Yet, the effects of controlling Mukalla for over a year will not fade quickly. AQAP’s accumulated revenues enhance its ability to purchase military hardware and attract recruits. It already offered its fighters in 2011 a salary higher than that of government soldiers, and its new financial resources can exercise an even more significant pull on impoverished young men.[fn]AQAP/AAS paid a $200 monthly salary to fighters compared to $140-150 for a regular Yemeni soldier. Crisis Group consultant multimedia interview in former capacity, AQAP member, March 2016. Four male residents in AQAP/AAS-controlled territory said that it enticed many local recruits primarily with the financial reward, not through religious or ideological persuasion. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Abyan, May 2012.Hide Footnote

C. IS versus AQAP

Beginning in November 2014, a nascent IS branch put itself on the Yemen conflict map through spectacular attacks against a variety of protagonists, including both the Huthis and the Hadi government. Like AQAP, IS has benefited from state collapse, Huthi expansionism, regional states’ preoccupation with Iran and a burgeoning war economy. More than AQAP, however, IS is also a product of growing sectarianism and extreme levels of violence, which have radicalised young men and made them susceptible to its recruitment. Most importantly, its appearance in Yemen is tied to its successes in Iraq and Syria. At the same time, its influence in Yemen has been circumscribed by AQAP’s long history, military prowess and local support.

On 13 November 2014, shortly after the September Huthi takeover of Sanaa, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced IS in Yemen.[fn]Seven local branches announced themselves shortly afterwards, operating in ten governorates: Saada, Sanaa, al-Jawf, al-Bayda, Taiz, Ibb, Lahj, Aden, Shebwa and Hadramout. A handful of young men posted pictures on social media purportedly declaring an unverified eighth local branch in Mahra governorate in September 2016.Hide Footnote Initially, IS’s meteoric rise in Syria and Iraq produced a similar momentum in Yemen. Numerous AQAP members defected to it, including senior ideologues such as Sheikh Mamoun Hatem and the prominent religious cleric Abdul-Majid al-Hitari.[fn]Hatem was an early vocal IS supporter on social media. His defection was confirmed by AQAP’s spokesman, who said that although Hatem was “no longer one of us [AQAP], he is still our brother”. Crisis Group consultant interview in former capacity, October 2014. Hatem returned to AQAP in 2015 and was killed in an apparent U.S. drone strike in Mukalla on 11 May.Hide Footnote This trend was helped by a number of U.S. assassinations of AQAP ideologues, including Harith al-Nadhari, Ibrahim al-Rubaysh, and Nasser al-Ansi, between January and April 2015, and their leader al-Wuhayshi in June 2015.[fn]These senior ideologues were crucial to providing theological arguments against joining IS. While al-Wuhayshi was not a theologian, he was a very popular, astute and much-respected figurehead of the group. After his death, an undetermined number of AQAP members were said to have defected to IS. Crisis Group consultant multimedia interviews in former capacity, Shebwa tribal leaders, July, August 2015. The senior ideologues were also veteran AQ members with experience garnered in Bosnia, Afghanistan and the Philippines. This old guard appears to still hold significance to AQAP. They were featured posthumously in an AQAP propaganda video in December 2015.Hide Footnote

IS also took advantage of the 2015 battle for Aden. Four months of heavy fighting that left thousands dead fuelled the radicalisation of young men and accelerated the group’s rise. It was quick to deploy its own “journalists” among the youth to spread its ideology through videos and propaganda songs.[fn]Some local youth in Aden and Little Aden (an area to the west of Aden city) referred to IS recruiters as “propagandists” who distributed videos by smart phones and promoted IS social media, and who told the youth in the streets about IS and its work. Others used the word “journalist” to describe these activities. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Aden, August 2015.Hide Footnote This tactic proved fruitful, as a significant portion of IS’s young suicide bombers targeting UAE and UAE-supported forces in Mukalla in April 2016 hailed from Aden. These recruits continued to carry out high-profile attacks, including a suicide bombing against a government military recruitment centre in the port city on 29 August 2016 that killed over 60.

AQAP responded to IS’s rise by trying to contain the group. Initially, it downplayed the threat by refusing to respond to journalists’ questions about IS’s very existence.[fn]According to a senior AQAP official, referring to IS: “AQAP is not responsible for Ansar al-Dawla [Defenders of the State] actions. But they are our brothers and we would help them”. The same official (later killed in a U.S. drone strike) refused, on orders from al-Wuhayshi, to comment on IS’s first attack in March 2015 against mosques in Sanaa. Crisis Group consultant multimedia interviews in former capacity, November 2014, March 2015.Hide Footnote Later, AQAP leaders publicly criticised IS, denouncing its attacks on mosques, which they contrasted with their own reputed sensitivity to local norms. They also engaged in a broader media campaign, ridiculing IS and al-Baghdadi, its self-proclaimed caliph.[fn]AQAP denounced “Baghdadi’s group” as being “based on nothing but a lie … sin, and a blend of ignorance, deviation and desire”. AQAP video release, 1 November 2015.Hide Footnote While they have been quick to praise attacks by persons claiming to act on IS’s behalf in the West, there is no evidence that the two groups have collaborated in any way, including by sharing intelligence.[fn]On 23 June 2016, AQAP’s al-Malahem media arm published the first “Inspire Guide” analysing an IS-linked operation on a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, U.S., on 12 June 2016. A second edition on 21 July 2016 praised the IS-linked attack in Nice, France, a week earlier.Hide Footnote

Their [Islamic State] brutal tactics, including mass killings and mosque bombings, and their relatively autocratic style, are at odds with societal and tribal norms.

IS’s Yemen leadership, unlike AQAP’s, consists mainly of non-Yemenis and its members appear to have been with IS in Syria and Iraq; they brought to Yemen the same strategy of embedded networks of informants and local propagandists that contributed to the group’s successes there.[fn]IS uses these networks to increase its sympathisers and determine whom they can trust and whom to eliminate when taking territory. They rise up when the group moves in from the outside to jointly take control of a place. Paranoia among southerners that Huthi/Saleh forces were using this type of infiltration to retake Aden (after they were evicted in July-August 2015) prompted southern military forces to expel many northerners.Hide Footnote Despite, or possibly because of, their leaders’ international credentials, they have struggled to establish a broad base of support in Yemen. Their brutal tactics, including mass killings and mosque bombings, and their relatively autocratic style, are at odds with societal and tribal norms.

In December 2015, IS faced an internal mutiny when fifteen senior figures and 55 fighters accused their leader, the governor (wali) of Yemen province, of violating Sharia. They listed a number of infringements, including the wrongful dismissal of soldiers, failure to provide basic supplies during a battle in Hadramout, committing “injustices against the weak” and refusal to adhere to a Sharia ruling against an IS regional commander. A contemptuous written response from IS’s central leadership in Syria/Iraq demanded obedience.[fn]The defectors included three members of the group’s Sharia committee: Sheikh Abu al-Shayma al-Muhajir, Sheikh Abu Muslim al-Mansour and Sheikh Abu Hajar al-Adani, in addition to the “province’s” military commander, Abu Aassim al-Bika, and the security chief. In their letter titled “A Statement of Defection from the Wali of Yemen” and published online on 15 December 2015, they reaffirmed their allegiance to IS leader in Syria, while announcing their defection from their wali. On 19 December 2015, Abu Ubayda al-Hakim, a member of the Shura Council of the Caliphate in Syria/Iraq, responded to the complaint by supporting Yemen’s wali and stated that by disobeying their local leader the group had renounced their pledge to al-Baghdadi.Hide Footnote Rejecting the letter, all 70 members left the group. On 24 December, an additional 31, including three senior figures, released a statement joining the rebellion and renouncing the IS leader in Yemen.[fn]Three senior figures – Sheikh Salman al-Lahiji and Rawaha al-Adeni from the Security Committee, along with a member of the Preaching Committee, Abu Hafs al-Somali – led the mass defection that included a local security official and 27 members from Abyan, Aden, Shebwa and Hadramout. They stated that they remained loyal to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but IS in Syria rejected this. “Dissent in the Islamic State’s Yemen Affiliates: Documents, Translation & Analysis”, Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, 29 February 2016, http://www.aymennjawad.org/2016/02/dissent-in-the-islamic-state-yemen-affiliates.Hide Footnote

IS continues to carry out suicide bombings in the government-controlled cities of Aden and Mukalla and also engages in assassinations of local security and intelligence personnel that have a significant impact. After the UAE-led forces retook Aden from the Huthi/Saleh bloc in July 2015, these killings increased, the majority claimed by IS’s media channels. This and repeated IS suicide bombings of military recruitment centres and mass gatherings of soldiers collecting salaries have led many southerners to view IS as part of a historical pattern in which northern political elites use violent jihadists as a tool in asymmetric warfare against the south.[fn]The northern political elite is viewed by many southerners as comprising factions on both sides of the post-2011 divided regime. This includes individuals such as current Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Islah party figures and, in the view of some, even President Hadi. Crisis Group consultant observations in former capacity; and interviews, Hiraak activists, Aden and Mukalla, August 2015-December 2016.Hide Footnote

AQAP’s strategy of gradualism, relative respect for local norms and integration with local Sunni populations has been far more successful. Its longstanding presence and well-established networks across the country have given it a clear upper hand.

D. Salafi Militias

While AQAP and IS dominate headlines, a range of Salafi militias are an increasingly important part of Yemen’s Sunni militant milieu.[fn]Labelling individuals and Yemen’s rapidly expanding number of armed groups is fraught with problems. Fault lines between groups are increasingly unclear and many have no visible structure. Individuals and fighting factions often assume tribal, political and religious identities simultaneously. Attempts at simplification are often misleading while making any future reintegration of armed groups problematic. The label Salafi is similarly vulnerable to these errors and underlines the need for disaggregation. “Salafism” is used here in its broadest sense: a Sunni movement that seeks to revive “original” Islam by drawing on the so-called pious ancestors (salaf al-salih). Increasing fragmentation throughout the civil war has resulted in open conflict between Salafi strands.Hide Footnote Yemen has long housed a variety of Salafi groups.[fn]The Salafi spectrum there has historically comprised three main strands: quietist, jihadist and activist (harakiya). Quietist, scholastic or missionary Salafis are apolitical, reject parliamentary politics and, in theory, give allegiance to existing authority. Salafi-jihadists advocate violence against religious and political enemies. And activist Salafis are more inclined to challenging authorities through the political process. Crisis Group consultant phone interview, Laurent Bonnefoy, July 2016. See Laurent Bonnefoy, Salafism in Yemen: Transnationalism and Religious Identity (London, 2011). See fn 1 for Crisis Group’s definition of “jihadist”.Hide Footnote Prior to the war, most were non-political and non-violent. Some, like the al-Rashad party, embraced politics and were closely associated with Islah. As the Huthis expanded southward, however, many took up arms against them. The earliest indications of this were in 2013, when the Huthis fought Salafis from the Dar al-Hadith religious institute in Dammaj, Saada.[fn]Muqbil al-Waddii, a Saudi-educated Saada cleric and convert from Zaydism, established Dar al-Hadith institute in the heart of Zaydi territory in the late 1970s with funding from Saudi Arabia. Salafi proselytising there, itself arguably a product of socio-economic grievances against advantages given to Zaydi elites, particularly Hashemites (descendants of the Prophet), is a core grievance that sparked Zaydi revivalism in the 1980s and later gave impetus to the Huthi movement. Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86, Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb, 27 May 2009.Hide Footnote Although the Huthis emerged victorious in January 2014, fighters from Dammaj and another religious institute in Kitaf, Saada, regrouped and are now fighting the Huthis on a number of fronts.

Opportunistic alliances forged by the Saudi-led coalition have propelled Salafis to prominence. In Aden, they act with UAE support as state-sponsored, irregular security forces. As the battle for that city reached its peak in July 2015, the UAE worked with Hashem al-Syed, a former Dar al-Hadith student, to lead Salafi fighters there. After Huthi forces were pushed out, another little-known Salafi, Bassam Mehdhar, became the UAE’s main beneficiary. In 2015, the al-Mehdhar Brigade, based in Sheikh Othman and Mansoura districts, acted as a local security force. In October 2016, the group joined other Saudi-supported Yemeni forces in crossing the Saudi-Yemeni border in an attempt to push into Saada, the Huthi stronghold.[fn]This new battlefront is a very personal fight for many Salafis, who are seeking revenge for being forced out of the Dar al-Hadith institute.Hide Footnote

Another group, the Security Belt forces, a UAE-supported militia established by presidential decree in May 2016 to help secure Aden and led by Nabil Mashwashi, a former South Yemen army commander, appears to have a significant Salafi component. Prominent Salafis, such as Hani Bin Baraik, a minister of state and figurehead of the group, tend to be anti-Islah which, just as their UAE backers, they suspect of collusion with AQAP.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, coalition member, Adeni journalist, Dubai, September 2016. Many Salafis in the south are anti-Islah also because they see the party as northerners opposed to the south’s secession.Hide Footnote

In Taiz, the lines between Salafi and AQAP/AAS fighters are blurred.[fn]A former AQAP member said: “Taiz has been a special case in the Yemen war because AQAP has been able to successfully embed itself in the opposition to the Huthis there from the beginning, but those fighting are not AQAP core members”. Crisis Group interview, September 2016.Hide Footnote As in Aden, Salafis are at the forefront of Saudi-led coalition-sponsored efforts to repel Huthi advances. Among the city’s myriad factions, one of the more notorious groups, acting with UAE-supplied weapons and armoured vehicles, is led by another former Dammaj student, Adel Abdu Farea, also known as Abu al-Abbas. His followers have included the Humat al-Qi’dah (Protectors of the Faith), a group responsible for the destruction of a seventeenth-century tomb in July 2016 and the burning of books belonging to Yemeni Christians. Al-Abbas’s men have clashed with another group led by a Salafi sheikh, Sadeq Mahyoub, which is loyal to the Saudi-sponsored tribal sheikh Hamoud al-Mekhlafi. Saudi Arabia also sponsors the al-Hassam (Decisiveness) Brigade, which was founded by Adnan Ruzayyk al-Qumayshi, who left Dammaj in 2014, and is now led by Salafi figure Ammar Jundobi.[fn]Crisis Group consultant phone interviews in former capacity, local residents, political activists, journalist from Taiz and Aden, August 2016.Hide Footnote

Allegations abound regarding possible AQAP/IS links to a number of Salafi groups, but the exact connection is unclear.[fn]Yemeni observers have linked the al-Hassam brigade to AQAP. Crisis Group interviews, Taiz politician, August 2016; prominent Sheikh from the Hashid tribal confederation, September 2016. Others claim links between AQAP or IS and Abu Abbas, with similar observations about connections with other individuals and factions. Crisis Group consultant phone interviews in former capacity, Taizi activists, journalist, September 2016.Hide Footnote Since December 2016, Salafi and other resistance militias have nominally been integrated into the Yemeni army while remaining separate in reality.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ammar al-Jundobi, Decisiveness Bridge field commander, Taiz, January 2017.Hide Footnote

Yemen’s Salafi movement is undergoing a rapid transformation, shaped by the war and new sources of patronage. It is unclear how relationships between AQAP and various Salafi groups will develop and what, if any, political ambitions the latter have beyond defeating the Huthis. Their growth into a pivotal player in the civil war elevates the need for their representation in any political resolution, especially if they are to play a role as an alternative, among religious conservatives, to AQAP or IS. Thus far, the growth of Salafi militias appears to be feeding into AQAP’s narrative of a Sunni defence against the Huthi takeover, while contributing to AQAP’s aim of blurring the lines between AAS, its local insurgency arm, and Salafi groups in areas where they have been fighting alongside each other.

The UAE complicates this picture: it supports Salafi groups and, according to numerous Yemeni sources, has tried to either suppress or marginalise Islah because of that party’s links to the Muslim Brotherhood, which it bans domestically.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, GPC supporter, December 2016; Taizi politicians, November 2016; Adeni journalist, September, December 2016. Crisis Group consultant phone interviews in former capacity, Islah-aligned, pro-unity Mukalla residents, October 2016.Hide Footnote Islah, like Islamist groups actively engaged in politics across the Arab world, can play an essential role as firewall against radicalisation in Yemen. While the UAE officially supports its inclusion in any political settlement, its intolerance of Islah in practice risks pushing young men who might have chosen politics into the arms of the very violent jihadist groups the UAE wants to quash.

IV. Reversing the Gains

Yemen’s war has created vast new opportunities for AQAP, a relatively minor player before 2011, and has given rise to the Yemeni wing of IS. While U.S. drone attacks and other military action have dealt repeated blows, AQAP is thriving in the context of state collapse, sectarianism, shifting opportunistic alliances and a war economy, with fresh recruits and more sources of weapons and income than ever before.

At a regional level, the undertow of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry drives sectarianism and incites radicalisation on both sides of the war. Without de-escalation between them, it risks becoming an extension of a wider competition between, on one side, Iran and its allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – with Russia also playing a role – and the predominantly Sunni powers of the Saudi-led coalition, backed by Western states, including Israel. Dialling back this regional enmity is a vital priority.

Within Yemen, achieving a sustainable ceasefire and nationwide political settlement should be the priority. To reverse the growth of AQAP and IS will require a political settlement that is truly inclusive, provides a mechanism for addressing demands for local autonomy and outlines interim security arrangements that are accepted by local communities while operating under the umbrella of the state.

Including a range of Sunni Islamists, particularly Islah and Salafi groups prepared to engage in politics, in power-sharing arrangements would give them a stake in national politics and a viable political outlet as opposed to marginalising them and potentially pushing some toward violent jihadism. Many Yemenis have turned to violence because they view a Huthi/Saleh-dominated state as a threat to their survival. Overcoming zero-sum perspectives requires, as a first step, a compromise in which each side can be part of the government and security apparatus.

Addressing demands for regional autonomy would also be crucial to rolling back AQAP. The group has astutely carved out space in political battles between opposing regional sentiments by forging de facto alliances with other Sunni groups against Huthi/Saleh forces and embedding themselves in the war economy. For their part, Huthi/Saleh forces have used AQAP and IS as a convenient excuse to advance into predominantly Sunni territory, thereby exacerbating the problem.

Southerners in particular routinely downplay the AQAP/IS influence in southern areas, viewing them as tools in the hands of powerful northerners, particularly Saleh and Mohsen.[fn]At times, this perception has served as a powerful motive for locals to assist in evicting AQAP from their areas, and the UAE-backed offensive in southern Hadramout in April 2016 utilised it. This local view of AQAP greatly contributed to the success of efforts by intelligence agencies in routing members who went into hiding after the April offensive. Hadramout residents, through information they provided to security forces, contributed to the capture of several leading figures, including AQAP’s emir of Ash-Shihr in May 2016 and a senior ideologue in Hadramout in October 2016, and the discovery of weapons caches. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Hiraak activists, Mukalla, March 2016.Hide Footnote Assassinations of southern intelligence and security officials, both before the Saudi-led intervention and after the Huthi/Saleh forces’ removal from southern governorates five months later, have heightened their suspicions of them as an extension of a historical pattern of instrumentalising Islamists for political score-settling.

At the same time, AQAP and IS have exploited opportunities in the south when the Huthis were the proximate enemy. Even after the latter’s defeat there, some parts of the southern resistance fought with AAS against Hadi’s forces, which many viewed as corrupt.[fn]From February to March 2016, AAS and renegade fighters from the southern resistance fought together against Hadi forces in the Mansoura district where AAS had a base. Three of them, who were listed by the Hadi government as wanted AQ members, acknowledged they were fighting alongside AAS but denied being members. They cited corruption and cronyism as primary grievances against the government. The jihadists were eventually pushed out, with some leaving through negotiations. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Aden, March 2016.Hide Footnote These dynamics, which allowed AQAP/AAS to capitalise on local animosity toward the central government, are likely to continue as long as demands for regional autonomy remain unaddressed.

Clear interim security arrangements are a critical part of any effective settlement. This issue has been a sticking point in UN-led negotiations. The Hadi government and its GCC backers insist on close implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2216 (2015), which calls on Huthi/Saleh forces to withdraw from areas they captured and to disarm. The Huthi/Saleh bloc, however, argues for the establishment of a new government first, of which they would form an integral part, and then the withdrawal and disarmament of all militias, not just their own.

After 22 months of war, the Huthi/Saleh bloc emphasises that there is no functioning state led by the Hadi government to hand authority to. Even in areas “liberated” from Huthi/Saleh control, authority is diffuse, often resting with local militias. As such, abrupt withdrawals of Huthi/Saleh forces from areas they control could open a security void for AQAP and IS to exploit. Yet, their continued presence in contested areas and dominance in the north, to the exclusion of other constituencies, exacerbates communal tensions that radical groups could also take advantage of.

In the short term, Yemen needs clear interim security arrangements that are tailored to local political realities. Areas like Taiz will be most difficult to tackle, as warring forces are positioned in close quarters on the battlefield and can each claim acceptance from certain parts of the local community. Bringing together locally accepted combatants under the umbrella of local authorities acting on behalf the state would be ideal, at least until the overarching issues of military-security reform and disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration can be addressed nationally.

Reaching an inclusive overall settlement to end the war offers the best chance to undercut AQAP’s prospects, but such a settlement may not be feasible. Even if the UN is able to broker a deal, it is unlikely to result in a quick end to this multifaceted conflict with regional dimensions. Yemenis and their external backers should, therefore, look for measures, such as those that follow, that could still go some way toward curbing AQAP/IS expansion.

Addressing state orchestration of jihadist groups. AQAP and IS are part of a domestic/regional power struggle marked by shifting alliances in which they tend to be no one’s primary enemy. Following the 2011 political unrest and the Huthis’ 2014-2015 military advance southward in alliance with Saleh’s forces, the jihadists’ traditional channels of influence and co-optation became divided, leaving AQAP activities theoretically open to exploitation by various regime and ex-regime forces in the ensuing civil war. Because of this, Western governments and regional states should continuously re-evaluate the motivations of Yemeni actors and their external backers to counter AQAP/IS. While it is often difficult in Yemen to discern who may or may not be using AQAP/IS to their advantage, states involved in the conflict should be willing to regularly assess their partners and put pressure on them to change course if they are found to be tolerating or encouraging the growth of AQAP/IS to achieve tactical objectives.

In addition to routine evaluation of allies’ actions, it is important in principle to decouple development assistance from counter-terrorism aid to the Hadi government and any other government that may emerge from a political settlement, thereby limiting the extent to which they can benefit financially from AQAP/IS’s presence. Failure to acknowledge and address this state-jihadist interaction would likely further alienate the population, which often views AQAP, or more recently IS, at least partially as political leaders’ tools, from policymakers.

Improving governance in areas previously under, or vulnerable to, militant control. A key aspect of AQAP’s ability to gain initial acceptance has been its proven pragmatism: instituting effective governance and addressing a long-neglected population’s pressing concerns. It has prioritised providing security, basic services and a judicial system able to resolve grievances, such as long-running land disputes, showing itself as a viable, better alternative to the state.

For a post-conflict government to successfully counter AQAP, it would have to provide better governance, with local ownership over decisions, in areas previously under AQAP control and/or that are vulnerable to them. As a priority, this includes quick and non-corrupt dispute resolution, security provision rather than predatory score-settling and basic services such as electricity and water.

Aden stands out in many ways as an example of what not to do. When Huthi/Saleh fighters were evicted in July 2015, the exuberance of military victory was not followed by a similar enthusiasm for instituting governance. More than a year later, local authorities reestablished the city’s central prison and opened unofficial detention facilities, but failed to put in place a functioning court system. Even as some residents are supportive of the governor’s and security director’s efforts to restore order, many complain of corruption by government officials and of continued insecurity, a function of a security service divided along intra-southern lines of competition.[fn]Security services under the Aden governor and security chief function as a state within a state. Tensions are high between them and forces aligned with Hadi and his interior minister, Hussein al-Arab. The Security Belt forces technically fall under the interior minister, though the degree to which he controls them is questionable. All factions are competing for Emirati patronage and support. Overlaying the competition is a historical division from the 1986 civil war in which a group from the current governorates of Dalia and Lahi won over their adversaries, mainly from Abyan and Shebwa. Hadi and al-Arab are associated with the latter, while the Aden governor and his security chief are associated with the former. Crisis Group consultant interviews, more than a half a dozen Aden residents, the Aden governor and Aden security chief, Aden, January 2017.Hide Footnote

The experience in Abyan is a cautionary tale of how working through local militias without a clear plan for incorporating them into the state security forces or deploying them to help stabilise areas retaken from jihadists can backfire. Local militias known as popular committees were central to the U.S.-supported pushback against AQAP/AAS in Abyan and Shabwa in 2012. Their use yielded the short-term gain of driving AQAP out, but as the only force in charge of security they contributed to local tensions, entrenched exclusionary patronage networks and were vulnerable to infiltration by violent jihadists, who used them as a cover to establish networks for future resurgence. As a Zinjibar farmer put it, “I would not trust the Popular Committees even to watch over my goats”.[fn]The farmer said he knew Popular Committee members who had been AAS members. Crisis Group consultant interview in former capacity, Aden, June 2012. There were exceptions, notably in northern Abyan areas such as Lawder, where local militias were well-liked and more representative of local communities. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, local residents, Lawder, May 2012. For more information, see Iona Craig, “End of Emirate?”, IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, September 2012.Hide Footnote

After several cycles of evicting AQAP/AAS from towns in Abyan, only to see them return, residents still complain of the government’s lack of attention to services and governance. According to a resident of Jaar, the UAE and its local partners, most of which seek southern separation, had some success in pushing AQAP into the neighbouring governorate of al-Bayda in 2016, but there are still far too few government-provided services and an unmet desire for governance.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, Jaar resident, September 2016.Hide Footnote

Mukalla appears to show improvement. In April 2016, locally recruited ground forces and UAE troops, with U.S. support, retook territory through what appeared to be a largely negotiated withdrawal of AQAP forces that spared the population a bloody battle. Some Hadramis say that the population is now working with the UAE and local security forces to identify and apprehend remaining AQAP supporters in the city and that services, such as water and electricity, are working well.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Hadrami politicians, Abu Dhabi, October 2016; phone interviews, Mukalla resident, November, December 2016.Hide Footnote Still, the success was almost immediately followed by accusations of corruption, cronyism, arbitrary detention and torture by the new authorities and security forces. Non-secessionist residents and those politically aligned to Islah continue to complain of unlawful arrests, torture and disappearances at the hands of the new Elite security forces (a group similar to the Security Belt in Aden that is composed of local fighters trained by the UAE) and UAE troops.[fn]Crisis Group consultant phone interviews in former capacity, Islah-aligned, pro-unity Mukalla residents, May, June and October 2016. See also ‘“We lived in days of hell”: Civilian Perspectives on Conflict in Yemen’, Center for Civilians in Conflict, January 2017, p. 31.Hide Footnote

Disaggregating rather than conflating Sunni Islamist groups. AQAP is an internally diverse organisation with varying layers of support among the local population and shifting alliances. Its efforts to blend in with the larger Sunni community and to ease affiliation requirements (especially the loyalty oath) expand its influence even as they leave it vulnerable to efforts to peel off supporters motivated less by its global agenda than by local political or economic grievances.

Protagonists on both sides of the war have at times been quick to label a wide range of Sunni Islamists – from Islah to various Salafi and other fighting groups – as AQAP, instead of acknowledging clear differences between them. As a southern fighter from the “February 16” militia (one of many southern insurgent groups), listed by Aden’s security directorate as a wanted AQAP member, stated:

We are not al-Qaeda but joined with them to fight [Security Director] Shalal because we have no choice. We fought and died for our city for six months and they offered us nothing in return. They gave positions to their friends and families, stole money meant for us and treated us like garbage to be thrown away or burnt.[fn]Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, “February 16” fighters, Mansura, Aden, March 2016.Hide Footnote

In addition, there is far too little effort to disaggregate AAS rank and file from AQAP core members. As a politician from Abyan noted:

Ansar al-Sharia was born of al-Qaeda but is different. Most Ansar followers in Abyan are local. Many are young men who are very poor with no prospects. You can strike agreements with them and pull them away from al-Qaeda. After al-Qaeda was removed from Abyan, Ansar supporters stayed behind. It is important to give them [political and economic] opportunities.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, September 2016.Hide Footnote

Understanding who can be negotiated with and convinced to peacefully participate in political and social life is tricky and a shifting target that requires buy-in and expertise from local communities. But in Yemen’s fractured political environment, it is a critical component of limiting AQAP’s growing reach.

Using military tools judiciously. At times military force is a necessary component of confronting AQAP/IS, but it should be used judiciously, in coordination with local actors and in a way that respects local laws and norms, lest it produce a political and social backlash to AQAP/IS’s advantage. Military campaigns, whether carried out by Huthi/Saleh forces or the government, that have targeted real or alleged AQAP/IS operatives with conventional force have often devastated local infrastructure and communities, while arguably setting back the cause of curtailing AQAP/IS influence. A tactic that has proved more effective is the threat of force combined with local negotiations with militants to encourage core AQAP supporters to leave areas, particularly cities, thereby sparing population centres widespread destruction and taking the fight against combatants unwilling to negotiate to less-populated areas. For the most part, this happened in Mukalla, and with considerable success.

The type of force used against AQAP/IS is also important. In Yemen, foreign troops, particularly Western ones, and even fighters from a different region of the country, risk antagonising local populations that view them as invaders. Even when local fighters are used, they can become part of the problem if they are operating outside of a clear legal framework. Many local residents saw as predatory some Popular Committees in Abyan, Security Belt forces in Aden and Elite forces in Hadramout.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, Aden resident, November 2016; consultant phone interviews in former capacity, Islah-aligned, pro-unity Mukalla residents, October 2016.Hide Footnote

Drones, too, should be used judiciously and in coordination with Yemeni authorities so as not to violate sovereignty. While the Hadi government and the civil war have given the U.S. virtual carte blanche to pursue its drone campaign, tactical success in killing key operatives and ideologues has not stopped the organisation’s rapid growth. Their use raises the additional risk of replacements becoming increasingly hard-line. For example, al-Wuhayshi’s successor, al-Raymi, is widely regarded as far more ruthless than his predecessor.

While drone strikes’ impact is difficult to assess, many Yemenis suggest that they are counterproductive, breeding anti-U.S. and anti-Yemeni government sentiment when civilians are killed, which can radicalise victims’ families. This is especially the case with U.S. “signature” strikes that are based on patterns of behaviour, without knowing the identity of the targeted individual.

What went wrong in the deadly raid on al-Qaeda in Yemen?

Richard Atwood, Director of Crisis Group's New York Office, speaks with Hari Sreenivasan about the 29 January U.S. raid on al-Qaeda in Yemen. PBS NewsHour

The first military actions by the Trump administration in Yemen bode poorly for the prospect of smartly and effectively countering AQAP. A 29 January 2017 U.S. Special Forces raid in al-Bayda governorate, a critical battleground between pro- and anti-Huthi forces, killed a U.S. commando and several prominent tribesmen associated with AQAP, but also according to local sources many civilians, including at least ten women and children.[fn]“Yemeni civilians killed in first US raid under Trump”, Al Jazeera English, 31 January 2017.Hide Footnote The use of U.S. soldiers, high civilian casualties and disregard for local tribal and political dynamics – many killed were local tribesmen motivated by the internal Yemeni power struggle as much as or more than AQAP’s international agenda – plays into AQAP’s narrative of defending Muslims against the West and could increase anti-U.S. sentiment and with it AQAP’s pool of recruits.[fn]

V. Conclusion

AQAP and IS are unique in being the only two of many warring parties in Yemen which are at least ostensibly enemies of the conflict’s two main antagonists: Hadi-aligned forces and the Huthi/Saleh bloc. They are also in the incongruous position of being the conflict’s greatest beneficiaries, thriving in the context of state collapse, growing sectarian polarisation, fluid alliances and an expanding war economy. They are part of a regional trend of religiously-justified violence that is making conflict resolution evermore elusive. Yemen’s regionalised civil war shows little sign of abating. Instead, this multifaceted struggle looks set to deepen confessional divides – not previously a focal point of conflict – to the benefit of AQAP and IS and detriment of the country, its people and global security.  

Brussels, 2 February 2017

Appendix A: Map of Yemen

Map of Yemen International Crisis Group/Based on UN map no. 3847, Rev. 3, January 2004.
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).
 Hide Footnote

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).
 

Hide Footnote

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.
 Hide Footnote
 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.
 Hide Footnote
 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.
 Hide Footnote

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.