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ISIS Is Not Resurging, but It May Be Evolving

For the first time since the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) physical caliphate was defeated in late 2017, the terrorist group is once again dominating headlines. As the Iraqi government contends with a public health crisis from COVID-19, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Time all warn that ISIS is staging a resurgence, taking advantage of lockdown orders and competing government priorities to reclaim its dwindling power. The facts, however, tell a different story. The number of attacks launched by ISIS this spring are virtually identical to last year’s numbers, an indicator that has been reported by commanding officers of Operation Inherent Resolve as well as verified by independent tracking of ISIS-credited attacks.

Coalition trains Iraqi security forces to defeat ISIS (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jonathan Boynes/Released) 4 August 2015

Although there is little evidence that ISIS has been able to exploit the COVID-19 situation to stage a comeback, there are a number of other worrying trends in the type and intensity of the group’s attacks. ISIS has displayed a heightened level of organization and an ability to tap into extensive supply chains in recent months, reflecting the vision of new leader Abu al-Quraishi to remake ISIS into a professionalized executor of terror.

One key indicator of ISIS’s organizational evolution is a pivot in targets. Throughout 2018 and 2019 ISIS, weakened from years of battle with Iraqi and American forces concentrated its efforts on local intimidation. Such attacks on rural, sparsely-populated areas did little to advance the tactical or reputational value of ISIS, but did allow the group to operate dispersed sleeper cells throughout the Iraqi countryside. Since January of this year, however, ISIS attacks have centered on military and police resources.

Kirkuk, a northern Iraqi city with a number of military outposts has been a particular target of recent ISIS attacks. Although the region was liberated by Iraqi forces in October 2017, a terrorist sleeper cell remained active in the region, planning and coordinating operations from rural parts of the province. From January to March 2020 ISIS launched regular attacks on Kirkuk army encampments, sometimes as frequently as twice a week, and in April the city’s intelligence headquarters sustained extensive damage from an ISIS suicide bomber.

A second important metric of ISIS’s evolution is the increasingly complex nature of weapons and operational tactics. In early May, the group launched an incursion on the state-sponsored Hashd al-Sha’bi paramilitary organization. The attack, which killed ten Hashd members is widely-acknowledged as the largest, best-organized operation carried out by IS since 2017. At least four different cells of ISIS fighters were involved in the multi-pronged offensive, one of which planted an explosive device timed to go off an hour after the initial firefight to kill first responders.

Although improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were once a hallmark of ISIS attacks, the terrorist group turned to shootings and stabbings post-2017 once it was no longer able to muster the funds to manufacture explosives. This trend seems to be shifting, however, with reports indicating that there were nine ISIS IED attacks in the first quarter of 2020. It is unclear how the group obtained the materials for IEDs, but some experts have suggested that they were looted from supplies left behind after Iranian-backed militia units abandoned their posts in northeast Iraq amid fears of U.S. drone strikes.

A final important consideration in evaluating ISIS’s current trajectory is the role of local affiliates. As the group faces declining numbers of fighters and funding sources, a web of sympathetic (or threatened) local partners is vital to ISIS’s survival. In addition to providing sleeper cells with shelter, food, and transportation, collaborators have been groomed by ISIS operatives to provide information on local politics and the sympathetic leanings. Local complicity seems to have empowering ISIS to conduct its activities more openly (for example, launching attacks during the daytime rather than under cover of darkness), insulating the group from the pushback by local militias which is now viewed as a hallmark of the 2016-2017 campaign.

In spite of media reports of ISIS resurging, there is little evidence that the terrorist group is anywhere close to its pre-2017 levels of violence or control. Nevertheless, emerging trends within the organization — attacks on military targets, increasingly complex tactics and weaponry, and a growing web of local partners merit ongoing consideration. These developments are also timely ones as the U.S. begins efforts at troop drawdown in Iraq, citing successful operations against ISIS as a key decider in transferring military responsibility back to Iraqis.

It is beyond the scope of this piece to examine the United States’ role in Iraqi military operations. However, as newly-elected Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi formulates his counter-terrorism policies and prepares to meet with U.S. military officials in June, it is important for all sides to keep in mind that ISIS looks very different today than it did in 2017. Under the leadership of al-Quraishi ISIS is solidifying into a battle-hardened organization of professional terrorists, equipped with the skills, weapons, and networks to remain a very real threat to Iraqi security.

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Kathryn Urban

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