Is ISIS still in Iraq

"Like a cancerous tumor" : The terrorist organization IS is spreading again in Syria

A good year after the destruction of its “caliphate”, the “Islamic State” is regaining strength. For example, armed IS fighters killed three government soldiers in an attack in Syria this week, the observatory for human rights said. A few weeks ago IS troops appeared north of the Iraqi capital Baghdad and killed at least ten fighters from a Shiite militia.

This shows: In several areas of Iraq and Syria, the "warriors of God" are on the rise again. Last month they claimed 100 attacks for themselves. "Slowly and methodically," said the terrorist militia on their return, says IS expert Charles Lister. Above all, the Islamists benefit from the weakness of their opponents. "We cannot take a break," said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently about the fight against IS.

When the extremists had to give up the last remainder of their “caliphate” in the Syrian-Iraqi border area after an offensive by the US-led international anti-IS coalition, the terrorist group was considered militarily defeated. The jihadists had lost all of the territory they had conquered in 2014 and 2015.

But IS survived even without a geographically defined area of ​​rule. His fighters withdrew to the desert region of Badia. IS was also able to save part of its million dollar war chest. The organization even survived the death of its leader Abubakr al Baghdadi in a US attack - America's secret services have identified the former Iraqi army officer Amir Mohammed Abdul Rahman al Mawli as the new head of the terrorist militia.

The Badia desert in particular is an ideal retreat for ISIS. The huge area of ​​half a million square kilometers is sparsely populated and extends from southern Syria to the Euphrates in Iraq. The Syrian government tried to prevent the "Islamic State" from breaking out of the desert, writes Lister, a terrorism expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, in an analysis.

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This attempt failed because President Bashar al Assad's army did not have enough soldiers and other priorities: The ruler is currently trying to conquer the rebel stronghold of Idlib in northwest Syria. This is a priority for the ruler in Damascus.

The result: IS is spreading “like cancer”, as SDF representatives describe it. The militia alliance under Kurdish leadership, allied with the USA, has now announced an offensive against the terrorist gang in Syria.

The helpful pandemic

The "Islamic State" is proceeding systematically with its comeback. In Iraq, for example, the jihadists often attack near highways, which they then use for smuggling or for extorting “tolls”. The US think tank CGP reported that the IS is making three million euros a month.

The pandemic is one of the reasons that Sunni fundamentalists have so much leeway in their offensive. In Iraq, the security authorities reduced their presence in the crisis regions because many soldiers have to monitor the curfews and other pandemic regulations.

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In some parts of the country there are no security forces at all, the Iraqi terror expert Huscham Alhaschimi recently told the US broadcaster VOA. The "Islamic State" is therefore "more deadly than Covid-19" in some regions of the country.

Western aid for the military fight against IS is also suffering from the pandemic. The Bundeswehr, for example, interrupted the training of Iraqi soldiers north of Baghdad. Britain and France did the same.

The withdrawal of the Americans

What matters more is that the US Army can only help to a limited extent. Washington wants to concentrate the American soldiers in Iraq on just two bases. All 2000 US soldiers are to withdraw from Syria on the orders of President Donald Trump.

The American Air Force continues to support the Kurdish-dominated SDF in its operations against the “Islamic State”. But the Kurds in north-eastern Syria have to deal with the Turkish army that invaded the region last autumn.

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Another problem for the SDF is the guarding of IS prisoners in several prison camps in their area of ​​control in eastern Syria. The Kurdish fighters, who guard around 10,000 jihadists and tens of thousands of members of the extremists' families, have long complained that they have been left alone with the difficult task. A US government report a few weeks ago concluded that there was a "high risk of mass outbreaks" in the camps.

The weakness of the Iranians

The Sunni extremists particularly benefit from the powerlessness of one of their mortal enemies. For years, Iran, with its Shiite militias, was a determined and effective opponent of the jihadists in Iraq. Combat units were specially set up there and trained by Tehran for the mission.

Under the umbrella of the “people's mobilization units”, the paramilitary forces drove out the IS. But the mullahs can hardly afford to finance the troops. The Islamic Republic is suffering from a severe economic crisis, which the pandemic is drastically exacerbating. Many Iranians vent their displeasure at the fact that millions are being used for the urge to expand foreign policy instead of giving the money to their own people.

In addition, the US has eliminated the strategic mind behind Iran's anti-IS fight. Qassem Soleimani, head of the Al-Quds Brigades, which specialize in foreign missions, directed the Shiite militias in their crackdown on the “Islamic State” as the military commander-in-chief.

And with great success. At times he even cooperated with the USA. This did not prevent the Trump administration from declaring him an enemy and killing him with a drone attack in the wake of the escalating confrontation with Tehran in January.

The agony of the state

What ISIS was able to take advantage of when it rose to become a regional power has lost none of its relevance: Where state structures are lacking and a (security) vacuum can arise, the “warriors of God” are trained to fill the void with violence that spreads fear. This applies to parts of Syria and Iraq alike. These regions are far from political stability. Iraq, where ISIS once emerged, is deeply divided.

There was no functioning government for months. Different political groups often work against each other, only feeling obliged to their own interests. There are also denominational tensions. The Sunni minority feels oppressed by the majority of Shiites. ISIS knows how to open this gap further. Widespread corruption and nepotism also play into the hands of the terrorists.

Despite obvious shortcomings, Iraq's new Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi shows determination. "I say to ISIS: Wait for us, the hour of battle is near." It seems that this hour has long since begun.

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