Gatestone Institute | Con Coughlin | June 18, 2020
With the primary focus of the Trump administration understandably concentrated on a variety of pressing domestic issues, from the forthcoming presidential election campaign to tackling the Covid-19 pandemic, there is growing concern that ISIS fanatics are seeking to exploit the situation to rebuild their terrorist infrastructure throughout the Middle East.
In countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, there is mounting evidence that the ISIS leadership is seeking to move on from the catastrophic defeats it has suffered in recent years and rebuild its fighting strength.
In Afghanistan, the most deadly manifestation of the group’s new-found strength was demonstrated when U.S. officials blamed ISIS for last month’s brutal attack on a maternity ward in the country’s capital Kabul in which 24 people died, including a number of mothers, children and new-born babies.
The deepening chaos in Libya caused by the country’s bitter civil war has also raised fears that ISIS is seeking to exploit the situation to rebuild its operational strength in the pivotal North African country. Last year U.S. drones carried out a series of attacks against ISIS positions in the Libyan desert, and Western intelligence officials remain concerned that the group is placing sleeper cells in some of the country’s major cities.
By far the greatest concern among Western security officials, though, is the prospect of ISIS rebuilding its infrastructure in Iraq, the country where the country’s former leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi famously proclaimed the establishment of his so-called caliphate in June 2014.
By the time Baghdadi met his death during a U.S. Special Forces operation in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province last October, his organisation had been decimated as a result of the U.S.-led coalition’s highly effective military campaign against ISIS, which resulted in the destruction of the caliphate.
Since that low point, Iraq security officials have identified a resurgence of ISIS-sponsored activity in Iraq in recent months, with most of the activity concentrated on provinces to the east and north of Baghdad. In April alone the organisation managed to carry out 108 attacks in Iraq, including an assault on an intelligence headquarters in Kirkuk. In early May ISIS militants killed at least 10 Iraqi militiamen in a coordinated assault on their base in the central city of Samarra.
Coalition officials believe there are similarities between the tactics ISIS is employing during its current activity in Iraq and those it used during the start of its campaign in northern Iraq in 2013, which ultimately resulted in the organisation controlling large swathes of the country.
The growing confidence of the ISIS leadership in Iraq is reflected in an online message posted by the organisation’s new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi at the end of last month, which ominously read: “What you are witnessing these days are only signs of the big changes in the region that will offer greater opportunities than we had previously in the past decade.”
Iraqi security officials say the number of ISIS fighters in Iraq is now between 2,000-3,000, which includes around 500 militants who have made their way to Iraq after escaping from prisons in Syria. Moreover the ability of the Iraqi security forces to deal with the ISIS threat has been hampered by the fact the Iraqi military has seen a 50 percent drop in the number of available military personnel as a result of the pandemic. This has enabled ISIS to shift the emphasis of its attacks from carrying out local acts of intimidation against government officials to carrying out more complex missions, including IED attacks, shootings and carrying out ambushes against the police and military.
The growing strength of ISIS in Iraq has prompted coalition forces to renew air strikes against ISIS targets in the country. Last month American and British warplanes carried out a series of strikes against a network of caves in northern Iraq that were being used as a base by Isis fighters, killing between 5-10 terrorists.
Western security sources believe a number of factors explain the resurgence of ISIS in Iraq. Apart from exploiting the recent loss of manpower in the Iraqi security forces because of the coronavirus pandemic, ISIS leaders have also taken advantage of the political paralysis the country has experienced following the recent waves of anti-government protests.
The upsurge in ISIS in activity in Iraq should certainly act as a wake-up call for the Trump administration as it reviews America’s military commitment to Iraq following the recent appointment of former Iraqi intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kadhimi as the country’s new pro-Western prime minister.