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Can ISIS Make a Comeback?

Can ISIS Make a Comeback?

Eradicating the Islamic State in Iraq is a top regional priority, and Washington needs to help finish the job.

U.S. forces in northern Iraq, working with partners on the ground, are confident that the remnants of the Islamic State can be confronted, two years after ISIS lost the last pockets of land it held. It has been five years since Washington committed forces to Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve. Today, operating with a relatively small footprint across central and northern Iraq, the operation is continuing but there are questions on the ground about what comes next and whether an ISIS resurgence is in the works.

Lt. Col. Jace Neuenschwander, a battalion commander in Task Force Nineveh which is part of the U.S.-led coalition effort, says that ISIS has tried to adapt to finding new places to exploit gaps in security in Iraq to stay alive. Located near Mosul, Neuenschwander and several hundred personnel are part of the tip of the spear in terms of identifying an ISIS resurgence. “[ISIS have] had a hard time staying alive,” he says. ISIS keeps a low profile and is losing ground, safe havens and smuggling routes. His sector, which stretches around the city of Mosul towards the Syrian border is “not as active as it once was” and the Iraqi Security Forces are doing a good job.

This is a far cry from two years ago when the city of Mosul, once Iraq’s second-largest and a pride of place in Saddam Hussein’s era, was devastated by the nine-month battle to root ISIS out. It was a difficult battle in the western part of the city, sometimes called the “right bank” because of the direction the Tigris River flows here. The famous Nuri Mosque, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi announced his “caliphate” in 2014, was blown up by the extremists in their last stand. ISIS destroyed archaeological treasures and minority religious sites and used the city to sell slaves. By the time the coalition-supported Iraqi forces surrounded the city in the fall of 2016, some eight hundred thousand people were displaced by the fighting and the hundreds of thousands inside the city were suffering.

After liberation, the city has slowly recovered and bodies and IEDs are still being discovered in and around Mosul in the towns and villages ISIS once held. A combination of problems has led to fears that ISIS could put down roots again. First, ISIS supporters came from this area and they never fully vanished from towns and villages along the Tigris, or from the desert and mountainous areas such as the Hamreen mountains. Second, the largely Sunni Arab population that ISIS drew on for support is still alienated by the mosaic of largely Shiite paramilitaries called the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), some of which are backed by Iran. Third, the clashes in October 2017 between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) after the Kurdistan independence referendum left open wounds and anger in the Kurdish region as Iraqi forces retook Mosul and adjacent areas that the Kurdish Peshmerga had helped liberate. Today the KRG and its Peshmerga control areas overlooking the Nineveh plains along a line called the Kurdistan Coordination Line. Fourth, the hundreds of thousands of displaced people who fled areas around Mosul have not all returned and there are stories of abuses against those who did return, with some being accused of being ISIS supporters.

These four challenges present a complex problem for the eighty-one-member coalition and forces on the ground. The coalition is conducting several aspects of the same mission at once, seeking to train and equip Iraq forces, as well as advise and assist them. This is a multibillion-dollar effort. The spokesman of the Iraqi Security Media Cell, Yehia Rasool, said on September 26 that $2.5 billion had been sent to support Iraq’s efforts, including $1.3 billion for equipment.

The United States is also using intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to continue airstrikes against ISIS. On September 10, around thirty-six thousand kilograms of bombs were dropped by F-35s and F-15s on Qanus island in the Tigris river, eviscerating the place with scenes that looked more like carpet bombing from the Vietnam era than today’s era of precision airstrikes. The island, like some other areas where ISIS is active, was considered uninhabited and the coalition said it was infested by ISIS. In August 2019, a total of twenty-four airstrikes were launched in Iraq against ISIS, destroying tunnels, fighting positions and “bed-down” locations. One vehicle and a boat were also hit. Compared to the height of the anti-ISIS campaign, the coalition is now carrying out fewer airstrikes in a month than it used to in some days. That could mean operations are nearing a kind of victory, but it could also mean ISIS is harder to find.

The Pentagon’s lead Inspector General report for Inherent Resolve, covering April to June 2019, revealed some of the larger problems facing Iraq. ISIS is able to operate in small groups and cross between Syria and Iraq, the report says. Iraqi forces do not conduct enough operations along the border and Iraqi maintenance is lacking for its observation aircraft and UAVs. In addition, Iraqi forces do not coordinate well amongst each other, and there are continuing threats by Iranian-backed groups against U.S. interests and personnel. There have been rocket and mortar fire targeting U.S. bases since U.S.-Iran tensions rose in May. The most recent mortar attack was near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone on September 23. There is also rhetoric against U.S. forces by media aligned with the PMU, including threats to hold the United States responsible for mysterious explosions at PMU munitions warehouses over the last several months. This is the context under which U.S. forces and their partners operate.

Neuenschwander says ISIS does not have the ability to sustain attacks or continue to establish its “caliphate.” They have lost territory but continue to have their ideology. The challenge is to keep them defeated and “set conditions for rehabilitation and reconstruction of the area and infrastructure.” ISIS is believed to be reduced to moving in very small groups, reports of just several men at one time to up to twenty individuals. Those like Neuenschwander, who served in Iraq in 2004 and 2009, have perspective on the ability of the Iraqis to accomplish their mission. Back in those days, the security situation was tenuous, he says. Now it is the opposite. “We drive around Mosul and see active checkpoints and police.” Outside the city, the army has conducted clearance operations, including the “Will of Victory” operations that have occurred this year in other parts of Iraq. They are also empowering NGOs to clear IEDs from villages.

The mission today for the coalition in Nineveh, which is a key area around Mosul, is to work closely with the Iraqi headquarters and the local Iraqi Major General Nu’man Abd Al-Zawba’i. That means enabling the Iraqis to receive intelligence and discussing their patrols and operations with them. The United States can bring aerial assets and UAVs to aid in that mission. Fusing intelligence and distributing it to the police and spectrum of forces is supposed to help defeat ISIS remnants. The coalition’s support is a kind of “lubricant” that helps make the machine run, says Neuenschwander. 

There is also a Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) that is deployed to advise the 15th, 16th and 20th Iraqi divisions in the area. They work at the division and brigade level. For the United States, the change from fighting the global war on terror to advising and assistance and then transitioning more to just advising has been a long process. It means that the local forces do most, if not all, of the work. It also means patience. Two years after major combat operations ended there is more to do. That means continuing to see if Iraqi forces can synchronize operations and use their mediocre air assets, such as helicopters to effectively monitor ISIS. The U.S. officers say they want to work with the Iraqis on improving the use of these kinds of assets. They also hope that increased security in Sinjar will mean the return of internally displaced persons, such as the Yazidis who were persecuted by ISIS. 

Neuenschwander says that today the areas in and around Mosul are still suffering from the war’s devastation. But things are improving: The United Nations has opened a new office in the city, reconstruction is moving along, and things are “moving in the right direction.” He says this with memories of the 2009 period when the city was severely afflicted by terror attacks and lack of security.

With all this in mind, it appears ISIS understands where the boundaries of some of these forces end and others begin. ISIS has exploited these kinds of demarcations, such as the Tigris River, to use as areas to sleep and store weapons. One of those areas is Mount Qarachogh, a mountain that stretches along the border area between the KRG and the Iraqi security forces. It’s a high mountain that requires more than a dozen switchbacks on a small road to ascend. At the top, the Kurdish Peshmerga have built sandbagged positions every few hundred meters. From here they can look down on the areas between their forces and the Iraqis.