Islamic State never needed a caliphate to keep menacing the world. Now it's regrouping

To the rest of the world it might have appeared as if the Islamic State group had finally been conquered, but Juma’a Qasim Al-Rubaie knew better.

The mayor of Garma, just north of Iraq’s capital Baghdad, Mr Al-Rubaie says the terror never left his village.

“We have been attacked with car bombs, improvised explosives, suicide bombers,” he told the ABC.

In fact, the continuing presence of the Islamic State terrorist group has seen the population of Garma fall from 8,000 to 120, transforming it into a ghost town.

More than a year after the ‘territorial defeat’ of the Islamic State, which involved dismantling its so-called caliphate, IS cells still roam much of Iraq.

In places like Garma, residents say they lay traps and mines, divert irrigation water, and kill villagers. Many people have abandoned their farms in fear.

Even though Iraq’s army has been deployed to protect the village, Mr Al-Rubaie says the soldiers don’t do much.

“The situation is very bad. People can’t get out, can’t get food, there is nothing we can do,” he said.

“We can only ask for God’s mercy, nothing more.”

Other villagers in Iraq elsewhere tell the same story: Islamic State fighters move freely, killing people and livestock, damaging crops and attacking security forces at will.

The group is slowly recovering and rebuilding in rural Iraq, with grand plans to expand.

As a global coalition withdraws, IS advances

Toppling Islamic State’s ‘caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria was seen by many as the defining moment in destroying the terrorist group.

The group’s founder, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed in a US special forces mission in north-west Syria in October 2019.

“The savage IS caliphate has been 100 per cent destroyed under the Trump administration,” US President Donald Trump declared just last month.

But Islamic State has simply moved to Iraq, where it is recovering from its defeat and has become a “strong and sustained” insurgency.

That is according to Michael Knights, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who has been tracking Islamic State activity.

"Islamic State had been re-injecting experts and tactical leaders and bombmakers from Syria," he told the ABC. 

“The increase in Islamic State attacks we saw in Iraq … was those fighters from Syria spreading out throughout the different Iraqi provinces.”

Islamic State’s resurgence comes as the United States and its partners in the Global Coalition to Defeat IS scale down operations in the country.

The United States is under particular pressure to leave, after a US drone strike in January killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and a Shia militia leader in Iraq.

That incident triggered attacks on US troops from Iranian-backed militia groups.

The coalition recently transferred six bases to Iraqi control, is returning a number of soldiers and staff to home countries and is switching to a central base in Baghdad for advice and coordination activities.

“The Iraqi Security Forces will get the same quality of Coalition support from fewer Coalition troops, operating from fewer bases,” the Coalition Task Force said in a statement

But Iraqi officials have told the ABC they are worried about foreign troops leaving.

The collapse in the global oil price has all but eliminated the Iraqi Government’s main source of revenue, sparking fears it will struggle to pay its soldiers.
Islamic State does not just have its sights on Iraq

Without intervention, IS could improve its operational capabilities and will again be able to strike targets outside its home base.

“The strategy that the Islamic State is undertaking at the moment is to become the most important political, military and economic actor in rural areas of Iraq,” Mr Knights said.

The plan, according to Mr Knights, is to set up an economic base so Islamic State can begin planning and executing more sophisticated attacks.

“While the Islamic State had Raqqa and Mosul and other areas, they were able to develop very advanced external operations against Europe,” he said.

“That’s something they’re trying to reconstitute.”

Islamic State also inspires affiliates elsewhere, including little-publicised but serious insurgencies in Nigeria, Egypt and the Philippines.

Dozens of people were killed in March this year when IS-linked militants stormed a Sikh shrine in Afghanistan.
Could IS fighters rescue their families to swell their ranks?

One of the biggest quandaries for countries grappling with Islamic State is what to do with captured terrorists and their families.

There are more than 300,000 people with family connections to IS in camps across Iraq, according to a recent report by esteemed Iraqi analyst Husham Al-Hashimi, who was murdered this month in Baghdad.

"An investigation by the Iraqi security and intelligence agencies linked a recent spike in IS attacks to IS militants' displaced families returning to their home areas," he wrote. 

“Officials say they reached this conclusion after perceiving patterns related to the return of these families as well as information from tribal and local forces.”

But families with IS links are viewed with deep suspicion and may be blamed for the group’s ongoing activities simply because of their past association.

There are also concerns about thousands of IS families — including Australian women and children — held in neighbouring Syria.

Tens of thousands of fighters’ family members remain in camps, with foreign governments, including Australia’s, reluctant to take their citizens back.

A recent military offensive by Turkey against their Kurdish captors, and the withdrawal of aid groups because of coronavirus, have made it more difficult to maintain these centres.

That has raised fears Islamic State may be able to bolster its numbers by staging mass breakouts, a tactic it previously used in Iraq.

Preventing the group from holding territory is critically important in stopping the Islamic State from becoming a global threat again, according to Michael Knights.

“If they are ignored, eventually Islamic State will regain the ability first to bomb Iraqi cities, and later to draw in volunteers from Western countries, and then to send them back again as attack operatives,” he said.

“If we want to prevent that from happening again, then we need to prevent the Islamic State from controlling even the smallest territories in Iraq and Syria.”

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