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Monday, February 6th, 2023

Islamic State is not defeated. It’s regaining strength in Iraq, Syria

IS can still tap a large war chest of as much as $US400 million ($590 million). It is also believed to have invested in businesses, including fish farming, car dealing and cannabis growing. And the group uses extortion to finance clandestine operations.

A woman washes clothes in front of her tent at the fence line of the foreign section of al-Hawl camp in Syria.Credit:Kate Geraghty

During the past several months, the terror group has made inroads into a sprawling tent camp in north-east Syria, and there is no ready plan to deal with the 70,000 people there, including thousands of family members of IS fighters. US intelligence officials say the al-Hawl camp is evolving into a hotbed of IS ideology and a massive breeding ground for future terrorists.


The camp, managed by US-backed Syrian Kurdish allies holds more than 10,000 IS fighters, including 2000 foreigners, in separate makeshift prisons.

The Syrian Kurds’”inability to provide more than ‘minimal security’ at the camp has allowed the ‘uncontested conditions to spread of ISIS ideology’ there,” said the inspector general’s report, which was prepared for the Pentagon, the State Department and the US Agency for International Development. The military’s Central Command told the report’s authors that “ISIS is likely exploiting the lack of security to enlist new members and re-engage members who have left the battlefield.”

A recent United Nations assessment reached the same conclusion, saying that family members living at al-Hawl “may come to pose a threat if they are not dealt with appropriately.”

Men, foreground, women and children wait to be screened by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters after being evacuated out of the last territory held by Islamic State militants, near Baghouz, eastern Syria, in February.Credit:AP

These trends, described by Iraqi, American and other Western intelligence and military officials, and documented in a recent series of government and UN assessments, portray an IS on the rise again, not only in Iraq and Syria, but in branches from West Africa to Sinai. This resurgence poses threats to American interests and allies, as the Trump administration draws down US troops in Syria and shifts its focus in the Middle East to a looming confrontation with Iran.

“However weakened ISIS may now be, they are still a truly global movement, and we are globally vulnerable,” Suzanne Raine, a former head of Britain’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, said in an interview this month with West Point’s Combating Terrorism Centre. “Nothing should surprise us about what happens next.”

For Iraqis in northern and western provinces where the Islamic State was active in the past, the sense of threat never disappeared, as the attacks slowed but never halted. In just the first six months of this year, there were 139 attacks in those provinces — Ninevah, Salahuddin, Kirkuk, Diyala and Anbar — and 274 people were killed. The majority of the dead were civilians but also included Iraqi security forces and popular mobilisation forces, according to reports by Iraqi security forces and civilians gathered by The New York Times.


A particularly brutal episode of the kind not seen since the Islamic State was in control of territory in northern Iraq occurred in early August when armed men claiming Islamic State allegiance held a public beheading of a policeman in a rural village south of the city of Samarra in Salahuddin province, about two hours north of Baghdad.

The area has seen repeated attacks over the past two years, and police who lived in the village had received warnings to leave their job. Most, like Alaa Ameen Mohammad Al-Majmai, the beheaded officer, worked for the security forces because there are few jobs other than farming, which is seasonal, and occasional construction work.

He became the 170th member of the force to be killed by Islamic State attackers in the area, said Major Zowba Al-Majmay, the director of an Iraqi emergency battalion for the area south of Samarra.

Despite these reports, Trump has continued to claim credit for completely defeating the Islamic State, contradicting repeated warnings from his own intelligence and counter-terrorism officials that IS remains a lethal force.

“We did a great job,” Trump said last month. “We have 100% of the caliphate, and we’re rapidly pulling out of Syria. We’ll be out of there pretty soon. And let them handle their own problems. Syria can handle their own problems — along with Iran, along with Russia, along with Iraq, along with Turkey. We’re 7000 miles away.”

With 5,200 troops in Iraq and just under 1,000 in Syria, the U.S. military’s role in both countries has changed little despite the territorial defeat of the Islamic State in both countries.

After the fall of Baghuz, the Islamic State’s last holdout in Syria near the Iraqi border, what remained of the group’s fighters dispersed throughout the region, starting what U.S. officials now say will be an enduring insurgency.

The New York Times