How is ISIS resurfacing in Iraq? The short answer is that it never really left. Despite US President Donald Trump’s orders to “annihilate ISIS,” members of the organization have continued to exist in Iraq and Syria and carry out attacks. The caliphate has fallen and the group no longer holds the vast territory and population it once controlled. However, supporters, organizers and fighters have not simply disappeared. Instead, the aspiring proto-state has reverted back to its roots as a terrorist insurgency. The US-based Soufan Center assessed the environment as such:
“What is quietly happening across parts of Iraq is less of a resurgence, and more a resurfacing, of the Islamic State. Many of these fighters never actually left, but merely scattered temporarily, having melted away into the population only to return. “
The US and the UN agree that there may be as many as 30,000 ISIS members still present in Iraq and Syria. Jason Warner and Charlotte Hulme writing for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point (CTC) also recently estimated that an additional 6,000 fighters are spread across Africa, with the Islamic State West-Africa Province (Boko Haram) contributing more than half of the total. ISIS continues to wield influence further abroad with IS-Khorasan in Afghanistan as well as supporters in the Philippines, Indonesia, and throughout the Indo-Pacific.
These members and supporters received encouragement and direction from their highest leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in an audio message released last month. The message promoted patience and perseverance, claiming that the time will come again for a resurgence. In Iraq, this may be a functional strategy.
ISIS’s Iraqi presence began as al-Qaeda in Iraq, an al-Qaeda affiliate led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The group found footholds in Iraq in the chaos caused by the US invasion in 2003, and then re-branded itself as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) following its founder’s death in 2006. While pressured by the Anbar Awakening and the US troop surge in 2007, ISI managed to survive and wait for conditions to become more favorable.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia politician, would contribute to these conditions by giving preferential treatment and status to Shiite Iraqis. As a result, many of Iraq’s Sunnis were disillusioned and alienated from the Iraqi state and were at least indifferent to ISIS, if not supportive. Renad Mansour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote in 2016 that a lack of options for Sunni political engagement combined with “intra-Sunni conflict” drove the power development of ISI. Following the withdrawal of US troops in 2011, the Iraqi security forces were left mostly alone to fight the extremist group, and quickly buckled under the task.
Research published by the CTC earlier this year sought to analyze the opinions of young men in Mosul, ISIS”s Iraqi capital. While largely characterized as “corrupt, brutal, and hypocritical,” 93% reported that ISIS had positive effects during the beginning of their authority. Even now that they have lost that authority, most respondents were confident that ISIS will not disappear anytime soon. The Sunni community in general was characterized by the men as divided and both spiritually and physically weak.
Following the collapse of the caliphate, Iraq began judicial proceedings for thousands of accused ISIS members. While trials are a necessary and positive element in resolving the conflict, Iraq’s courts have been quickly overwhelmed, resulting in trials lasting for as little as 10 minutes. Innocent Sunnis are at risk of being swept up in these trials, and joining the many who have already been sentenced to death as a result of these proceedings.
Shia militias also continue to act with impunity as an element of Iraq’s security forces, reinforcing the power disparity between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. With Sunni estrangement, internal conflict and disunity, and a perception of weakness continuing, it falls on the government to enforce security and suppress violence.
Perhaps the largest result of the Iraqi election this year was the ascension of Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shia cleric, as the leader of the winning parliamentary block. Al-Sadr promoted Iraqi unity and the abandonment of political divisiveness in his campaign; however, his group has also been accused of past aggression against Sunnis. How al-Sadr and the new Parliament will lead Iraq, enforce security, and form relationships with Sunni communities remains to be seen.
The Sunni community apparently remains internally conflicted and continues to face challenges at the hands of the Iraqi state. Renad Mansour believes that greater power-sharing at high levels and greater autonomy at low levels is key to relieving the pressure on Sunni communities and reengaging them with the state while also accounting for the lack of unity within the Sunni community. Without political engagement, and facing institutionalized challenges, many Sunnis may continue to support or be indifferent to extremist groups like ISIS. Although the group itself has lost its attractiveness among most of Iraq’s Sunnis, the conditions which fueled its earlier growth are still present.
Doubtless, members of the group have gone into hiding and will continue to launch attacks for the foreseeable future. ISIS will likely never return to the high point it experienced several years ago, but it has defied expectations before. With smart re-branding and a strategy made to appeal more to the local population, combined with a messy government unable to provide security, ISIS may manage regain some of the power it has lost.