This Is What's Left Behind When ISIS Is Defeated

It has taken more than two years and cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars to drive ISIS out of Anbar province in Iraq. Its cities now resemble bombed-out wastelands, and a smoldering anger at the central government lies beneath the surface.

FALLUJAH, Iraq — Pandemonium erupted on the bridge that leads into the central Iraqi city of Fallujah. A woman in a black, all-covering niqab, sitting in a minibus with her six kids, screamed at the uniformed security forces at the checkpoint, trying to strike them through the window.

“The Islamic State lives!” she cried out, after exchanging insults with soldiers and police officers. “Iraq is gone! But the Islamic State lives. If I had weapons, I would kill you all!”

It was a sunny autumn day late last year, and the checkpoint was clogged with vehicles, each one from a different security force, vying for position and control of the crossing. We had been waiting for half an hour to get through when the row broke out, our police escorts struggling to convince the suspicious soldiers and intelligence officials to allow our car to cross into the city, the second largest in Iraq’s Anbar province, notorious as the center of insurgent activity during the US occupation.

The cops, soldiers, and spies fought to bring the angry woman and her family under control. “Stay in the car!” one officer ordered.

The source of her anger was a kangaroo court held a few hours earlier, when her husband had been found guilty of being a leading member of ISIS. Khalil Ibrahim Jumeili and his family had been attempting to return to Fallujah, a Sunni city around 45 miles west of Baghdad, when they were stopped at a checkpoint on the other side of town. Jumeili told authorities he was a guard at a school in the nearby town of Karma. He said his family had been living in a camp for displaced people north of Baghdad and were now trying to return to their home, among the hundreds of families trickling back into the largely destroyed city.

“ISIS is pushing its people to come back. They’re trying to set up sleeper cells inside the city.”

But the authorities didn’t believe him. Maybe it was the the niqab worn worn by his wife in the style of ultra-conservative Muslim women. Maybe his name had been flagged in one of the computer databases used by Iraq’s police and army to screen returning Fallujah residents. In any case, the 41-year-old was carted away to the makeshift municipal headquarters building in the center of the city to face what passes for justice in Fallujah these days. The Iraqi authorities charged him with being an ISIS emir, or prince, which would lead to a life sentence — or worse.

Blindfolded and dressed in a dirty, khaki-colored dishdasha, Jumeili quivered as he was trotted out before us, his wrists bound. For an alleged ISIS leader, he wasn’t particularly fearsome.

The police guided him into a courtyard to show him off to photographer Alice Martins and me. “I feel sick,” he told me. “I feel scared.”

After the summary trial and guilty verdict, his wife and six children were placed on a minibus and ordered to leave the city through the sole remaining bridge across the Euphrates river. That’s where the ruckus erupted, finally ending when security officials wrestled the woman’s teenage son back into the minivan as she professed loyalty to ISIS.

It was impossible to know if the woman was sincere in her confession or so distraught at the thought of never seeing her husband again that she lashed out at the men who had taken him away.

ISIS took control of large swaths of Anbar province in January 2014. The militant group expanded its control across Iraq’s largest province later that year, taking almost all its cities, pushing to within a few miles of the capital, Baghdad. In the three years since, Iraq has expended thousands of lives and billions of dollars to expel ISIS. Having finally achieved that, Iraqi security forces are now on guard against the group’s return. “ISIS is pushing its people to come back,” warned Taleb al-Hosnawi, a senior official in Fallujah. “They’re trying to set up sleeper cells inside the city.”

Six months after Anbar’s liberation, vast stretches of land have been completely destroyed. Political leaders mostly remain behind walled-in compounds in city centers, or in the relative safety of Baghdad. A colorful cast of politicians, soldiers, police, and volunteer militias led by local warlords struggles to impose order on cities reduced to rubble. They oversee the return of hundreds of thousands of fearful, displaced civilians and administer harsh and speedy justice — often making up their own rules as they go along, likely to be guided as much by revenge and retribution as the law. Overwhelmed and cash-strapped, the Iraqi state has yet to return in full, and may not be welcome if it tried to reimpose itself.

“The people of Anbar will never go back to the corrupt leaders who led the province before,” Ghassan al-Ithany, spokesman for the Tribes of Anbar, a confederation of clans, told me in January. “We the people who fought ISIS have the right to lead Anbar and to defend the legacy of those who died for Anbar.”

In the US, Iraq has long been little more than a talking point. The administration of Donald Trump has sought to ban visitors from Iraq, treating it as nothing more than a hotbed of terrorists bound for the US. But our trip through Anbar province revealed the depredations ISIS has carried out on Iraqi soil — in its cities, which now resemble smoldering wastelands, and among its people, whose hatred of the militants is only matched by their distrust of the central government in Baghdad, which they blame for leaving them to face down ISIS alone.

A hazy moon lit the dense, dark woods along the Euphrates river, lighting the faces of the lithe, uniformed young men. Barely old enough to shave, they carried assault rifles as they positioned themselves along the trail that snakes along the river dividing the city of Khalidiya from the rural farmlands and orchards to the south.

The men were led by Mohammad al-Shabaan, a burly former military man. He spoke urgently, his voice rising like a preacher’s as he lamented wrongs that have befallen his people and outlined a way forward. “We are the first people who faced ISIS and kicked out ISIS,” he said.

Shabaan is wealthy landowner and businessman as well as a tribal elder born into a position infused with a sense of noblesse oblige, a duty to take care of his people. But he’s also a fighter, having served as a paratrooper and decorated member of Iraq’s special forces during the reign of Saddam Hussein and seems compelled to take control of any situation. Following the US invasion in 2003, he took up arms alongside the Americans during the Sahwa, or Awakening, a tribal movement that pushed al-Qaida out of Anbar province in the late 2000s. Wearing an olive golf shirt emblazoned with a US Marines logo, Shabaan is proud of his ongoing collaboration with the Americans stationed at a nearby base. “There is no difference between the US Army and the tribes of Anbar province,” he told me. “We are all sons of this planet.”

Until last summer, walking along the river in Khalidiya, near the provincial capital of Ramadi, would have meant likely death for his men. ISIS fighters had camped out in the thick foliage across the narrow river. Snipers in treetops shot across at anyone who moved. Mortars and rocket-propelled grenades hurtled across the water. The fighting was so intense that Iraqi army forces assigned to protect the city abruptly withdrew in mid-2014.

“We asked the army to stay and defend the city. But suddenly they withdrew and allowed ISIS in,” Shabaan said. “ISIS surrounded the whole area.”

Shabaan decided to fight back, and gathered together remnants of the Awakening and other young men from Anbar into secret cells. He provided weapons and ammunition to the fighters, and trained many of his young volunteers how to take apart, clean, reassemble, and fire their AK-47s. “We used to move around at night to stage ambushes and return home by daylight,” he said.

Besieged by ISIS, Shabaan and his fighters faced extreme hardship, lacking any support from central authorities. Food became scarce. “My fighters were too embarrassed to tell their wives they were hungry,” he said. “Their children asked for sweets and they could not provide them.”

In early 2015, when morale dropped to a low point, some of his men volunteered to risk their lives to swim across the river ISIS-held territory in the middle of the night. They climbed to the top of a palm tree and hoisted a large Iraqi flag. There was no military goal, said Shabaan — it was just done to mess with the heads of the ISIS fighters. When dawn broke and the Iraqi flag waved high above ISIS territory, it lifted the flagging spirits of his forces, especially when they overheard the reactions of the jihadi commanders on their walkie-talkies, threatening to physically punish fighters for allowing the prank.

Over the course of the fighting more than 100 of Shabaan’s fighters were killed. But rather than deter them, he saw his force grow to number more than 1,000 local men, and in the middle of 2015 the war against ISIS began to turn. Shabaan’s group of men was incorporated into the Popular Mobilization Units, the so called hashed al-shaabi, the volunteer force of mostly Shia militias fighting against ISIS. By August last year, Shabaan, his men, and local police, backed by US and Iraqi airstrikes, killed off or drove out the last remnants of ISIS from Khalidiya and the farmlands surrounding it. To celebrate, they strapped the bullet-riddled bodies of the dead ISIS fighters onto their SUVs and paraded them through the center of town.

“Then we threw them in the Euphrates for the fish to eat,” he said. “If they were not so filthy I would have eaten them with my own teeth.”

“My fighters were too embarrassed to to tell their wives they were hungry.” 

They took no prisoners. During the long months of the battle against ISIS Shabaan said he had few resources to sustain his own men, much less feed prisoners, or conduct proper trials. Shabaan said he’s been through this before; he had fought and defeated al-Qaida during the final years of the last decade. But he said the reversal of those hard-won gains had taught him to no longer trust the Iraqi criminal justice system, that there were certain people beyond reform.

“These people wear clothes like they’re in Afghanistan,” he said of the ISIS militants. “These people are sending children as suicide bombers. The problem we face as Anbar tribes is the same thing we faced with al-Qaida before. We arrested them and took them to court and put them in jail and then the government released them.”

At the edge of the river, Shabaan’s men showed us the trenches from which they held off ISIS for months. Shabaan spoke of an ISIS mortar that struck the home of one of his relatives, killing four people, including a niece, whose remains were never found. He was certain that among those who fired those mortars were Iraqis who had fought against him in the past, who had been captured and later released.

The war against ISIS may be over for now, but the aftermath will reverberate for decades. “You want me to trust the law,” Shabaan asked. “And the courts? And the police? And watch them bribe their way out of prison?”

It was an overcast day last fall and the market in the provincial capital of Anbar was humming. The souk in central Ramadi was one of the few areas of the city that had not been completely destroyed by the fighting. Traffic had begun to return. Women, emerging into public view often for the first time in months, could be found haggling over the price of tomatoes in the marketplace.

Pedestrians and cars jostled for position on the crowded roadways. Small groups of men gathered at makeshift teahouses, sitting on plastic chairs sipping sweetened chai and smoking cheap Iraqi cigarettes.

And then chaos broke out. A traffic cop drew his gun and began screaming. Locals froze in their tracks. We were startled by the police officer’s panic. Was a terrorist attack imminent? Had he spotted a car bomb?

No. The cop just wanted to get the cars near the entrance of the market to move. Our escorts, from the governor’s office, shook off the incident — to them it was a sign that life was returning to normal.

“ISIS ate the resistance.” 

From the middle of 2014 until last summer, Ramadi was the scene of a grueling battle pitting government forces in the city against ISIS on the outskirts. At least 5,250 homes have been completely destroyed and 15,000 damaged. Three dozen schools lie in ruins. The electricity, water, and sewage systems were all but destroyed in the conflict. Months after the liberation, power only resumes for a few hours a night, and water is largely trucked in.

Not only have vast swaths of the city been flattened or reduced to rubble and twisted girders, many had yet to be cleared of mines and boobytraps laid by ISIS. Rebuilding and restoration of services efforts are moving slowly. Though home to some of the largest oil reserves in the world, Iraq is in deep financial trouble, its budget near breaking point. “Infrastructure is below zero,” Sheikh Wissam al-Hardan, an Anbar tribal leader, told me during a meeting in January. “We haven’t even removed the rubble yet. Government effort is nothing because they haven’t the money.”

A little more than 40 miles to the east from Ramadi, along a roadway adjacent to the Euphrates, past several more checkpoints, lies Fallujah, which has has fared even worse in the recent fighting. Once a town of several hundred thousand people famous for its distinctive minced kebabs and minarets — as well as the focal point of the insurgency against US troops — Fallujah in early 2014 became the first city in Iraq to be taken by ISIS. Now ISIS is gone, but after several years of war, the city has become a surreal, bombed-out landscape.

Security forces patrol neighborhoods and set up checkpoints along roadways inside and outside of Anbar’s cities and towns. But the proliferation of competing armed forces only adds to the sense of instability. Soldiers at army checkpoints treat uniformed members of the interior ministry’s forces as frostily as they would a suspected insurgent. Powerful militias, allied with political leaders in Baghdad, lord over the soldiers and cops. To make matters even more complicated, all of them look the same. Soldiers, police, and the hashed al-shaabi all appear to have gone shopping together to the same army surplus store, sporting a similar array of often mismatched camouflage uniforms. Only the small patches on their sleeves tell them apart.

Into this febrile mix, families are slowly trickling back from refugee camps. Each returning family passes through multiple checkpoints, their names run through a computer as they are grilled by young men. Some have tried to rebuild their homes but as yet have received no public assistance. “The ordinary people who have a little money have started to rehabilitate,” said Ithany, the tribal leader. “We cannot sense any reconstruction yet. We cannot feel it.”

Iraqis withstood 35 years of war and sanctions and are used to hardship, humiliation, and tyranny. Many locals have little choice but to live in the hovels of their ravaged homes, turning blankets into makeshift walls and using kerosene canisters for heat. “It’s their city, their own very beautiful city,” said Suhaib al-Rawi, the governor of Anbar, during a meeting before hosting a daylong trip into the province. “It’s been destroyed. But they still see their stadiums, homes, cafes. It’s a big wish of the people to go back home.”

But the trauma of the recent conflict, and fears of a return to the violence of the recent past mix with a deep anger lurking close beneath the surface. A divide has formed within Anbar province between those who fought ISIS and those who accommodated them. Distrust of the authorities runs deep. Many worry about tribal retribution perpetuating cycles of violence.

“We faced a lot of difficulties,” said Salah Assad, 26, who had been a taxi driver in Ramadi until ISIS arrived and he took up arms against them. “They attacked us with mortars and snipers. But we remained in place. We protected our homes, along with the tribes and the police. All of the young people deployed to fight ISIS at the river. No one came to help us.”

He reserved his greatest scorn for fellow Iraqis who collaborated with ISIS, whether they joined the jihadi group, fed it intelligence, or tried to accommodate it. “Those people who worked with our enemies,” he said. “They are traitors. They will never be forgiven.”

Though it no longer controls any significant cities in Anbar, ISIS has yet to be truly defeated. It has instead melted into the desert, where it continues to mount an insurgency against Iraqi security forces. Many fear a protracted conflict that could ensnare the US and other international players for years to come.

“ISIS was established in the desert and now it will go back to the desert,” said Hussein Allawi, a Baghdad-based scholar.

In freeing towns and villages from ISIS, security forces are discovering how the jihadis had exploited tribal cleavages to win power. ISIS targeted particular clans, especially those who joined with Americans against al-Qaeda in the late 2000s, while favoring others. Now officials worry the resentments and the cycle of revenge will continue across areas liberated from ISIS.

The lessons from Anbar province cast a shadow across Iraq, up to the northern city of Mosul. There, the Iraqi army, Shia and Sunni paramilitary groups, and Kurdish peshmerga warriors are locked in a grinding offensive to take the city that gave ISIS its power base in the country. Resurrecting Mosul after ISIS is eventually defeated may prove even harder and messier than Anbar. “Maybe it will be even worse and more difficult in Mosul because there it’s not just one color — Sunni Arab — like in Anbar,” said Ithany, the tribal sheikh. “In Mosul, you have Arabs, Kurds, Sunni, Shia, Turkomen, Shabak, Yazidi.”

The officials, community leaders, and civilians attempting to heal the wounds of the past 14 years and restore some sense of normalcy have limited resources, a lack of experience, and themselves suffer through the traumas of the recent past.

But they have one key advantage. In the aftermath of the 2003 US invasion, dozens of insurgent groups sprang up, fighting against US forces and the Baghdad government. Many won the sympathy of Iraqis and across the Arab world, as well as self-styled “anti-imperialists” in the West, as rebels or even “revolutionaries” fighting against US hegemony. An attractive mystique surrounded the armed men who were at least purporting to fight for Iraq’s national aspirations, and they were considered to be separate from the jihadis. Even some members of the US military regarded them as “POIs” — pissed-off Iraqis — who were distinct from the extremists.

But after ISIS took control of large chunks of western and northwestern Iraq in 2014, its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ordered the “nationalist” insurgents to join his project of building a caliphate, or risk death at the hands of his men.

ISIS absorbed the other insurgent groups that had troubled US forces and the Iraqi government, perhaps doing away with the distinction between jihadi extremism and nationalist “resistance” once and for all. “ISIS ate the resistance,” said Hardan, the Anbar tribal leader.

“Now, there is no nationalist resistance,” Major General Hadi Zeid Kessar, commander of Anbar’s interior ministry forces, told me. “There’s only terrorist resistance.”

Kessar, one of the key architects behind ISIS’s military defeat in the province, spoke at a base outside Khalidiya. “The nationalist resistance paved the way for ISIS,” he said. “They allowed ISIS in. They call themselves the defenders of Anbar, but they destroyed Anbar.”

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