HAMREEN MOUNTAINS, Iraq — Way up in the mountain range that cuts through this volatile region of northern Iraq, a group of ISIS veterans is readying itself to terrorize the country once more. Led by Hiwa Chor, a one-eyed militant in his early forties, they are known as the White Flags.
Arriving around mid-November, Chor and his men — said to number anywhere between 500 and 1,100 — are digging into the Hamreen mountains and launching attacks on local security forces. “After ISIS was finished in the area, they began to gather in the mountains,” Maj. Gen. Rasul Omar Latif, commander of the Iraqi Kurdish forces in Sulaymaniyah province, told BuzzFeed News. Latif shared for the first time with a Western journalist intelligence about the group gathered by Kurdish fighters, spies, and their network of informants. “They are ISIS, but they gave themselves a new name.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared ISIS defeated last December, a call likely timed to give his coalition’s reelection prospects a boost ahead of the vote on May 12. US President Donald Trump claimed credit for devising a military strategy that forced ISIS into “giving up” in Mosul. On Thursday he claimed the US was “knocking the hell out of ISIS.” But ISIS persists as an insurgent group in both Iraq and Syria, and some of its remnants, including the White Flags, already appear to be building new militant factions.
Chor and his fighters named themselves the White Flags, perhaps to contrast themselves with the black flag that symbolizes ISIS. Armed with weapons accumulated over the years fighting alongside ISIS, the White Flags ride in four-wheel-drive pickup trucks through the folds of the mountains, finding shelter from patrols, mortars, and airstrikes launched by Iraqi forces. They dig tunnels to scuttle back and forth between nearby Kurdish and Arab areas, firing mortars at Shia militias arrayed along the mountain range. Equipped with night-vision goggles, they operate deep within the mountains, 7 miles from the outskirts of the city of Tuz Khurmatu, along the highway between Baghdad and the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Last week, fighters still loyal to ISIS claimed to have captured and executed eight members of the Iraqi federal police and a pro-government Shia militia, the so-called Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), along the Baghdad–Kirkuk road, the site of another recent ambush.
Though ISIS and its successors no longer control any of Iraq’s cities, they continue to wreak havoc, with a detectable increase in both attacks and propaganda. Suicide bomb attacks attributed to ISIS have struck Baghdad and Kirkuk. In mid-March, militants reportedly killed seven Iraqi soldiers in the country’s far west.
“They move from place to place in the Hamreen mountains,” said Ahmad Sharifi, a former Iraqi intelligence officer who now serves as security adviser to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest-ranking Shia cleric in Iraq. “No one from our units can recognize the paths they take, because they know the geography. They know the caves.”
In one of their most brazen and complex recent attacks, in February ISIS militants lured members of the PMU to a village just outside Hawija in northern Iraq. The ISIS fighters wore military uniforms and pretended to be members of the Iraqi federal police, manning a checkpoint. The subsequent firefight — partially documented in an ISIS video — lasted two hours, leaving 27 Shia militiamen dead. A week later, charred bone fragments and bits of uniforms remained lodged in the soil.
“It was an ambush,” said Ali Hamdani, a Shia militia leader, as he surveyed the deserted and burned-out village. “They have a wide experience and a new level of training.”
War planners in Washington — after a nearly four-year offensive against ISIS in Iraq and Syria — are closely watching for a potential ISIS resurgence. US-led coalition forces launched an airstrike against a reported ISIS position near the Hamreen mountains on Feb. 21, and claimed to have destroyed ISIS infrastructure in another attack.
“Although ISIS no longer controls any of the population centers in Iraq, there are small ISIS elements still seeking sanctuary in some of the more remote areas in the deserts and in the mountains,” Col. Seth W.B. Folsom, commander of US forces in western Iraq, told reporters on March 20.
The Hamreen mountains are “a very good area for the insurgents to rebuild,” said Hamdani, who is based in Tuz Khurmatu, a disputed city of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens, Shia and Sunni, on the western edge of the mountains. “No one controls the area. They operate like thieves. They block roads. They attack far-off villages. A car passes by, they attack it.”
Though they have to yet to engage in suicide bombings or the multipronged attacks that distinguish militant groups throughout the world, the White Flags have menaced Shia militiamen to the southwest of the Hamreen mountains with mortar fire, clashed with Kurdish peshmerga to the northeast, and launched a rocket against a coalition aircraft, according to Latif. They have also begun to spread out toward Hawija, a former ISIS holdout in the south of Kirkuk, and in the direction of Baghdad.
Security officials, analysts, and locals say the group is collecting recruits, stockpiling weapons, and seeking to build goodwill among the farmers and shepherds who eke out lives in the sparsely populated terrain. “They tell them, ‘We are here to protect you. We are here to liberate you,’” Jamal Warani, a Kurdish peshmerga commander, told BuzzFeed News during a visit to the front line.
“There is something going on,” said Hassan Ali Achoub, a 52-year-old farmer living in the foothills of the Hamreen mountains. Going from farm to farm among several properties he oversees, he has spotted suspicious vehicles and sensed a nervousness among security officials who have begun to designate certain towns and wooded stretches as no-go areas. “People are talking about clashes, in the woods at the edge of the mountains. They are not that big of numbers, but I’m afraid for my children.”
Chor and his men may well be the future of violent extremism in the Middle East but he’s the product of Iraq’s past turmoil. He hails from Kifri, a region of northern Iraq claimed by both ethnic Kurds and Turkmens, which has violently changed hands over the decades.
Chor first came to the attention of local security forces in late 2002 after he had joined a militant group called Ansar al-Islam, which menaced locals in northern Iraq with assassinations and bombings. The group scattered from its stronghold after it was hit by US airstrikes just before the US invasion in 2003. Ansar al-Islam veterans served as foot soldiers and leaders for the kaleidoscope of Sunni insurgent groups feeding off anger at the US occupation and the dominance of Shia politicians and Iranian-backed Shia militia in the new Iraq.
Chor eventually wound up in al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamist group founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who became infamous around the world for dressing up kidnap victims in orange jumpsuits and beheading them on video. Zarqawi was killed in a 2006 US airstrike, but the group he founded endured, eventually mutating into ISIS, run by the even more brutal Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Chor stayed close to home, rarely straying far from the Hamreen mountains. From the start he chafed at some aspects of Baghdadi’s self-declared caliphate, especially its global ambitions, and was eager to break out on his own. He found a like-minded militant in Khaled al-Moradi, a Turkmen from the ethnically and religiously mixed region of Iraq north of Diyala province. After Baghdadi’s men lost control of territory late last year, the two decided to leverage their experience, launching the White Flags. Its flag shows the head of a lion, a representation that would be considered haram or sinful by the most extreme fundamentalists who prohibit the depiction of any living thing.
“Khaled and Hiwa [Chor] always had problems with ISIS — in its ideas and visions,” said Latif, the peshmerga commander.
The new group likely began to form after ISIS’s defeat in Mosul last July, but found a foothold after much of the north of Iraq fell into disarray because of the country’s internal political rifts. A controversial referendum on Kurdish independence enraged Arab Iraqis and prompted Baghdad’s armed forces to seize swaths of disputed territory the Kurds had controlled since the 2003 US invasion.
Kurdish fighters used to patrol the mountains, but fled rather than fight Iraqi government forces. That created an opening for insurgents. Kurdish and Arab forces surround the mountain range and could besiege the militants if they worked together, but they refuse to communicate and blame each other for arming the White Flags and giving them safe passage. In separate interviews, both Iraqi forces and Kurdish officials suggested the creation of a joint operations room in Tuz Khurmatu to coordinate efforts against the White Flags or any other insurgent groups taking up residence in the mountains, but no one has taken such an initiative.
“There’s no official communications between us and them,” said Latif, the peshmerga commander, speaking of the Shia militiamen and Iraqi soldiers and federal police on the other side of the Hamreen mountains.
The UN’s mission to Iraq reported this month that civilian deaths due to political violence have fallen in recent months to their lowest number in years. But over the last 15 years, Iraq’s political leaders have repeatedly squandered such lulls, and each low tends to be followed by a dramatic spike. The upcoming elections will more likely exacerbate Iraq’s intercommunal tensions rather than ease them.
What happens in Iraq reverberates beyond its borders. Iraq spawned both the radical Sunni groups that morphed into ISIS and the Iranian-backed Shia militias that fight alongside Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and now threaten Iraq’s sovereignty and democratic gains. Conditions that fuel political and sectarian violence in Iraq — from a lack of reconstruction and rampant corruption to cleavages between political, ethnic, and ideological factions, and hostility between regional powers — have deteriorated in the four years since the arrival of ISIS.
Disputes between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Kurds, the governments in Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan, the Assad regime and Syrian rebels have only worsened. Sunni cities like Mosul, Ramadi, and Fallujah have all been devastated by the ISIS war.
Since ISIS lost its territory, what cooperation there was between Iraq’s Shia, Sunni, and Kurds has all but ended. Like their precursors in al-Qaeda and ISIS, the White Flags have managed to home in on the country’s festering sectarian, ethnic, and ideological wounds. They direct attacks against Shia militias, especially ones composed of ethnic Turkmens. Each attack exacerbates suspicions among the Kurds, Turkmens, Arabs, Sunnis, and Shia vying for the region’s limited water, agriculture, and oil resources.
“There’s this boiling pot of anger and it’s affecting the youth in the Sunni areas,” said Anne Speckhard, director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism in Washington, who travels frequently to Iraq to interview jailed ISIS members. “It’s the same issues all over again. They are feeling disenchanted and angry and looking for solutions.”
Kilometer 18 is a place marker on the highway west of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. It is here, on this barren stretch of flat desert, that the Iraqi army, federal police, and Sunni tribal militias hold the line against ISIS. The militants are massed to the north near the Syrian border and to the south near the Saudi border, biding their time.
A shifting cast of soldiers, federal police, and local militias in mismatched uniforms — some wearing running shoes and others in boots — are arrayed along the desert in trenches and at checkpoints. Two days earlier a Toyota pickup truck loaded with explosives drove up to a nearby checkpoint, said local security forces. The driver hesitated for a moment, and an alert police officer discerned something was wrong. The men opened fire, killing him on the spot before he could detonate the car.
“The threat comes from the desert,” Lt. Col. Omar Abbas Hamid, a federal police commander who helps oversee Kilometer 18, said one afternoon in March. “ISIS comes from the desert, usually at night. That’s when the ambushes take place.”
But the greatest challenge posed by ISIS may lie within the front line, in the homes and minds of Iraqis. ISIS continues to pay fighters, according to Iraqi officials in Anbar province, where ISIS first arrived in Iraq in early 2014 and nearly took over before it was beaten back to the country’s far western borders over four years of grueling air and land war that decimated the province’s cities and towns.
“Until this moment they are providing salaries,” said Mohammad Shabaan, a leader of a Sunni tribal militia and a candidate for parliament in upcoming elections, who led his men against ISIS in the city of Khalidiya. “They are still cooperating with people and maintaining their networks, providing $500-per-month salaries,” he said. “If someone is ill they will give money to help. They show people they’re still around and have a presence.”
Another top Iraqi security official in Anbar province, speaking on condition of anonymity to voice criticism of Iraq’s political class and neighboring countries, said the country’s factional strife, the instability in Syria, and tensions between Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the US would guarantee a continued space for ISIS or other groups to operate.
“Maybe in the coming period there will be new groups,” he said. “The jihadis are rebuilding themselves. They lost a lot in terms of personnel, equipment, and weapons. They are trying to reemerge, to reassert themselves, and to reorganize. When their capability becomes better, they will launch more attacks.”
“For sure, they will come back,” he said.
Many ISIS loyalists, as well as veterans of other insurgent groups, never left. They remain in Anbar, able to live their lives while under surveillance by the security forces. “We have an agreement with them,” said Shabaan, who fought against ISIS’s predecessors a decade ago. “If they want to live with us, they can, but if they raise their head we will cut it off.”
Shabaan and others worry about young Sunni men whose psyches are tangled up in an Iraqi version of toxic masculinity. They are naturally drawn to ISIS because the group gives them status and identity. Speckhard, the American scholar, has interviewed dozens of ISIS prisoners and warns that the mentality that drew young men to ISIS persists, feeding off continued resentment.
“The ideology is not destroyed,” she said. “ISIS is selling a dream of dignity, purpose, significance, prosperity, and justice. And if people face injustice, economic marginalization, and insignificance they think, ‘Okay, we didn’t get it right last time but we have to fight for it because this is our dream, this is our religion.’ That’s powerful.”
Until a few months ago, Ahmed Dahan used to run a shop in al-Qaim, in far western Iraq. He earned enough to support his wife and kids, owned his own house and a car. But they were forced to flee as fighting between US-backed Iraqi forces and ISIS engulfed their city last year, losing everything. Dahan now makes do with handouts in a displaced persons camp carved out along a hill in eastern Anbar province.
Dahan said neither he nor his relatives had anything to do with ISIS, but managed to live under their rule. Now he fears both the militants and pro-government forces. In hushed tones away from the ears of the camp’s guards, he described what is happening in his hometown, which lacks electricity, water, any hospitals or schools. “I’m afraid of oppression,” he said. “Bad things are happening in al-Qaim. People come and say, ‘You are ISIS,’ or ‘You supported ISIS’ and they take you away. I don’t know who they are. Police? Army? Militias? They come for you at night. And they kill you.”
Pockets of fear and discontent are not hard to find in Anbar province, which remains largely in ruins, even as the cash-strapped central government struggles to rebuild roads, water pipes, and electricity lines destroyed during the ISIS war. Many of those who returned home make do with little. Fifty-year-old shopkeeper Abdul-Razzaq Awad Samir used to be solidly middle class. He, his wife Suham, and their eight children fled to Erbil when the war caught up to their Khalidiyah neighborhood, spending much of their savings on rent. When they finally returned several weeks ago, they discovered their house was a pile of rubble.
Samir borrowed $20,000 from relatives, fixed up the house and the shops. Five of his kids remain in school but he’s forlorn that they fell behind a year because of the war. They’re now trying to resume their education. “They need money for school,” he said. “They need support.”
Security officials in Anbar say that the most effective way to prevent ISIS’s return is to restore ordinary life to the cities, bringing back displaced families and getting the economy going. Jobs, jobs, jobs, they repeat again and again. Get the people out of displaced persons camps and back to their homes. Get agriculture back on track. Reopen the glass factory in Ramadi, the tourism sites at Lake Habbaniyah and Thiqar. Get the phosphate mines going. Give the people some hope and they will turn away from the allure of militant groups, they say.
But few believe change is coming. Iraq’s political class remains as corrupt as ever, divvying up the country’s spoils. The general perception is that Iraq’s political leaders have spent the last 15 years fighting among themselves, rather than serving the people.
“The upcoming elections really highlight Iraq’s problems,” said Speckhard. “If you get the same old crowd and they’re not even saying change or reform then what do you have to look forward to? People are frustrated, disappointed.”
Even those fighting on behalf of the central government in Baghdad acknowledge this deep disappointment. Security forces at checkpoints regularly voice disgust at their leaders. “We are victims of the elites and the politicians,” said Hamdani, the Shia militia leader. “We need to have an uprising against the politicians the same way we had an uprising against ISIS.”
A number of Iraqi security officials and analysts argue that Sunnis by and large have given up on the idea of violent conflict against the central government and are ready to join the political process, traumatized by the experience of having ISIS ravage their cities and towns. “What happened to Sunnis in 2014 when ISIS came never happened to them before,” said Sajad Jiyad, an analyst at al-Bayan Center for Planning and Studies, a think tank in Baghdad. “They were displaced from their homes. They were forced into camps. For the first time ever, Sunnis have gone through the holocaust that Shia and Kurds have gone through. They will never want to go through that again. They don’t have the stomach.”
But Sunnis continue to lack credible political leaders and are frequently subjected to abuse and discrimination. Hundreds of thousands remain displaced, and though many have returned, they often find little but rubble, as the shopkeeper Samir’s family discovered. Many are too afraid to return to areas where they worry they could be accused of being ISIS sympathizers and disappear at the hands of security forces or rival tribes seeking retribution. It remains unclear how displaced people inform themselves about the candidates and their issues, let alone vote.
Dahan, the displaced shopkeeper at the camp, smiled when asked whether he would vote in the elections. He said he had lost any faith he ever had in Iraqi politicians, and he was sure ISIS or some other insurgent group such as the White Flags would return. “Do you know how?” he said. “By the lack of cooperation between Iraqis.” ●
Khalid Ali contributed additional reporting to this story.