ISIS militants set up a checkpoint on a highway in northern Iraq and kidnapped a man from his car. They blew up an electric tower, cutting power to Hawija, a former ISIS stronghold. They kidnapped two people from a health center. They injured six with a car bomb. They killed a municipal worker. They killed a police officer. They beheaded a Kurdish soldier and attacked an Iraqi base. They kidnapped a security officer from his home.
All these attacks and dozens more came in the last two months. They provide a small window into the hundreds of incidents tracked over the last year by an intelligence service in Iraq that show a rise in ISIS attacks in the country — undercutting the Trump White House’s claims that the group has been defeated.
The data shows that ISIS routinely launches attacks around its former strongholds in northern Iraq — and it aligns with an increase in attacks that analysts have tracked across the country.
The intelligence service, the Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC), has been a key US ally in the war against ISIS, working with US special operations forces and supporting ground operations. The data set, which was shared with BuzzFeed News, focuses on areas on the edges of Kurdish territory, including the sensitive region of Kirkuk, as well as war-battered cities such as Mosul, Hawija and Makhmour. It shows the number of incidents rising: more than 70 in August, more than 80 in September, and nearly 90 so far in October. (The KRSC has confirmed ISIS responsibility for many of these incidents. For others, including a number of IED attacks and overnight targeting of infrastructure, the ISIS link is suspected.)
“Former ISIS strongholds have re-emerged as strongholds,” a KRSC official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s only getting worse.”
The data supports concerns voiced by analysts closely tracking the conflict: that ISIS has returned to the same insurgent tactics that eroded local resistance and government control before its dramatic capture of Mosul and other Iraqi cities in 2014. This also tracks with claims by ISIS itself about operations that are meant to demonstrate its continued presence in areas where it wants to keep a foothold. “I hate to say it, but it corroborates some of what ISIS is saying out there,” the KRSC official said. “And I think there are many more attacks that we just don’t have access to.”
The KRSC monitoring doesn’t cover some key areas in Iraq that have been vulnerable to ISIS, including the provinces of Saladin, Anbar, and Baghdad, far removed from the Kurdish-controlled region. Alex Mello, a security analyst who tracks ISIS attacks across all of Iraq for the consultancy firm Horizon Client Access, said the KRSC numbers fit with his own assessment that ISIS attacks are on the rise countrywide. “What we’re seeing here are a number of security trends at work,” he said, adding that in many places ISIS has the freedom to move and conduct operations at night, while Iraqi forces have proved unable to fully control former ISIS strongholds.
Several factors have allowed ISIS to remain active in Iraq, where the then–prime minister declared a final victory over ISIS in December. Among them are sectarian and political tensions that have long split Iraq, shortcomings in the security forces, and a failure to rebuild war-torn towns and cities. Katherine Zimmerman, a terrorism specialist at the American Enterprise Institute, warned that a similar environment paved the way for the rise of ISIS after US forces defeated its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, during the Iraq War. “I think that the return of ISIS is a given, because our strategy was never designed to correct the conditions that led to the resurgence of it in the first place,” she said. “There was never a plan for reconciliation.”
She added: “ISIS is going to play dead in order to rebuild its forces, and it’s going to break out rapidly, because the United States is not paying attention to what is happening in Iraq.”
President Trump has touted the defeat of ISIS among his list of accomplishments. “He said he would defeat ISIS and he did,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Monday. ISIS was key to his presidential campaign: He billed himself as the only candidate who could beat it and proposed his self-styled Muslim ban in response to its terrorist attacks. But as ISIS has faded from the headlines, Trump has turned toward new enemies. This week he announced plans to send 5,200 active-duty US troops to police the border with Mexico. Combined with existing deployments, this would put more US service members on the border than in Iraq and Syria.
Trump’s haste to drive ISIS from Mosul; Raqqa, its Syrian capital; and other strongholds may have played into its hands. ISIS aimed, in part, to make those battles as deadly and destructive as possible, in hopes of setting the stage for its eventual return. Trump’s loosening of the rules of engagement on US strikes quickened the offensives but also increased the collateral damage.
Reconstruction — in Mosul, Raqqa and other places once held by ISIS — has been slow. “You don’t knock down buildings and claim victory over a terrorist group that can just go to ground,” said Michael Pregent, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who worked as a US intelligence officer in Iraq between 2006 and 2011. “Every day since ISIS was ‘defeated’ you can google and find attacks by ISIS. Sunni cities have been destroyed. There’s no reconstruction. We’ve simply reset the conditions that led to ISIS.”
ISIS preaches an extremist version of Sunni Islam and has worked to stoke sectarian tensions among Iraq’s Sunni minority, which has been isolated by the Shiite-dominated governments that have been in place since the US invasion in 2003. Pregent said that the prevalence of Shiite militia in the country — and of sectarianism in the ranks of the Iraqi army and federal police — has further inflamed the Sunni population while also making government forces less capable of securing predominantly Sunni areas. “They’re basically strangers in a strange land,” he said.
Adding to the problem is a continued dispute between two key American allies, the federal government in Baghdad and the regional government in Iraqi Kurdistan, which led to the former’s seizure of Kirkuk last year. In many of the areas covered by the KRSC data, ISIS has exploited security gaps caused by a lack of cooperation between Kurdish and Iraqi forces along the borders of contested territory.
Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has been monitoring another alarming trend: an ISIS assassination campaign against local Sunni leaders. ISIS has killed village and neighborhood heads called mukhtar at a rate of more than three per week over the last six months, according to data he has compiled. He said ISIS is moving to eliminate those in the Sunni community who could challenge it.
He cast the assassinations as part of an ISIS strategy aimed not at seizing cities again but at maintaining a long-term presence. “They can’t do a Mosul and mass seizure of terrain again,” he said. “Those conditions have passed — the Iraqi security forces are stronger, ISIS has less space in Syria, and the [US-backed coalition] is aiding Iraq. They will cap out as a strong insurgent movement capable of keeping northern and western Iraq as an unstable, ungovernable space in which displaced people cannot return, infrastructure cannot be rebuilt, and from which ISIS can begin to launch bombing campaigns on cities and international targets.”
Privately, US officials complain about the triumphalist rhetoric coming from the White House. Senior figures with close involvement in the fight, such as Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, have been more realistic in their public comments, careful not to stumble into a “mission accomplished” moment reminiscent of George W. Bush’s premature declaration that the Iraq War was over in 2003.
“ISIS remains a significant threat, and we expect the battle to transition to a low-level insurgency that will continue to require constant pressure for considerable time,” one US official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “As part of that, we see ISIS once again focusing on tactics like kidnapping and targeted assassinations to terrorize those who have stood up to oppose this vile group.”
The grim KRSC data underscores the continued threat.
Around Kirkuk: “ISIS fighters fire on a number of people … killing a policeman from the Tal Zahb station, and a student, as well as injuring three others. Names available.”
Around Hawija: “Four dead bodies were found. One Arab and three Kurdish peshmerga.”
Around Diyala: “ISIS fighters kidnap a local near Aslah and Sheikh Bawa area. His body is discovered in the morning.”
Around Hawija: “ISIS kills the village chief … as locals watch.”