The New ISIS Insurgency

What Jihadists Do After Losing Territory

Oil fields burned by Islamic State fighters south of Mosul, Iraq, December 2016.   Ammar Awad / REUTERS

Late last year, Iraqi army intelligence issued a security warning for southern Salahadin, which it had recently recaptured: an Islamic State (ISIS) insurgent group threatened to kill Shiite pilgrims who were on their way to holy sites in Samara. Although the Iraqi military had made remarkable progress reinstating control over Anbar, Northern Diyala, and Salahadin, the news was sobering. More than anything, it recalled the kind of insurgent activity that plagued Iraq from 2004 to 2008, and it raised a question: can Baghdad really end the war?

Whatever the security forces might hope, after a defeat, ISIS members don’t simply give up their cause or switch their allegiance; they merely change their tactics. Just as ISIS members once came together from disparate groups such as Ansar al-Islam, Ansar al-Sunna, Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, and the Islamic State of Iraq, they now return to the safety of small insurgency units. Although these groups’ flags rotate regularly, the people carrying them remain the same.

One example is the ISIS insurgency cell operating in the marshlands near Lake Hamrin. ISIS once controlled the territory next to the marshlands, but it was liberated in December 2014. Now, one side of the area is controlled by Kurdish forces and Shiite militias, and the other is governed by the Iraqi federal government. This division of labor makes the marshlands a perfect territory for former ISIS members to conduct insurgency campaigns on both sides. Recently, they were even able to destroy the electrical towers that supply several villages.

A member of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces in a military vehicle during a battle with Islamic State militants in Mosul, November 2016. Alaa Al-Marjani / REUTERS

This 100-strong insurgency group is presumed to be headed by a local, a 39-year-old ex-policeman named Ahmad Hassan Abd. He first joined al Qaeda in his home area and then left to fight elsewhere. Later, he and a small number of local militants appeared in the video of ISIS taking Mosul. Now that ISIS is losing territory, he’s returned to run an insurgency that is similar to al Qaeda’s in its tactics but operates under the ISIS flag.

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