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.

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