After ISIS, Iraq is still broken.
This week’s suicide attack in al-Qaim, a district in Anbar Province that is near the border with Syria, killed at least eight people. Separately, a suicide bombing in Kirkuk killed two police officers. ISIS is active in both areas.
“ISIS never went anywhere. It’s still on ISIS 1.0,” Michael Knights, an expert on Iraq at the Washington Institute, told me. “All they did was in every area where they lost the ability to control terrain, they immediately transitioned to an insurgency.”
The Iraqi government and its allies, rightly, viewed the victories against the group last year as a moment to celebrate for a country coming off years of unrest. But ISIS, Knights said, merely viewed the loss of the major Iraqi cities it had controlled as a milestone on a continuum of conflict. “They don’t view it as the end of their operations,” he said. “They just view it as a movement to a new phase of their operation.” Knights recently visited Baghdad and met with officials there.
Indeed, in the three predominantly Sunni provinces where ISIS was once dominant—Diyala, Salah ah-Din, and Anbar—the group has now returned to conducting potent insurgent attacks. “The quantitative figures say that ISIS is operating at an early 2013 level in most places,” Knights said. “But qualitatively, more important, you can see that ISIS had returned to the very targeted violence that allowed it to dominate the rural areas in 2012-2013.”
Knights, who studies the insurgency in Iraq closely, says one good indicator of whether ISIS is regaining strength in Iraq is to see how many moqtars—village elders—are being killed by the militants. Over the past six months, he said, an average of three and a half moqtars have been murdered by ISIS each week.
“Now, that means in a month, 14 villages see the most important person in the village murdered by ISIS. Over a six-month period, that means that 84 villages have seen the most important person in their village murdered by ISIS,” he told me. “And over a year, that means 168 villages have seen the most important person in their village murdered by ISIS without the security forces being able to do anything about this.” Extrapolate that to the year 2020, and that figure will be 500 villages—just at the current rate, he said.
“What this does is completely erode the faith of the population in the security forces,” he said. “They don’t cooperate with the security forces out of fear. They don’t oppose ISIS. They don’t inform on ISIS. And, eventually, their kids start to see ISIS as the strongest force in the area.”
What ISIS did last year was to disperse and melt in among the civilian population. Fighters hide in the sorts of places where it is the hardest to find them: caves, mountains, river deltas. ISIS has also returned to the playbook that made it a force in 2012 and 2013: attacks, assassinations, and intimidation—especially at night.