Islamic State terrorists in Iraq have regrouped and are “now a force” once again threatening to gain control of significant territories in the country, a commander of the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga warned on Wednesday.
The Islamic State once controlled a “caliphate” that spanned through both Syria and Iraq, in which jihadists committed acts of genocide, mass murder, rape, slavery, and theft, among other atrocities. The capital of the “caliphate” — Raqqa, Syria — fell at the hands of Syrian Kurdish and American forces in 2017, eliminating the attempt at an administrative state the jihadists had created. In 2019, President Donald Trump announced to the world that the head of the organization, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had died “like a coward” in a U.S. military operation, committing suicide after being cornered and killing some of his family.
Much of the world’s attention has since diverted away from the group’s terrorist activities in Iraq and Syria, particularly given its comparatively more successful efforts in places like southern Africa and Afghanistan. The Peshmerga, the military forces of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), urged greater attention to the situation in the region and the threat that ISIS once again poses following an attack on Tuesday.
“Daesh [ISIS] is not in the reorganization stage anymore; Daesh is now a force, a force dangerous for the region,” Brigadier General Dler Shko Rashid of the Peshmerga told Kurdish outlet Rudaw in a report published Thursday. Rashid warned that the Islamic State terrorists were taking advantage of “security vacuums” created by tensions between the KRG and the government of Iraq. The KRG operates as an autonomous entity from Baghdad, just as the Peshmerga operates separately from the Iraqi military. The Iraqi military does not permit the Peshmerga to enter some regions on the border of the KRG and the rest of Iraq, but has also not placed security assets there, allowing ISIS to establish strongholds.
“These gaps change from one area to another, for example from Front Two to some places it’s 30-40 kilometers, ours is 10-15 kilometers,” Rashid explained. “Unfortunately, in those places, they [Iraq] don’t let our forces go there, nor can they protect it or be present there.”
Tensions between Baghdad and the KRG peaked in 2017 following the fall of the Islamic State, when KRG leaders held a referendum on seceding from the rest of Iraq. The vote overwhelmingly supported secession, but Iraqi Kurdistan received almost no support internationally, including from the allied administration of President Donald Trump. Baghdad used the opportunity to expel the Peshmerga from areas like Kirkuk, where it had overseen security after Iraqi soldiers fled an ISIS invasion, leaving security gaps.
Significant tensions between the two sides are the product of Baghdad legalizing the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a network of largely Shiite, Iran-backed militias who fought the Islamic State during the existence of the ISIS caliphate. With the Islamic State largely eradicated, the newly legal PMF — which includes groups the United States has designated terrorist organizations — began attacking the Peshmerga.
The KRG’s Peshmerga Ministry formally urged the Iraqi military to negotiate a “comprehensive agreement” to close the security gaps ISIS is exploiting on Wednesday following the deadly Islamic State attack that prompted Rashid’s warning.
“We reiterate that the terrorist movements have increased, and they are adopting new ways to carry out attacks and pose threat,” the Peshmerga statement read.
While the PMF and Peshmerga have regularly engaged in conflict, the resurgence of ISIS threatens both. A series of attacks on Tuesday night in Diyala, northern Iraq reportedly killed two members of the PMF and one Peshmerga soldier. A week ago, ISIS attacked the Peshmerga on the road connecting Kirkuk to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, killing one. Another Islamic State attack last week reportedly killed three Peshmerga soldiers.
A Pentagon report issued to Congress last week appeared to support Peshmerga statements expressing alarm about the reconstruction of the Islamic State presence in Iraq.
“The [Defense Intelligence Agency] DIA reported that the conditions that fostered ISIS’s rise in 2014 still exist and may help promote ISIS’s recruiting efforts among Iraqi Sunnis,” the May 4 report read, according to Rudaw. “ISIS focused its activity during the quarter in Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, and Salahadin provinces, and in areas surrounding Baghdad and Mosul.”
Echoing Kurdish officials, the report stated that ISIS exploited mountainous terrain outside of the control of both Baghdad and Erbil “to conduct ambushes and IED attacks against the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces], the Peshmerga, and the PMF.” It also noted that the border between Iraq and Syria remains porous and has helped the remnants of the Islamic State arrange its assets in favorable ways to pose a greater threat to both countries.
The official American-led coalition against the Islamic State estimated in November 2020 that as many as 10,000 active members of the Islamic State were roaming free in Iraq and Syria, about a fourth of the number of jihadists there at the peak of the “caliphate.”
“They are not going to take over any territory, because we’ve defeated them territorially. Now they are doing an insurgency,” Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) spokesman Col. Wayne Marotto warned at the time. OIR is the formal name of the coalition against ISIS.