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Militants Regrouping to Attack in Syria, Iraq and Around the World even after Final Victory

“If we don’t get rid of the extremism, IS can come back at any time and destabilize our lands"

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IS, islamic state, syria
Many children are growing up in camps since they fled Islamic State militants, missing out on their education, pictured in Hassan Sham, Iraq on Feb. 21, 2019. VOA

In October 2016, Umm Aysha and her three children huddled on the ground outside a bombed-out shopping plaza with a crowd of other women, all wearing the black veils required by Islamic State militants.

They were on the outskirts of Mosul city in Iraq, fleeing a battle as Iraqi, Syrian and coalition forces pummeled IS across the region from neighborhood to neighborhood, city to city and village to village. “Our house was bombed,” she told VOA, explaining why she fled.

That battle subsided and bit by bit, IS lost the lands they captured over the previous three years. On Saturday, after five years of fighting, the militants lost their last sliver of land, a bombed out camp in Syria. What was once a self-proclaimed “Caliphate,” occupying vast territories in Iraq and Syria and bent on the destruction, is now once again an elusive insurgency.

 But besides broken hearts, homes and families, IS is leaving a new threat in its wake, said Badran Chiya Kurd, an advisor for the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which declared the final victory. Militants are regrouping and hope to continue to attacks in Syria, Iraq and around the world, he said.
islamic state, IS, syria
In the final weeks IS held a camp near Baghuz, Syria thousands of people evacuated the area, far more than any militaries or aid groups expected, pictured near Baghuz on March 10, 2019. VOA

Recovery for now-destroyed former IS holdings, including major cities in both Syria and Iraq, will require political will, investment and education, according to Kurd. If cities and towns remain in shambles without services or economies to speak of, extremism will continue to thrive, no matter who is officially in charge, he said.

“If we don’t get rid of the extremism, IS can come back at any time and destabilize our lands,” he added, speaking on the phone from his office in Qameshli, Syria.

Over the last few months, SDF forces battled for Baghuz, the last IS stronghold. Militants fought bitterly as IS supporters poured into camps and prisons, often vowing that IS will rise again.

But even back in 2016, when IS’s imminent demise was just becoming apparent in Mosul, Umm Aysha could see members of the group plotting their survival.

“There were two militants wearing veils among the women we came with,” she whispered. “They were wearing makeup and everything.”

Unveiled

The next time we saw Umm Aysha was only a few weeks later in November 2016, but we didn’t recognize her at first. She had cast off the black full-body and face veil and replaced it with a pink headscarf and a smile.

islamic state, syria, IS
In the final weeks IS held a camp near Baghuz, Syria thousands of people evacuated the area, far more than any militaries or aid groups expected, pictured near Baghuz on March 10, 2019. VOA

She was at one of the camps housing displaced families in northern Iraq, and the weeks without bombings had been a relief. The camp was quickly filling up and others were opening across Iraq and Syria. Millions of people would flee their homes as the fighting continued.

“It’s this one,” she said, showing us the tent her family would make a home for the winter, despite the increasingly cold and rainy weather.

She didn’t know then, that this tent would become her only home.

Over the course of the next 28 months, IS-held towns and cities fell to Iraqi, Syrian and coalition forces. Thousands of civilians were killed in airstrikes, and the bodies of militants were left strewn across the region.

In the final few months of fighting, many of the most devoted IS fighters finally surrendered after retreating for months or years with the group before their “last stand” in Baghuz.

Syrian camps and prisons are now packed with IS supporters, including thousands of foreigners–fighters, their wives and their children–from countries that are hesitating, and in some cases refusing, to take them back.

islamic state, syria, IS
“Of course they will grow up with the same ideologies as their fathers,” she said. “I tell my children not to talk about these things.” VOA

Many areas once occupied by IS have been rebuilt, but many have not. Locals whisper that they still fear IS and describe circumstances that lead to the rise of the group that are still present. The region remains unstable, poor and people often feel neglected by authorities.

“It was lucky we escaped early,” Umm Aysha told VOA in late-February this year as the final battles raged on in Syria. We sat in a small space secluded by tarps and blankest outside her tent, as she held her youngest child. Aysha was born only six months before and has never lived outside a camp. “If we had stayed with IS, who knows what my children would be like?”

Future adults

Umm Aysha’s older three children played in the sun, vying to pose for pictures. They were not in school for different reasons. Marwa is 12, and stays home to help with household chores. Nahida, is 4. “I don’t have a backpack,” she said, explaining why she doesn’t go.

Mahmoud, 8, finds some of the children at school to be bullies and his mom fears the ones whose fathers were IS fighters could teach him extremist ideas.

syria, islamic state, IS
More than 90 percent of the population of al-Hol camp are women and children, and most are related to IS members, in al-Hol camp, Syria, March 4, 2019. VOA

“Of course they will grow up with the same ideologies as their fathers,” she said. “I tell my children not to talk about these things.”

At the al-Hol camp in Syria a week later, as IS was in the final throws of battle in Baghuz, children there said they were also not attending school. With about 62,000 new arrivals at the camp since December 4, 2018, the camp is in crisis, short of tents and other far more urgent supplies.

More than 90 percent of the newly-arrived people at al-Hol are women and children, and camp workers say they are nearly all related to IS. Several mothers told us they plan to raise their children to support the next generation of IS, and hope their sons will join the insurgency.

islamic state, IS, syria
Iraqi Federal police tour a neighborhood shortly after a battle, still littered with rubble and bodies of militants in Mosul, Iraq on March 16, 2017. VOA

“My children are free to be fighters or not,” said Umm Mohammed, a mother of five with her black veil fully covering her eyes. “But Islamic State was good.” Like Umm Aysha, Umm Mohammed does not know when, how or if she will be able to move her children out of the camp.

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And across the border in Iraq, Umm Aysha says although she fears IS will soon regroup, that is not the real reason she still lives in a camp, more than two years after she fled her home. She used to live in the suburbs of Mosul, but her neighborhood was destroyed and she doesn’t have the money to rebuild.

“Where would we go back to?” she asked, shrugging. (VOA)

Next Story

Here’s Everything you Need to Know About the Increasing Islamic State Terror Activity in Syria

Surge of IS Violence and Terrorism Seen in Syria

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Smoke Syria
Smoke rises while people gather at a damaged site after two bomb blasts claimed by Islamic State hit the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli near the Turkish border, Syria. VOA

By Sirwan Kajjo

Islamic State militants have increased their terror activity in recent weeks in Syria, carrying out deadly attacks against Syrian regime troops and U.S.-backed forces.

Since early December, the terror group has conducted at least three major attacks on Syrian government forces and their allied militias in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, local sources said.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor that has reporters across the country, recent attacks claimed by IS against Syrian military forces have killed at least 30 soldiers and wounded more than 50 others.

Last week, at least three fighters with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces were killed in what local military officials described as a suicide attack carried out by IS militants in the province of Raqqa, IS’s former de facto capital before it was freed in 2017 by the SDF and its U.S.-led allies.

Islamic State Syria
Islamic State militants clean their weapons in Deir el-Zour city, Syria. VOA

‘Threat to our forces’ 

IS “terrorists still pose a threat to our forces, especially in the eastern part of Syria,” an SDF commander told VOA.

“They have been able to regroup and reorganize in some remote parts of Deir el-Zour, where there is a smaller presence of our forces or any other forces,” said the commander, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to journalists.

He added that despite the declaration of the physical defeat of the terror group in March 2019, IS “still has hundreds of sleeper cells that have the capability to wage deadly attacks on civilians and combatants alike.”

In the town of Tabqa, in western Raqqa, local news reports this week said a suspected IS sleeper cell assaulted a family, killing three of its members, including a child. The reports did not say why the family was attacked, but IS has in the past targeted people whom it suspected of having ties to or working for the government or U.S.-backed local forces.

While most of the recent activity has been in areas IS once controlled as part of its so-called caliphate, the militant group has been particularly active in Syria’s vast desert region.

The Syrian Observatory reported at least 10 IS-claimed attacks in December that originated from the mostly desert eastern part of Homs province in central Syria.

Baghdadi’s death

Islamic State Syria
The Islamic State group’s leader extolled militants in Sri Lanka for “striking the homes of the crusaders in their Easter, in vengeance for their brothers in Baghouz,” a reference to IS’ last bastion in eastern Syria, which was captured by U.S.-backed fighters. VOA

Despite the death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in October in a U.S. operation in northwestern Syria, IS still represents a major threat in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, experts say.

“As ISIS returns to its original decentralized structure, members of the group are trying to show ISIS still poses a threat, even after the defeat of its caliphate and the recent death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” said Kaleigh Thomas, a Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, using another acronym for IS.

Sadradeen Kinno, a Syrian researcher who closely follows Islamist militancy, echoed Thomas’ views.

“IS is now living a period of stability, so to speak. After the death of Baghdadi, their objective is clearer now. They try to stay focused on carrying out assassinations, ambushes and suicide attacks, and they have been successful at that,” he told VOA.

Kinno said IS “really believes in a recurrent cycle of violence, so for them the territorial defeat they experienced this year is just a phase of their ongoing jihad.”

US withdrawal 

U.S. vehicles Syria
A convoy of U.S. vehicles is seen after withdrawing from northern Syria, on the outskirts of Dohuk, Iraq. VOA

U.S. President Donald Trump in October announced a withdrawal of troops from Syria, which was followed by a Turkish military offensive against U.S.-backed SDF fighters in northeast Syria.

Some experts say the U.S. troop pullout allowed IS to regroup, and thus its terror attacks have increased.

“The U.S. decision sent a signal to [IS] that the U.S. is not interested in a long-term presence in Syria,” said Azad Othman, a Syrian affairs analyst based in Irbil, Iraq.

IS “now feels that its low-level insurgency in Syria could be even more effective as long as the Americans don’t have a significant military presence in the country,” he told VOA.

The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency said in a report in November that “ISIS has exploited the Turkish incursion and subsequent drawdown of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria to reconstitute its capabilities and resources both within Syria in the short term and globally in the longer term.”

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“The withdrawal and redeployment of U.S. troops has also affected the fight against ISIS, which remains a threat in the region and globally,” Glenn Fine, the principal deputy inspector general, said in the report.

But the U.S. has decided to keep about 500 troops to secure oil fields in Syria to prevent IS militants and the Syrian regime forces from accessing them. (VOA)