Wednesday July 17, 2019
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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

Devastating Islamic State Terror Group Set Conditions for Comeback

ISIS’s Second Comeback: Assessing the Next ISIS Insurgency, by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW)

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Islamic State, Terror, Comeback
FILE - Islamic State members walk in the last besieged neighborhood in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria, March 10, 2019. VOA

The Islamic State terror group has set conditions for a comeback that “could be faster and even more devastating” than when it first burst onto the world stage, according to a new report out Wednesday.

ISIS’s Second Comeback: Assessing the Next ISIS Insurgency, by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW), also warns the terror group, often referred to as IS or ISIS, is likely to reclaim territory both in Syria and in Iraq, where it is already seizing control.

“ISIS has systematically eliminated village leaders and civilians who cooperated with anti-ISIS forces,” the report says. “It has re-imposed taxes on local populations in its historical support zones, displacing civilians and de facto controlling small pockets of terrain in Iraq.”

In Syria, IS faces a more daunting task, where it is still battling the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad, and Hay’at Tharir al-Sham, al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate.

Islamic State, Terror, Comeback
FILE — A member of U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) watches over people who were evacuated out of the last territory held by Islamic State militants, outside Baghouz, Syria, March 5, 2019. VOA

Still, the report’s authors believe IS is well-prepared for the fight, having taken advantage of the slow and methodical U.S.-backed campaign to roll back the terror group’s self-declared caliphate.

“ISIS deliberately withdrew and relocated many of its fighters and their families,” the reports states.

“ISIS’s forces are now dispersed across both countries and are waging a capable insurgency,” it says. “ISIS retained a global finance network that funded its transition back to an insurgency and managed to preserve sufficient weapons and other supplies in tunnel systems and other support zones in order to equip its regenerated insurgent force.”

The concerns about a possible IS resurgence are not new.

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As far back as August 2018, U.S. defense officials were warning IS was “well-positioned to rebuild and work on enabling its physical caliphate to re-emerge.”

More recently, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Stabilization Denise Natali warned, “the threat persists.”

And even this week, a statement by the Global Coalition to Defeat IS, admitted the terror group remains both resilient and undaunted, with cells in Syria and Iraq to conduct an increasing number of attacks against coalition partners and coalition partner forces.

“This is a major concern for the entire Coalition, as it puts at risk key military gains and the stability necessary for recovery,” the statement said.

Islamic State, Terror, Comeback
FILE – A U.S. soldier sits in an armored vehicle on a road leading to the tense front line with Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria, April 4, 2018. Pixabay

Data compiled by the Syrian-based Rojava Information Center and published earlier this month seems to support such concerns.

The center found there were 139 attacks by IS sleeper cells in northeastern Syria alone in May, an increase of 61% over the previous month. The number of deaths also rose, 42% in May to 78, with increases even in previously secure areas.

In addition to the attacks, IS has been blamed for burning hundreds of hectares of farmland in Syria and Iraq.

According to the most recent U.S. estimates, IS still commands at least 10,000 fighters across the two countries.  But despite the threat, U.S. troops involved in supporting the fight against IS have been leaving Syria.

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“The number of U.S. forces that are present now is quite a bit lower than when the drawdown began,” Chris Maier, the director of the Pentagon’s Defeat IS Task Force, told a small group of reporters last month.

“U.S. force numbers will continue to draw down as conditions continue to, we hope, improve,” he added.

Since then, some U.S. forces have been assigned to return to Syria, but according to U.S. defense officials, their primary mission is to protect forces there from growing threats from Iranian proxies in the region.

The overall trendlines, though, concern the authors of the ISW report, calling the lessening U.S. engagement, especially in Syria, “a critical mistake.”

Instead, the report calls on the U.S. to develop a long-term strategy that combines both military and a plan to address ongoing economic and humanitarian problems.

“Another limited intervention will not be sufficient,” concludes study co-author Jennifer Cafarella.

“The ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria has demonstrated to ostensibly liberated communities that they are not safe, perpetuating conditions of fear and distrust that will make it increasingly difficult to establish durable and legitimate security and political structures.” (VOA)