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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Western security sources have said that ISIS is “resurgent”, using the coronavirus crisis to rebuild its strength for an offensive.
The terrorist group has capitalised on the confusion and chaos caused by the pandemic to recruit and rearm, the sources said.
With the US distracted by the crisis and in the process of drawing down troop numbers from front lines in Afghanistan, pressure on the extremists has eased, allowing them to regroup.
This month, ISIS attacked Iraqi paramilitaries, killing at least 10 people. The assault included a bomb planted in the path of reinforcements and the use of boats to outflank security forces.
“You cannot take your eye off the ball with these people as they have not gone away,” a western security source told The National. “They are resurgent. They’re not at their high point by any means but their trajectory is going up, whereas a couple of years ago it was going down, and Covid is certainly making it a bit difficult to keep a lid on Daesh.”
Daesh has evolved – it is now going back to traditional sleeper cells, gradually building up its strength
ISIS is continuing to exploit refugee camps for training, influence and radicalisation, in particular the 70,000 people in Al Hawl camp in north-east Syria.
As well as honing their military tactics, the militants are well funded and use "significant" numbers of women to co-ordinate their activities.
“They are enabling these attacks and the opportunity from Covid to recruit, train and get back on the front foot,” the source said. “Daesh has evolved – it is now going back to traditional sleeper cells, gradually building up its strength. There is also no shortage of money.”
Since the pandemic struck, ISIS has engaged in direct firefights with Iraqi security forces rather than using roadside bombs and snipers.
“They’re bolder, more aggressive,” a Western diplomat told an International Crisis Group analysts for a report issued this month. “They use IEDs [improvised explosive devices], but more and more they engage in firefights … and they kill.”
But Iraq's Brig Gen Yahya Rasool played down reports that the terrorist group was resurgent.
“You have some remnants of the organisation, cells, that try to carry out operations here and there, in desert areas like western Anbar or on plains, ravines and mountains,” the Iraqi defence spokesman told Crisis Group. “Areas where the nature of the terrain is difficult, which are hard to totally control."
Coalition forces have also continued to provide air strikes and drone support for Iraqi soldiers in the past month.
But there are growing concerns that a weakening of Iraq's relationship with Washington was emboldening the terrorist group.
The US has had a presence in Iraq since it invaded in 2003 but President Donald Trump has insisted on a reducing troop numbers, which has taken pressure off the extremists.
With Iran providing precision missile capabilities to its proxies in Iraq, US troops are under greater threat and are now using aircraft and drones to protect themselves.
It was understood that the Americans were also pursuing the offensive against ISIS with “less energy”, the security source said.
Tensions between the US and Iraq have also been high following the assassination of Iran’s Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad by a US drone in January.
There is also a perceived failure in the West to understand the implications of the killing of the paramilitary leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis alongside the Quds Force commander.
“The Iraqis were seriously annoyed,” the security source said. “He was the main connection with the government and he was a key player. Fortunately, now Iraq has a new government the ability for the US and Iraq to talk is getting stronger. Meetings are planned for next month about the future of the coalition.”
America faces further hostility with Iraqi opponents calling its presence an “occupation” and a heated debate over whether its troops should be expelled.
ISIS is also exploiting the fact joint operations between Peshmerga and Iraqi security forces are not as co-ordinated as in the past.
With Iraqi security forces distracted by enforcing coronavirus measures, ISIS urged its followers in March to use this as an opportunity to step up attacks.
With low oil prices and spreading Covid-19 infections, Iraq’s new government faces a testing summer. Although ISIS is unlikely to reach its self-declared caliphate status of five years ago there is real concern over its resurgence. “It’s clear something is happening,” said one western diplomat.
Updated: May 26, 2020 09:18 PM
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