Islamic State militants who escaped the defeat of their self-described caliphate in Syria earlier this year have been slipping across the border into Iraq, bolstering a low-level insurgency the group is now waging across the central and northern part of the country, according to security officials.
About 1,000 fighters have crossed into Iraq during the past eight months, most of them in the aftermath of the caliphate’s collapse in March, said Hisham al-Hashimi, a security analyst who advises Iraq’s government and foreign aid agencies.
Those fighters, mostly Iraqis who followed ISIS into Syria, are now returning home to join militant cells that have been digging into rugged rural areas, sustained by intimate knowledge of the local terrain, including concealed tunnels and other hiding places.
The militants move under the cover of darkness to carry out sniper attacks and rudimentary roadside bombings several times per week.
Their attacks, occurring outside major cities, are often opportunistic and primarily target community leaders and security forces involved in efforts to root them out. An explosion earlier this month in the northern city of Kirkuk killed two motorcyclists. A separate attack in Diyala, in eastern Iraq, targeted militiamen assigned with hunting down militants.
ISIS media published grainy videos showing the assassination of paramilitaries and local notables, such as “mokhtars,” tasked with helping security forces identify individuals linked to the extremist group.
“I warn all the mokhtars that the Islamic State can reach anywhere they want,” said one abductee in a video released earlier this year, addressing community figures like him who had cooperated with government forces.
Even truffle hunters have been kidnapped, apparently after roaming too close to the militants’ desert hideouts.
Iraqi security forces announced earlier this month the start of a new military campaign to secure and clear the desert along the country’s 370-mile border with Syria. Within days, they reported the discovery of bombmaking factories and said several militants had been killed.
On the ground, the challenge of uprooting ISIS fighters appears daunting.
“Look at where they’re hiding. It’s deserts. It’s caves. It’s places no one can ever fully control,” said Col. Saad Mohammed as he drove through the rocky desert of western Anbar province, gesturing across a vast, open expanse. “How many units would we need to secure every inch? Too many. No one has that capacity.”
A veteran of the campaign that defeated the ISIS caliphate, Mohammed said he had fought in every major battle that Iraqi army forces waged in ousting the group, taking seven bullets to the chest in a firefight near the dusty border town of Qaim in 2017.
The Iraqi government announced its victory over ISIS’s caliphate in November 2017, a month after security forces ran the militants out of Qaim, located on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River.
This spring, Iraqi soldiers looked across the river into Syria as the group made its final stand. U.S.-backed forces surrounded tens of thousands of ISIS’s most die-hard adherents in the Syrian village of Baghouz, many of them hiding underground, during a weeks-long battle for the last remaining half square mile claimed by the caliphate. The Euphrates trembled under airstrikes, soldiers said, and carried away the corpses of men who drowned as they attempted to escape.
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Source: Stars and Stripes