Factbox: After the fall, the Islamic State strikes from the Iraqi and Syrian hinterlands

A view of Mosul’s Old City and buildings destroyed in past fighting with Islamic State militants, in Mosul, Iraq, February 1, 2022. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

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ISTANBUL, Feb 2 (Reuters) – Nearly three years after their self-proclaimed caliphate was dismantled and their forces defeated in a battle along the Euphrates, Islamic State fighters are waging a guerrilla campaign from areas remote areas of Iraq and Syria. Read more

The Battle of Baghouz in March 2019, near the Syrian-Iraqi border, ended Islamic State control that once stretched across swathes of both countries, including the cities of Raqqa and Mosul.

It also completed the group’s strategic shift from a force that had ruled the daily lives of millions to an insurgency launching attacks from the shadows.

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Here is a summary of the status of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

MANAGEMENT AND STRUCTURE

Following the assassination of Islamic State founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019, the group named his successor Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi.

Beyond Quraishi, an Iraqi who was once detained by the United States, little is known about the leadership of the Islamic State – in part because it now operates in a secret structure of autonomous local cells, rather than in the centralized administration of the “caliphate”.

Last year, Iraq captured Sami Jasim, another Iraqi national who was a deputy in Baghdadi and close associate of Quraishi, in northern Syria with the help of Turkey.

The US-led coalition fighting Islamic State said in mid-2019, after the latest battle in Baghouz, that the group retained 14,000 to 18,000 members, including 3,000 foreigners, although there are had other varied estimates.

Analysts say many local fighters may have returned to normal life, ready to reappear when the opportunity arises.

“This is an organization that has retained a significant amount of manpower,” said Charles Lister of the Washington-based Middle East Institute. “In terms of kinetically functioning cells, I would imagine we’re talking about very few thousands in the two countries together. But that’s pretty much impossible to measure.”

ATTACKS

Nearly two weeks ago, Islamic State fighters attacked a prison holding militants in the northeastern Syrian town of Hasaka, their biggest operation since the defeat of their caliphate.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces which controls the area said 40 of its soldiers, 77 prison guards and four civilians were killed, along with 374 Islamic State attackers or detainees, in the attempted breakout. .

Also in late January, IS fighters attacked an Iraqi army base in Diyala, northeast of Baghdad, killing 11 soldiers.

Meanwhile, it continued targeted assassinations, ambushes, suicide bombings, and less-noted – but daily – attacks with improvised explosive devices.

The latest US government report says Islamic State claimed 182 attacks in Iraq and 19 in Syria over a three-month period. Although this is lower than before, the report noted that the group was still able to carry out deadly and complex operations.

“What we’ve seen over the past six to 12 months, on both sides of the Syrian and Iraqi border, is that (ISIS) cells have been more willing to launch more daring raids,” Lister said.

BASE

Syria’s 11-year civil war and turmoil in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003 have provided fertile ground for the Islamic State to gain a foothold in populations alienated by political corruption, violence , insecurity and ethnic or religious divisions.

In Iraq, the hinterland between central government control and the Kurdish regional government in the north offers the group opportunities to evade capture.

Areas of Syria’s eastern desert beyond government control are also a safe haven for the Islamic State, while the Kurdish-led Syrian forces that govern northeastern Syria are ill-equipped to play a role of counter-insurgency needed to prevent the group from regrouping.

FUTURE STRATEGY?

The Islamic State’s past may offer clues to its future plans.

Its predecessor, the Islamic State in Iraq, was largely crushed in 2007-2009 when the United States reinforced its troops and allied them with local fighters to suppress this insurgency.

The group went underground, playing a long game until the growing disenchantment of Iraq’s Sunni Muslim population with the Shia government in Baghdad, combined with the conflict in neighboring Syria, presented a new opportunity.

In 2012 and 2013, in a series of operations similar to the Hasaka attack this month, Islamic State targeted prisons in western and southern Iraq and freed hundreds of detained, including leading activists.

At the same time, through intimidation, extortion and theft, they gained resources and power over the local people – preparing them for the moment in 2014 when they took over the city of Mosul and much of northern Iraq.

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Reporting by Dominic Evans; Editing by Mike Collett-White

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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