Islamic State group remnants in Iraq are exploiting a coronavirus lockdown, coalition troop withdrawals and simmering political disputes to ramp up deadly attacks, according to analysts and intelligence officials.
Iraq declared IS defeated in late 2017 but sleeper cells have survived in remote northern and western areas, where security gaps mean the group wages occasional attacks.
They have spiked since early April as jihadists plant explosives, fire on police patrols and launch mortars and rockets at villages, local security sources told AFP.
“Combat operations have reached a level we haven’t seen in a while,” said Iraqi security expert Hisham al-Hashemi.
He said IS fighters were using abandoned villages to edge towards urban areas, looking to re-establish funding mechanisms, smuggling routes and hideouts while targeting local infrastructure and officials to cause panic.
Days before early Saturday’s ambush — which was multi-pronged and took place in Salahaddin province — the jihadists claimed a suicide attack that wounded four people outside an intelligence headquarters in Kirkuk, a restive northern province.
An intelligence officer there said IS had tripled its attacks in Kirkuk in April compared to March.
In the rural Diyala region northeast of Baghdad, daily attacks on agricultural fields have terrified farmers and recalled memories of IS’ steady build-up across Iraq.
Adnan Ghadban, a tribal sheikh in the city of Baquba, said two of his relatives were shot in their fields last week by IS fighters. They both remained in a critical condition, he added.
“What’s happening now is taking us back to 2014,” he said, referring to the year when IS seized swathes of the country in a lightning offensive.
In part, the escalation may be linked to security units being redeployed to enforce a nationwide lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has infected more than 2,000 people and killed over 90 in Iraq.
“These fighters took advantage of the fact that security forces were busy with imposing the curfew and began to move around much more freely,” Ghadban told AFP.
The jihadists could also be exploiting the political deadlock in Baghdad, where top leaders are focused on tense talks over a new government, the consequences of a collapse in global oil prices and budget disputes with autonomous Kurdish authorities.
“IS fighters have sensors on the political situation. Every time it deteriorates, they opportunistically increase their activity,” said Fadel Abu Raghif, an Iraqi analyst focused on political and security affairs.
Abu Raghif and the Kirkuk intelligence officer said a significant troop drawdown by the 7,500-strong US-led coalition had also paved the way for IS to boost attacks.
The international alliance deployed in Iraq in 2014 to help local troops defeat the jihadists by providing air strikes, advice, surveillance and combat support.
Seeing that the threat from IS had “shifted”, the coalition has pulled out of five Iraqi bases in recent weeks, including in Kirkuk and IS’ former stronghold of Mosul.
It also redeployed hundreds of trainers out of the country indefinitely, as Iraqi security forces had halted training programmes to limit possible COVID-19 transmissions.
Despite years of training, the US Defense Department assessed this year that Iraqi troops were still unable to adequately collect and use intelligence in anti-IS raids on their own, or maintain operations in tough terrain without coalition help.
“Without a US troop presence in Iraq, IS would likely resurge,” the Pentagon’s inspector general wrote.
Still, analysts and observers said the recent wave of IS attacks did not mean the group could once again threaten cities like it did in 2014.
“IS will not be able to return to its former size,” said Abu Raghif, meaning the UK-sized “caliphate” that the jihadists declared across swathes of Iraq and Syria.
A senior official in the US-led coalition told AFP it had noted “successful low-level attacks” by IS in recent weeks but did not consider them a “substantial uptick”.
“It’s not just the number of the attacks but what’s the quality of the attack? Is it complex? What equipment or tactics were used? Most of what we’ve seen has been crude and elementary,” the official said.
Sam Heller, an independent analyst focused on jihadist groups, said the recent shift hardly compares to the peak of IS activity around the creation of the “caliphate”.
Instead, they were “seemingly indicative of the group’s more aggressive posture, not necessarily new and impressive capabilities,” he wrote.