After the caliphate

ISIS at a crossroads

ISIS fighters are mustering in remote areas, and sleeper cells are waiting for orders to attack. The coming months could determine whether the Islamic State is fatally crippled or poised for a comeback.

Islamic State fighters are regrouping in a remote stretch of eastern Iraq, aiming to revive their fortunes after the defeat of their caliphate early this year. "They are posing a real threat to people's lives," warns Maj. Aram Darwani, second from right, of the Kurdish peshmerga military forces.

Meanwhile, in cities such as Raqqa in Syria, once the caliphate's capital, secret Islamic State cells carry out bombings and assassinations. Even as the city strives to rebuild from the last war with the militants, local security forces are struggling to prevent their return.

Meanwhile, in cities such as Raqqa in Syria, once the caliphate's capital, secret Islamic State cells carry out bombings and assassinations. Even as the city strives to rebuild from the last war with the militants, local security forces are struggling to prevent their return.

KULAJO, Iraq — In caves tucked into craggy cliffs and tunnels dug deep beneath the desert, the remnants of a vanquished army are converging for what they hope will be the next chapter in their battle for an Islamic State.

Hundreds and perhaps thousands of Islamic State fighters have made their way over recent months into a stretch of sparsely populated territory spanning the disputed border between the Kurdistan region and the rest of Iraq, according to U.S. and Kurdish officials.

Off limits to Kurdish and Iraqi security forces because of historic disputes over who should control it, this area of twisting river valleys dense with vegetation has attracted the biggest known concentration of Islamic State fighters since they lost control of the last village of their once vast caliphate in eastern Syria in March.

In recent weeks, they have been stepping up their attacks, focused on an area of northeastern Iraq in the province of Diyala near the border with Iran, carrying out ambushes by night and firing mortars. Grasses taller than men provide cover for snipers who sneak up on checkpoints and outposts. Government neglect and long-standing grievances foster a measure of sympathy among local residents.

“They have good military plans, they attack when you don’t expect them, and they are posing a real threat to people’s lives,” said Maj. Aram Darwani, the commander of Kurdish peshmerga military forces in the area.

Across many parts of the vast territory it once controlled, the Islamic State is scrambling to reassert its presence in a setting that is no longer as welcoming as it once was. Militant fighters who escaped from the battlefield are assembling in ungoverned spaces such as the no man’s land between areas controlled by Kurdish and Iraqi forces. Others are lying low as so-called sleeping cells in cities such as Raqqa in Syria, waiting for the phone call ordering them to attack.

TURKEY

Mosul

Aleppo

Raqqa

DEIR

AL-ZOUR

Tabqa

Homs

Kulajo

IRAN

SYRIA

DIYALA

LEB.

Baghdad

Damascus

IRAQ

JORDAN

SAUDI ARABIA

Basra

100 MILES

TURKEY

KURDISTAN

Aleppo

REGIONAL

Mosul

Raqqa

GOVT.

Tabqa

DEIR

AL-ZOUR

Med.

Sea

Homs

Kulajo

IRAN

SYRIA

DIYALA

LEB.

Baghdad

Damascus

IRAQ

JORDAN

SAUDI ARABIA

Basra

100 MILES

TURKEY

Aleppo

Mosul

Raqqa

Tabqa

Deir al-Zour

Kirkuk

Med.

Sea

DEIR

AL-ZOUR

Homs

Kulajo

Tikrit

SYRIA

IRAN

DIYALA

LEB.

Baghdad

Damascus

IRAQ

JORDAN

SAUDI ARABIA

Basra

100 MILES

Badia desert

TURKEY

Aleppo

Mosul

Raqqa

Tabqa

Deir al-Zour

Kirkuk

Med.

Sea

DEIR

AL-ZOUR

Homs

Kulajo

Tikrit

SYRIA

IRAN

DIYALA

LEB.

Baghdad

Damascus

IRAQ

JORDAN

SAUDI ARABIA

Basra

100 MILES

Recent visits to the Islamic State’s former capital of Raqqa and the viciously contested frontier town of Kulajo revealed the challenges the militants face as well as the reemerging threat they pose.

So far, this is less a resurgence than a struggle to survive in the wake of the massive defeat inflicted on the last vestige of their territorial caliphate, according to U.S. military officials.

The Islamic State remains a long way from possessing the capacity to retake territory, said Brig. Gen. William H. Seely III, who commands U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq. “These are people who are hiding out. They only come out at night to harass and take potshots,” he said. “You can’t run a revolution or create your own caliphate if that’s all you do.”

Over the past two years, tens of thousands of Islamic State fighters have been killed and their leadership decimated. Their self-
proclaimed “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is dead, blown up after he detonated a suicide belt during a U.S. raid on his hideout in October. As many as 30,000 suspected Islamic State fighters are in prison in Iraq and Syria, and tens of thousands of their wives and children are detained in dismal camps, according to Kurdish, Iraqi and U.N. officials.

The group has struggled to reassert itself in its former city strongholds such as Raqqa and Mosul in Iraq, where Islamic State attacks have become rare. Memories of its brutal rule and the horrors of the airstrikes used to dislodge the militants deter any desire to see them return, according to Rasha al-Aqeedi, the editor of Irfaa Sawtak, an Iraqi newsletter.

Since U.S.-led forces began to roll back the caliphate more than four years ago, the number of attacks carried out by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has declined, by between 30 and 40 percent a year since 2016 in Iraq, according to the U.S.-led coalition.

But the militants have already proved adept at infiltrating ungoverned spaces, such as the gap between Kurdish and Iraqi army lines, said Maj. Johnny Walker, spokesman for the U.S. Special Operations forces that conduct most of the anti-Islamic State operations. “While Daesh is at a serious disadvantage, finding it while it’s hiding in the complex human and physical terrain is a complex task requiring significant resources,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

After the Caliphate: This is part of a series about the perilous aftermath of the Islamic State, which fell in March, and the militant group’s prospects for revival.

Part one: Castaway of the Islamic State

Part three: Disarmed but not defused

The Islamic State also appears to be gaining momentum in Syria’s eastern Deir al-Zour province, where the group made its last stand in March and where tribal and ethnic rivalries help sustain support for the militants. Assassinations have been on the rise in recent weeks, in part because the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces pulled fighters out of the area to confront Turkish troops to the north, according to an employee of a U.S.-backed nongovernmental organization in the province, who was interviewed during a recent trip to the area and asked not to be named because of safety concerns.

Over a typical Syrian breakfast in one of the towns the Islamic State once ruled, he described having to take back roads through the desert to avoid a cluster of towns where the militants still command loyalties. The group is now making a strenuous effort to rearm, he said.

Islamic State fighters have also found refuge in the vast, barely populated desert known as Badia that lies across the Euphrates River from where U.S. troops are deployed. The area is nominally under Syrian government control, and there are indications that the militants there have established a measure of command over cells elsewhere in the country, Syrian Kurdish officials say.

For now, fewer people are being killed in Islamic State attacks than in the anti-government protests in Iraq and the battles unleashed by Turkey’s invasion of northeast Syria in October.

But these new conflicts illustrate the danger posed by the group’s residual presence, analysts and military officials say. The Islamic State owed its conquest of territory to the collapse of state authority over a big part of Syria and the implosion of the Iraqi army in Iraq. Any further deterioration of security in Iraq or Syria would create a new opportunity for Islamic State fighters hiding out or lying low.

The militants have not gone away and could yet rise again, cautioned Maj. Gen. Eric T. Hill, who commands U.S. Special Forces in Iraq and Syria.

They are making every effort to do so.

In the caliphate’s former capital, sleeper cells lurk

In Raqqa, the biggest attack of the year took place in May in Naim Square, where at least 10 people were killed. During its rule over the city, the Islamic State carried out public beheadings on the square.

Over the eight months that Muawiyah Abdul Khader Akraa operated as part of a secret Islamic State cell in Raqqa, he participated in 17 attacks, he said. He doesn’t know how many people he killed because, he said, he didn’t linger to find out whether his victims died.

“I did it to avenge our brothers in the battles,” he said, displaying no remorse during an interview at the prison in the town of Tabqa where he has been detained by Kurdish security forces since his arrest in August.

He and two other self-confessed members of the cell agreed to be interviewed in the presence of Kurdish officials, who said they had verified the information the prisoners had provided after months of interrogations. Their accounts offer a rare glimpse into the world of the Islamic State’s sleeper cells, which lie at the heart of its efforts to reassert its influence in the cities from which it has been driven out.

Akraa, 22, said his missions were assigned at meetings arranged during hurried calls over the encrypted Telegram app. He would be told a time and place to rendezvous, typically a landmark such as the clock tower, a park or Naim Square, where the Islamic State carried out public beheadings during its rule over Raqqa.

There he would be met by an “emir” — a prince or leader — who picked him up in a car and would deliver the orders, usually to plant a bomb but sometimes to assassinate a local official.

Akraa said he had been fighting with the Islamic State in Deir al-Zour province when he was approached by an emir in the area and asked to become an undercover operative in Raqqa. Akraa was given a fake ID identifying him as a Raqqa resident and assigned a smuggler to escort him across the front lines.

After arriving in Raqqa in January, Akraa was introduced to the head of the cell, whom he knew only as Baraa. He gave Akraa 25,000 Syrian pounds — about $50 — to rent an apartment, the promise of a $200-a-month salary and a small bomb, which he was instructed to plant outside a bakery whose owner had refused to pay “zakat,” or tax, to the Islamic State.

The bomb exploded at night and caused no casualties. “It was only a warning,” Akraa said. “He paid the zakat.”

Working with two others, he embarked on a series of attacks, he recounted. On one day, it was to detonate a bomb in a vegetable cart near a hospital. On another, the task was to drive up to the home of a local official on a motorcycle, knock on his door and shoot him when he came to answer it.

In May, Akraa participated in the biggest attack of the year in Raqqa, setting off a small bomb in Naim Square to attract security forces, which were then targeted in a larger suicide bombing. At least 10 people were killed.

Men pray on the street outside a mosque that’s under construction in Raqqa, Syria. The Islamic State has struggled to reassert itself in the city, as well as in other strongholds such as Mosul in Iraq.

The remains of an Iranian-funded mosque that was destroyed by ISIS militants when the group controlled Raqqa. Secret sleeper cells continue to be a threat in the city.

The remains of an Iranian-funded mosque that was destroyed by ISIS militants when the group controlled Raqqa. Secret sleeper cells continue to be a threat in the city.

Two-year-old Hassoun was orphaned and maimed during the U.S.-led operation to drive the Islamic State out of Raqqa. He relies on a small local NGO named Hope Makers to provide him with a prosthetic foot that needs to be replaced regularly as he grows.

The two other prisoners interviewed said they had been recruited in June, several months after sneaking away from the Islamic State’s last battle. Ibrahim Hassan al-Haji said he received a Telegram message out of the blue telling him to report to an emir in a Raqqa park, who informed him he was being activated to be part of a secret cell and offered him a salary of $80 a month. He said he complied because he had been unable to find a job and had no money “and because my ideology is jihad.”

The third man said he was recruited after he sought the help of an Islamic State smuggler to free a relative from the al-Hol camp, where tens of thousands of people related to former Islamic State members are detained. He said he had no choice but to follow the group’s orders. “They knew where I lived,” he said.

The emirs changed frequently. In April, Baraa disappeared, and a new leader known as “the doctor” showed up to arrange the bombing of Naim Square, said Akraa. Then “the doctor” vanished and was followed by two more.

Then Kurdish forces infiltrated the cell, and one day in August, they burst into Akraa’s apartment and detained him. The two others were apprehended shortly after, as were eight other members of the cell.

Children play at the Rashid park in Raqqa. Prisoners who operated as part of a secret Islamic State cell said they received messages over the encrypted Telegram app to meet leaders in the city’s parks.

Men, accused of belonging to an ISIS sleeper cell in Raqqa, face a prison wall in Tabqa shortly after their arrest. None of the cell’s leaders have been tracked down.

Men, accused of belonging to an ISIS sleeper cell in Raqqa, face a prison wall in Tabqa shortly after their arrest. None of the cell’s leaders have been tracked down.

A woman and a child walk by Clock Square in central Raqqa. Attacks have decreased since the sleeper cell was infiltrated by Kurdish forces, but officials still cannot confirm that the city is safe.

Attacks in Raqqa have fallen off since the cell was cracked. There hasn’t been an assassination inside the city since June, according to Raizin Dirki of the Raqqa Internal Security Forces, which is affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces. The only significant bombing came in early October, when three Islamic State suicide bombers tried to storm a Kurdish intelligence office where Islamic State prisoners were detained.

None of the cell’s emirs have been tracked down, however, said Heval Sharwan, the commander of the unit responsible for rounding up the cell. The captives have told him that two emirs relocated to Turkish-controlled territory in the Syrian province of Aleppo, while others are thought to be hiding out in the Badia desert, where the Islamic State is believed to coordinate its sleeper cells throughout northeast Syria.

“We haven’t arrested any of the brains,” said Sharwan, referring to the leaders. “So we cannot confirm that Raqqa is safe.”

Militants regroup in Iraqi no man’s land

The disputed Iraq-Kurdistan border area has attracted the biggest known concentration of Islamic State fighters since they lost control of the last village of their once-vast caliphate in eastern Syria in March.

Kulajo, a tiny, drab town of flat-roofed concrete homes, lies along one of Iraq’s most fraught fault lines in the troubled province of Diyala.

Arabs and Kurds have wrangled over territory here since the former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein began settling Arabs in the area in the 1980s, as part of his campaign to quell the rebellious Kurds. And the area has long been home to Islamist militants, including al-Qaeda, which preceded the Islamic State, according to Darwani, the peshmerga commander, who has been fighting the militants in the area for the past 12 years.

Today, Kulajo is populated mostly by Arabs but is under the control of Kurdish peshmerga. The Iraqi army mans a checkpoint about a mile farther south. But in some spots along the disputed Iraq-Kurdistan border, the no man’s land between the two forces is as wide as 20 miles. It is in that space that Islamic State fighters lurk, Darwani said.

Earlier this month, he escorted The Washington Post to the town, in his family’s pickup truck, because he said a military vehicle would attract unwelcome attention.

Three nights before, three of his men had been killed in an ambush.

Pausing the pickup at the spot where they died, Darwani described the terrifying event. A dense fog had reduced visibility and diminished the ability of the U.S.-led coalition to launch airstrikes in support of his troops. Islamic State fighters hiding in the palm groves barely 200 yards away had first fired mortar rounds into the town. When peshmerga reinforcements arrived, they were gunned down.

Darwani stands in a position he commands in Kulajo, days after ISIS militants targeted his troops in the area. In recent weeks, the group has been stepping up its attacks.

Kurdish fighters at a peshmerga post said they felt vulnerable. A grove of palm trees where Islamic State fighters hide was visible just a couple hundred yards away.

Kurdish fighters at a peshmerga post said they felt vulnerable. A grove of palm trees where Islamic State fighters hide was visible just a couple hundred yards away.

An old box of Russian rifle ammunition in a peshmerga position in Kulajo. Islamic State fighters have mortars and sniper rifles with infrared sights enabling them to strike at night. “They could easily kill us all,” one guard said.

At a peshmerga post on the edge of the town, little more than a ring of sandbags atop an earthen mound, Kurdish fighters said they felt vulnerable, armed only with the Kalashnikov rifles common across the country. Islamic State fighters, however, have mortars and sniper rifles with infrared sights enabling them to strike at night, said Burhan Nouri Hamasayi, one of the post’s guards, pointing to the palm groves nearby. “They could easily kill us all,” he said.

Darwani put the number of Islamic State fighters in his area at about 300 but said he believed many more people in the area were sympathetic to them. “These were the Arabs supported by Saddam when he was oppressing Kurds. They will join any group that is against us. Even people who say they are with us are secretly with Daesh,” he said.

A man in Kulajo wanders between a peshmerga position and the no man’s land between them and Iraqi security forces. The number of Islamic State fighters in the area is estimated to be about 300.

In Kulajo, government neglect and long-standing grievances foster a measure of sympathy among local residents for Islamic State fighters.

In Kulajo, government neglect and long-standing grievances foster a measure of sympathy among local residents for Islamic State fighters.

Along the 150-mile length of the no man’s land running between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga, militants are living off the land. Officials said the group is reorganizing itself, getting weapons and arms.

As many as 3,000 fighters have gathered along the 150-mile length of the no man’s land running between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga, according to Gen. Sirwan Barzani, who commands Kurdish forces farther north, in the Qara Chokh mountains. U.S. military officials say they put the number at closer to 500, strung out in remote terrain and operating in groups of around five.

Barzani said the militants are living off the land, shaking down villagers for food and money. A local TV station, Rudaw, has filmed Islamic State fighters clambering down a cliff face in his sector of the no man’s land, stripping naked and bathing in a river.

“I don’t think the strategy of ISIS now is to do big things. They need more time,” Barzani said. “They are reorganizing themselves, getting weapons and arms. They don’t have the power now to do a big attack.”

But the difficult terrain and rivalry between the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces preclude any kind of organized offensive to root out the Islamic State militants, said Darwani.

“Iraq is on the edge of a cliff and it is falling,” he said, urging a hasty departure from Kulajo as the sun set. For the Islamic State to return, he added, “it is a matter of time.”

On a wall surrounding the destroyed Raqqa building once used as ISIS headquarters, the slogan “baqiya” is spray-painted. Signifying the enduring existence and influence of the group, it means “remaining.”

Khabat Abbas in Syria contributed to this report.

liz.sly@washpost.com

Liz Sly

Liz Sly is The Washington Post’s Beirut bureau chief, covering Lebanon, Syria and the wider region. She has spent more than 17 years covering the Middle East, including the first and second Iraq wars. Other postings include Washington, Africa, China, Afghanistan and Italy.

Credits

Story by Liz Sly; Photos by Alice Martins; Photo editing by Olivier Laurent; Design and development by Joanne Lee; Graphic by Tim Meko; Copy editing by Emily Codik

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