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ISIS exploits Iraq’s coronavirus lockdown to step up attacks

Members of the Iraqi security forces wearing protective masks due to the coronavirus pandemic stand guard in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

Islamic State militants in Iraq are exploiting the coronavirus lockdown to intensify their attacks, striking more frequently and at times with more sophistication than in recent years.

In the northern city of Kirkuk, a suicide bomber walked calmly toward an intelligence headquarters last week before detonating his load in a fireball. Days later, ISIS militants carried out a nighttime ambush on a government-affiliated militia checkpoint north of Baghdad. More attacks near Baghdad and in Kirkuk followed.

Although ISIS is much weaker than at the height of its caliphate and shows no sign of mounting a serious comeback, the group is now finding it easier to operate in part because some Iraqi security forces have been redeployed from rural areas where it is gaining strength to police the lockdown in urban centers.

“Corona is an important factor,” said Brig. Gen. Tahseen al-Khafaji, a spokesman for the Iraqi armed forces. “Some soldiers are not on active duty, and some of our operations against [ISIS] stopped. They are taking advantage to attack.”

The nighttime ambush on Saturday, for instance, occurred at a time when a federal police unit usually stationed nearby was absent, redeployed elsewhere to enforce the lockdown. That attack, against a checkpoint in the northern village of Mkesheefeh, killed nine Sunni Muslim militiamen. They had no night-vision goggles and no idea the militants were coming, the militiamen said.

This assault may have been the militant group’s most sophisticated in years, involving several waves of attackers and the targeting of those already wounded.

U.S. officials said the recent uptick in violence was a reaction to Iraqi forces becoming more aggressive in taking on ISIS. “The Iraqi security forces are being quite active about going after them. They’re taking fight to them,” said Col. Myles B. Caggins III, a spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition. Khafaji said instead that the coronavirus had briefly caused the tempo of operations against the group to drop, although that had since changed.

The U.S.-led military coalition, which had played an instrumental role in Iraq’s fight to defeat the Islamic State, is now in the process of withdrawing forces from Iraq, where troops have been helping Iraq’s military battle the militants. Last month, the coalition closed its facilities inside bases in Kirkuk, al-Qaim in the west and Qayyarah airfield in the north.

U.S.-led forces conducted airstrikes on alleged Islamic State targets in the Hamrin Mountains of northern Iraq on April 29, officials said. (Video: CJTF-OIR via Storyful)

Experts studying the group said the militants are also exploiting gaps left by Iraqi security forces. Iraq is controlled by a patchwork of forces, and disputes among them — as well as a lack of coordination and in some cases of adequate equipment — had created opportunities for the militants even before the virus arrived.

The group first mentioned the coronavirus in its propaganda in January, urging supporters to take advantage of governments’ distraction to step up attacks. Cases of the virus were first confirmed in Iraq weeks later and, by March 15, the country was under strict lockdown. City streets fell silent. Arterial roads were nearly empty. And the Islamic State began claiming more attacks.

Mara Revkin, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Center on National Security and the Law who researches societal attitudes toward the group, described the recent attacks as the most significant and costly since the official defeat of the Islamic State’s caliphate back in 2017. “But the scale and sophistication of the attacks is not yet at the level we saw in 2014, before ISIS began capturing territory in Iraq,” she said.

Militant fighters are now mostly hiding out in small units, nestled in rugged, rural terrain where the government has a limited foothold. They fund themselves through a mix of extortion and appeals to local sympathizers, Iraqi officials say. While attacks are increasingly common, they are usually small-scale: a rudimentary explosive one day, a potshot at security forces in the desert another day.

The difference in recent weeks, experts say, is that the ISIS fighters are more often carrying out attacks closer to cities.

Hisham al-Hashimi, who advises the Iraqi government on security issues, said he expected “more attacks to come, especially in Kirkuk and the areas where there is a security gap to exploit.” Kirkuk’s rocky terrain makes it tough to police, and a territorial dispute between the national government and Iraq’s semiautonomous northern Kurdish region has led to inconsistent security.

In the eastern province of Diyala, residents said news of the Mkesheefeh attack was unsettling.

We’re on the edge of our seats here.We know there are lots of fighters in the mountains, and we know that they can move around very easily,” said Salwan Al-Dahlaki, 32, reached by phone in the city of Baqubah. He reeled off a list of small attacks in recent days. “We are really worried that ISIS might take advantage of corona and increase their attacks in the city,” Dahlaki said. “If they come here, they will come to die, and they will make sure to kill many with them.”

But while the militants pose a persistent risk, officials and security experts stress that the environment is much changed from the one that provided fertile ground for the rise of the Islamic State in 2014.

“ISIS [then] had the advantage of not yet having attempted to establish and maintain a territorial caliphate, so its promises and propaganda were believable to some,” said Revkin. “Those promises eventually turned out to be false, and ISIS can’t undo its past failures and the severe violence that turned civilians against it.”

Loveluck reported from London and Salim from Baghdad.

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