IRBIL, Iraq — Late last month, a column of Islamic State fighters in armored vehicles and on motorcycles thundered into eastern Syria to mount an unexpectedly fierce assault on U.S.-backed militias near the city of Deir al-Zour. The attackers overran multiple outposts and killed or captured dozens of soldiers before being driven back by U.S. warplanes.
The next day, in Iraq’s northern Nineveh province, a roadside bomb killed four children as they traveled to their village school by truck. Local officials described the event as tragic but not surprising: The same province has experienced about 17 such attacks every month in the year since the Islamic State was officially declared defeated in Iraq.
An attack such as the one in eastern Syria reinforces a view that is widely held among U.S. military and intelligence officials, as well as U.S. allies in region: Even as the territory claimed by the Islamic State continues to shrink, the group remains a powerful and deadly force across large swaths of Syria and Iraq. In some regions, the Islamist militants appear to be gaining ground, reconstituting themselves as a brutal insurgency bent on killing local leaders and police officers and terrorizing populations, officials and analysts say.
“They are reorganizing and reactivating,” Masrour Barzani, the chancellor and top security official of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, said in an interview before the Trump administration’s surprise announcement Wednesday that it is considering a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. “From Syria to Anbar and Mosul, we see them coming back. The ideology is there, and they continue to have large numbers of followers.”
For many security experts, the depiction of the Islamic State as “defeated” — as President Trump declared in a Twitter post Wednesday — is not only inaccurate, but is also dangerously misleading. Despite its setbacks, the group maintains a formidable presence in Syria and Iraq, commanding cadres of fanatical, highly trained fighters believed to number in the thousands, including many who went into hiding after the fall of the group’s self-declared caliphate.
The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, continues to fiercely defend its remaining strongholds in Syria against relentless attacks by Kurdish and Syrian ground forces and U.S. warplanes. And in Iraq, its scattered cells are waging a guerrilla campaign that is gaining in intensity in three provinces, judging from the number and lethality of the attacks.
An abrupt departure of U.S. forces from Syria will almost certainly accelerate the group’s resurgence on both sides of the border, officials and security experts say. Without a significant U.S. military presence — which until now has included personnel who collect intelligence and coordinate airstrikes from forward operating bases — the Islamic State could regain its footing in Syria, and from there, direct terrorist operations inside Iraq, and perhaps elsewhere in the region and beyond.
“One of the key drivers behind the rise of ISIS was the group’s freedom of maneuver inside Syria,” said Michael Knights, an expert on Iraqi military affairs at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Syria is the place to get rockets and explosives, things you can’t get as easily in Iraq. If we leave the job unfinished in Syria, you could see this start to happen again.”
Multiple current and former U.S. intelligence officials echoed the view that the fight against the Islamic State is “unfinished,” despite a four-year campaign that successfully liberated all but a fraction of the expanse of territory the group once held.
For several security experts, the news of the Trump administration’s decision evoked comparisons to the situation in Iraq after U.S. forces left that country in 2011 under a controversial agreement with Iraq’s Shiite-led government. In 2008, U.S. intelligence officials claimed success against the Islamic State in Iraq — the predecessor of the group that became ISIS — declaring that the terrorists had been “operationally defeated” after a years-long campaign that targeted the group’s leaders and drove its followers into hiding. Just three years after the U.S. withdrawal, the Islamic State took control of a third of Iraq, becoming the largest and best-armed terrorist movement of modern times.
While the situation in Syria is different — the Pentagon has only about 2,000 U.S. soldiers in Syria, to support and train Kurdish and Syrian Arab fighters who are battling the Islamic State — the American withdrawal from Iraq is widely viewed as a factor in the Islamic State’s stunning resurgence two years later, culminating in the group’s capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in 2014.
“It’s premature to use words like defeat, because we know how hard it is to truly achieve that condition,” said Nicholas Rasmussen, who until December 2017 was the director the U.S. government’s National Counterterrorism Center. “While they are definitely degraded, ‘defeat’ suggests a condition that is irreversible or one in which ISIS no longer poses a serious threat to the U.S. Neither of those is true.”
A recent analysis of terrorism-related violence in Iraq confirms that the Islamic State’s ability to carry out attacks in the country has waned overall since government troops liberated the group’s last Iraqi strongholds in 2017. Major cities such as Baghdad experienced far fewer attacks in 2018 than in previous years, and even former strongholds of the insurgency in Iraq’s western Anbar province are relatively quiet.
But in parts of northern Iraq, attacks by the Islamic State are growing. Violence is on the upswing in Nineveh province, in the Mosul region, and around Kirkuk, according to an analysis by the Washington Institute’s Knights that was published this week in the journal CTC Sentinel. The article suggests that Islamic State forces are carefully picking their targets and opting for quality over quantity, Knights said.
“Within one 40-by-40-mile area, they killed 37 tribal leaders in 10 months,” Knights said. “The impact of those killings is that thousands more are intimidated — they will not want to work with local officials and put themselves at risk.”
A senior Kurdish security official said the insurgents appear to be working methodically, exhibiting operational discipline and patience.
“They’ve been preparing for this phase,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence assessments. “When the Islamic State had control over Mosul, they conducted training on how to do underground operations, on how to make passports and fake IDs. There are thousands of ISIS fighters who have undergone this kind of training, and they appear to have plenty of money and resources.”
Islamic State officials have boasted of their preparation for a new phase of battle after U.S. troops have left. The message is being sent via social media and in interviews. One Islamic State official, reached on Wednesday through a social media platform, said he doubted that U.S. forces would completely withdraw from the region but said his group would ultimately prevail.
“The Islamic State idea is not dead,” said the man, a high-ranking official who uses the nom de guerre Abu Hamza and does not, he says, reside in Syria at this time. “Many people have learned from the mistakes that were made inside the caliphate. This group has a strong ideology; it stands for an idea.”
But he acknowledged that Trump’s announcement of a troop withdrawal left even the terrorists perplexed.
“They will never leave Syria totally,” he said. “There will always be some forces left which they will have control over. But maybe its also a way for Trump to save face at the end.”
Mekhennet reported from Washington.