Tonight, the 1st of my 2-part series on #ISIS’s resurgence in Iraq airs on @PBS @NewsHour Weekend. In cooperation w/ @theIFUND, I spent 3 weeks traveling across 3 provinces to investigate the extent to which ISIS has regrouped after its official defeat last year.
In August, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi released a new audio recording in which he pointed to #Iraq as the epicenter of #ISIS's resurgence. The facts on the ground suggest that this is not just an ambition the group aspires to in the future - it’s already a reality.
ISIS attacks in the rural areas around Tuz Khurmatu, Kirkuk and Hawija aren’t an exception - they’ve become an almost daily occurrence for the civilians who live there. What’s more - #Iraq’s security forces appear ill-equipped to face #ISIS in its insurgent form.
As part of the latest “Revenge of the Martyrs” operation, the Emergency Response Division conducted several days of search and clear operations. But during the days I spent w/ them, they didn’t arrest of kill a single #ISIS suspect. Still, the commander declared the area cleared.
It was as if the forces were still stuck in the modus operandi of the conventional war they fought for 4 years, moving in columns w/ 100s of soldiers rather than conducting intelligence-led ops better suited for counterinsurgencies.
On the lack of intelligence - none of the security forces in the area (ERD, Federal Police, Hashd Al Shaabi and CTS) know how many ISIS militants operate in the area. They all say that it’s difficult to pin down a number because the area is open and militants move around freely.
ISIS easily evades clearing ops. It chooses to not engage large deployments, instead hiding in mountains, riverbeds (as seen here) and caves until the ops are over. In the weeks following the Revenge of the Martyrs ops, I documented at least two dozen ISIS attacks in the area.
The roads between the towns of Hawija, Kirkuk and Tuz Khurmatu aren’t safe to travel, despite being sprinkled w/ dozens of checkpoints, operated by different security forces. Some aren’t manned at night, others aren’t sufficiently fortified or equipped to protect the roads.
We couldn’t travel early morning, because #ISIS often plants IEDs overnight. We also couldn’t travel after 3pm as ISIS starts moving around, launching attacks or setting up fake checkpoints to kidnap civilians or members of the security forces.
One reason #ISIS has been successful in re-establishing presence in this area is the recent conflict between the #Kurds and the #Iraqi govt. When Kurdish forces withdrew from disputed areas in Oct 2017, they left behind a security vacuum.
This is a Kurdish Counterterrorism soldier looking out at what his commander calls #ISIS territory, east of Tuz Khurmatu in Suleimaniya province. There are frequent sightings of ISIS fighters here, but the #Kurds say they can't pursue them beyond #Kurdish areas.
Although the Iraqi govt & the US-led coalition claim that #Iraqi & #Kurdish forces work together to fight ISIS, an official from the Kurdish Counterterrorism Group (CTG) told me there's no genuine cooperation. “They just tell us they are coming so we don’t shoot at them,” he said
This is Adnan, a #Peshmerga fighter who was kidnapped by #ISIS and held for 3 months until the #Kurdish CTG freed him. He said that ISIS was well prepared for its insurgency - they had generators, radars, moved around in small groups of 10 and knew how to evade aerial bombardment
Despite the growing number of incidents, #Iraq's security forces claim that #ISIS is weak and can’t control areas. But civilians tell a different story. More on that in next week’s report, which will take us to Sunni areas around Hawija [END]

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