Even through the Islamic State has been eradicated from all but a few patches of desert wasteland, remnants of the terror group are hanging on until the end, launching guerrilla-style attacks against military and civilian targets in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS fighters, who likely number less than 3,000 in areas where the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS is operating, are stepping up quick strike attacks against soft targets to compensate for their near-complete loss of territory, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.
The attacks, which include suicide bombings and assassinations, are a grim reminder of how ISIS remains a threat even as its territory dwindles.
“The terrorist group is still attempting to establish regional networks and remains a regional and global threat through its ability to organize or inspire acts of violence against innocent people around the world,” the coalition said in a statement Monday.
In Iraq, coalition forces made stunning progress against ISIS following the liberation of Mosul in June. U.S. intelligence officials expected fierce resistance from militants in the push to reclaim the rest of ISIS-held territory in Western Iraq, but the coalition was able to drive ISIS fighters from all of the country’s urban areas by November. The next month, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi announced that government forces fully controlled the Iraqi border areas, marking an end to the three-year fight against ISIS in Iraq.
Despite the conventional military victory, however, ISIS remains a threat because its remaining fighters are able to blend into the local population with relative ease. In one incident south of Kirkuk, militants disguised themselves as members of a government-backed militia and set up a fake checkpoint, from which they killed a local police chief and his son, reports the Journal.
Then there is Syria, where ISIS has been ousted from its “capital” of Raqqa but where thousands of militants are thought to be hiding in the country’s eastern deserts. As the ISIS fighters are squeezed by a combination of U.S.-led coalition and Syrian government forces, they could disperse to other parts of the country, where they are capable of carrying out attacks on civilian populations.
Some observers worry the dismantling of ISIS in Iraq and Syria could lead to more terrorist attacks in other countries, as fighters flee to war zones across the Middle East where ISIS “franchises” have taken root. Patrick Cockburn, a Middle East correspondent for The Independent who has reported extensively from inside Iraq, says ISIS could send fighters to countries where opposition is weaker than in Syria and Iraq.
“This has been happening in Yemen, Afghanistan, Sinai, Libya and other countries,” Cockburn wrote Monday. “Western diplomats say that Isis fighters from Iraq have been identified on the anti-Houthi side in southern Yemen. There are certainly opportunities for Isis in these places where they can take advantage of chaos, civil war, weak or non-existent states.”
ISIS-affiliated militants have been especially deadly in Afghanistan, compounding the effects of the Taliban insurgency there. Last week, ISIS claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Kabul that killed 41 people and left more than 80 others injured.
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