As much of the Western world focuses on the growing threat from the Islamic State group’s affiliate in Afghanistan, new intelligence suggests that there is reason again to worry about the terror group’s core in Syria and Iraq.
Down to an estimated 10,000 fighters, a small fraction of what it boasted at its peak, and working in small, clandestine cells across the two countries, the terror group, also known as IS or ISIS, has been trying to maintain what intelligence and military officials describe as a low-level insurgency, with varying degrees of success.
But U.S. military and intelligence officials caution that the group’s fortunes may be starting to change, which may allow it to retake territory in Syria and Iraq and its leaders to assert greater influence over affiliates and followers worldwide.
‘Poised to increase activity’
In Syria, in particular, IS appears “poised to increase activity … after a period of recuperation and recovery,” the Defense Intelligence Agency told the Defense Department’s inspector general in its just-released quarterly report on U.S. operations in the region.
The DIA said IS activity began to pick up in September, with a growing number of attacks in Syria’s central desert against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Other targets have included fuel infrastructure and supply routes, and even Iranian-backed militias, the DIA said.
U.S. military intelligence officials also said there was evidence IS relocated some fighters from the central desert to northeastern Syria, where local officials say the terror group is finding other ways to expand.
“ISIS is not limited to a military presence only,” Elham Ahmad, the executive president of the Syrian Democratic Council, told reporters last month during a visit to Washington.
IS’s sway over people
“What’s most important is the intellectual and ideological influence that ISIS has over the people,” Ahmad said, warning that the terror group has established cells in key cities such as Raqqa and Deir el-Zour.
“The reemergence of ISIS is pretty possible,” warned Ghassan al-Youssef, co-president of the Deir el-Zour Civic Council. “They are able to reorganize to raise funds to get stronger.”
IS has found a fertile recruiting ground in displaced-persons camps such as al-Hol, home to almost 60,000 women and children, many connected to dead or captured IS fighters.
Despite efforts by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, U.S. military intelligence officials warn, IS “retains the capability to radicalize, intimidate, recruit and conduct attacks.”
U.S. Treasury Department officials further warn that the al-Hol camp remains a central hub for IS finances, receiving and distributing donations from the terror group’s supporters around the world.
Money, supplies and fighters also move freely from Syria into Iraq, where, U.S. officials said, there are signs the group has expanded its network of havens while carrying out “better-planned high-profile attacks,” both on Iraqi forces and infrastructure.
For their part, Iraqi security forces have managed some successes, most notably the arrest last month of Sami Jasim Muhammad al-Jaburi, also known as Hajji Hamid, described by the Pentagon as “one of ISIS’s most senior leaders.”
One Western counterterrorism official, speaking to VOA on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence, called al-Jaburi’s arrest “very significant.”
Al-Jaburi, the official said, was seen as a candidate to potentially replace current IS leader Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla (also known as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi), should al-Mawla be killed or captured.
But while al-Jaburi could potentially provide Iraq with a trove of critical intelligence, some U.S. officials warn Baghdad may be limited in its ability to leverage information from him or from other high-ranking IS officials now in its custody.
“The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) continued to demonstrate poor operational security, a lack of reliable information on operations against ISIS, complacency, and poor tactical control and coordination of strike assets,” acting Defense Department Inspector General Sean O’Donnell wrote in his report, released Thursday.
‘No significant achievement’
Additionally, the U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve reported Iraqi forces made “no significant achievement” when carrying out anti-IS operations without coalition assistance.
Despite such criticism, Iraqi officials this week touted talks with the U.S. and the coalition, saying all parties were on track to end U.S. combat operations in Iraq by the end of the year.
Pentagon officials have sought to downplay the impact that will have, noting Iraqi forces have been in the lead for some time.
“We continue to coordinate (through ongoing military technical talks) with our Iraqi partners on the transition to a training, advising, assisting and intelligence-sharing role,” Commander Jessica McNulty, a Pentagon spokesperson, told VOA via email. “The United States remains committed to maintaining the U.S. military presence in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government.”