Three young men, all brothers, left their village of Mis’hak north of Tikrit last month to look for truffles on nearby Makhoul Mountain, taking their chances despite a rash of ambushes and kidnappings in the area.
Two days later, security forces found the brothers dead, their handcuffed bodies riddled with gunshot wounds.
ISIS has lost its once-expansive empire in Iraq and was ousted this weekend from its last sliver of ground in Syria, but Iraqis here say the terrorist group remains a threat to daily life. That is especially true in Nineveh province, where ISIS militants remain active despite the federal government’s declaration of victory in Baghdad more than a year ago.
“ISIS sleeper cells are still in Nineveh’s remote and rural areas — areas that are far from being stable,” Abdullah, 31, a local TV reporter whose colleague Mahmoud Al-Jammas was wounded by ISIS gunfire last month while embedded with an Iraqi army mission south of Mosul, told The Washington Times. “They are hiding in the desert, coming out every now and then [and] attacking unexpectedly.”
As Iraqis struggle to rebuild much of the former ISIS-held parts of the country after four years of occupation and destruction, recent bombings in Mosul, Samarra and Tikrit and violence in the provinces of Nineveh and Anbar call into question the Iraqi government’s claim that the terrorist group has been defeated.
At its height, ISIS held some two-thirds of Iraqi territory and briefly threatened Baghdad. Having lost all of that territorial base, the group, commonly known as ISIS, is reverting to more typical insurgent terrorist tactics, U.S. and Iraqi analysts say.
“ISIS has been almost defeated in Iraq’s big cities and lost its control over main international highways,” said Ali Bashar, a political scientist at Bayan University in Irbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan. “However, it still has a wide arena in the deserts of Nineveh, Salahuddin and Anbar. The attacks there have been continuous since 2017.
“Talking about defeating terrorism is quite early,” he said. “They can rearrange themselves, and once they get the support, can resume their activities and hit inside the cities.”
The United Nations says ISIS continues to pose a significant threat, with an estimated 18,000 militants still operating in the region, including 3,000 active fighters in Iraq. That is down from 33,000 fighters at the height of their takeover, the report said, but some Iraqis fear the fall of Baghouz, Syria, to U.S.-backed forces will mean more ISIS fighters will seek refuge in their country.
“ISIS is not a mere religious group; it is a terrorist group that fights till the last breath,” said Suha Hassen, a Mosul native who is analyzing the situation while working on her doctoral dissertation. “Losing their control on ground does not mean the threat is over. ISIS restarted online recruitment and resumed its leaderless activity.”
Rumors and realities
Some say the threat is exaggerated and that Iraqis who fled ISIS need to return home for Iraqi cities to rebuild. Tens of thousands of Iraqis remain displaced, either in other cities in Iraq or Kurdistan, or in U.N.-run refugee camps, which are being closed.
“Those are rumors to terrify people and hamper their return to Mosul,” said Haitham al-Omari, 29, who heads a humanitarian volunteer group in Mosul and who insists the city is safe and secure.
“Thousands of Mosulis have preferred to stay in the Kurdistan region. This affects reconstruction efforts,” he said. “We need to reassure people so they will come back.”
Even so, some say the choice to go home is difficult.
Rakan Mohammed, a 53-year-old farmer, returned to Rawa, a town in the western province of Anbar. He fled ISIS four years ago but was forced to return home when the refugee camp in Anbar where he was living shut down in December.
“My cropland was burned because of ISIS,” said Mr. Mohammed. “Upon going back, the army, still with a strong presence in the area, did not allow me to replant my land. The army warned us against terrorist attacks conducted by ISIS members still hiding in remote villages.
“The mines left by ISIS and its recurrent attacks prevent farming, my only source of living,” he said.
Analysts say they are particularly concerned that the bleak situation in former ISIS-held parts of Iraq will lead to easier recruitment for the terrorist group again.
That includes poor facilities and public services, unemployment of up to 80 percent, corruption by local officials and discrimination against Sunnis, a majority in the many parts of the region but strongly outnumbered by Shiites nationwide.
“We need to activate open-source intelligence, social and economic empowerment and gain civil support to prevent [militancy],” said Mr. Bashar.
“Otherwise, we might face a huge new wave” of terrorist activity.
Meanwhile, most say it’s imperative for the government to keep the focus on security.
“There are security risks threatening Kurdistan, Nineveh and Kirkuk,” said Atheel al-Nujaifi, who served as governor of Nineveh from 2009 to 2015. “High-level security coordination is needed. Security should be a priority again.”
Ma’an al-Obaidi, a 41-year old primary school teacher from a village near Kirkuk, knows this only too well.
“ISIS sleeper cells are still there conducting attacks at night. This is scary,” he said, adding that he regretted his decision to return home from a refugee camp after the fight ended in 2017.
“We have called for help in vain. The security services lack the ability to find the sleeper cells,” he said.
Now, Mr. al-Obaidi is seeking to return to the relative safety of the refugee camp, even as U.N. administrators try to empty it by resettling refugees in Kirkuk.
“We cannot send our children to schools,” he said. “Besides, the bombings and assassinations, living conditions are terrible. We really need realistic solutions to secure our lives.”