On the ground in Iraq, fears of an Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) comeback have grown as the remnants of the terrorist group leave a trail of victims behind them. Killings and kidnappings are making their way back into the headlines, suggesting they are a new terrorist tactic to instill fear among Iraqi civilians.
Nidaa Syan Najem lost her son and husband as she witnessed one such attack in July. She and her family were returning home after a wedding party when, at an unmanned checkpoint on the road just outside Baghdad, the family’s car was surrounded by masked gunmen. The situation escalated when family members admitted they were Shias.
“It was a quarter to nine at night,” Najem recalled, speaking to RT’s Ruptly. The militants shot the men in the group, leaving their bodies laying in the street. “And you know, we are women and we started crying that we lost our families, so they started shouting at us saying that we are Rawafed (rejectionists), dogs, and that they are the Islamic State in Iraq.”
After all the men present were killed, the militants departed, leaving the women and children behind. The women tried to reach out for help, but it was a long wait, according to Najem.
“It took the [security] forces four hours until they reached us. They were afraid the car was booby trapped so they were afraid to get close to it. But we had not seen them yet. We did not know whether we should wait for news that we should flee, we did not know,” Najem said.
She claimed that, upon their arrival, security forces said the checkpoint where the tragic incident took place was manned and the road secured from both sides.
“We did not know about the checkpoint,” she said. “We entered this road without knowing that this road is dangerous. [Those who are at] the checkpoint are to blame. We know that they have information whether to tighten [security] and know whether the road is dangerous,” she added.
In post-IS Iraq, it’s not just government forces manning roadside checkpoints. Competing militia groups, many of them remnants of IS, have taken to setting up checkpoints to control crucial stretches of road. In addition, reports have circulated of IS fighters donning Iraqi army uniforms at fake checkpoints.
‘The leaders are worthless’
Bassem Abbas is the brother of a man executed by IS in Kirkuk, four hours north of Baghdad. He found himself in direct negotiations with IS, after the jihadis abducted his brother at one such false checkpoint. He says the militants demanded that the Iraqi government release a female Sunni prisoner in return for his brother.
“The Iraqi government was unable to present any sort of solution,” he told Ruptly. “The issue reached the point where the negotiations were held directly between me and the damned international terrorists of IS.”
Abbas could not come to an agreement with the terrorists, who killed his brother. Abbas believes that the threat of IS in Iraq is still very real, and he accuses the Iraqi government of lacking the will to fight it.
“The international terrorists IS are organised, not just four or five scattered members,” he said. “Eliminating them will happen, God willing. But if the situation remains the same with the same leaders, which brought the fall of the western provinces, it might also bring the fall of our provinces. Because those leaders are failures and worthless. They are cartoon leaders, making statements and conferences, but doing nothing on the ground.”
‘I am the mother of a martyr’
In Kirkuk, and across much of northern Iraq, the situation is the same.
This week, federal police in Kirkuk arrested an IS judge, and 15 fighters, who they believe were plotting surprise attacks in the region. They seized explosives in a raid on four hideouts.
On July 23, Kurdish security forces killed gunmen armed with AK-47s and grenades who stormed a government building in Erbil, with one of them carrying out a suicide bombing. The attack was blamed on IS.
Although other incidents, including the checkpoint attack on Nidaa Syan Najem and her family, were not as high profile as the one in Erbil, those left behind are pleading with the authorities to take simple measures to secure the lives of civilians amidst the lawlessness.
The mother of Raed Saeed al-Shammari, another IS victim told Ruptly: “I still implore the government, since I am lost, and there is not even a government. People are being killed in vain, heads of families who have children. I am a mother of a martyr…what is left for me?”
Despite a plethora of similar reports against the backdrop of ongoing operations against IS, Iraqi Army officials insist the organization has been defeated and play down the fears of a comeback.
“After the military victory over IS and the liberation of all Iraqi territories, what is left are some remnants and cells of this terrorist organisation in scattered areas of Iraq,” spokesperson of the Iraqi Joint Operations Command Yahia Rasoul confirmed to Ruptly. Rasoul boasted of an ongoing operation involving searches and raids to eliminate the remnants of IS. He claimed that the attacks are part of a “media campaign” spearheaded by IS to spread the message that the organization is still alive.
IS ‘well positioned to rebuild’
This contradicts statements by Pentagon spokespersons, who told various news outlets in the middle of August that these IS remnants still have significant financial supplies and ammunition and are in fact “well-positioned to rebuild.”
But Rasoul seems to reject these claims: “[IS] have lost everything. What they are doing is an attempt to send messages to the media that they still exist, by conducting terrorist attacks against innocent civilians or against certain sectors, but all these attacks, the majority of them, are eliminated even before they are carried out, by the military and due to intelligence efforts. Those attempts are in fact pathetic and desperate.”
The United States too seems confident that IS has been all-but banished from Iraq. Defense Secretary James Mattis boasted last month that the organisation, which once controlled vast swathes of Iraq and Syria, has now lost all but one percent of its territory. However, to many on the ground, the nightmare continues.
According to a July UN report: “Despite the damage to bureaucratic structures of the so-called caliphate, the collective discipline of IS is intact and so are its general security and finance bureaus.”
The battles in the field, with IS resorting to guerrilla tactics to launch its attacks, are only one of the components of the struggle against the organization. As Rasoul said, there are still those who adhere to the IS ideology, and the fight against that requires a concerted effort by the army, the government and civil society.
Last month, the Pentagon said it estimated that at least 17,000 IS fighters are still operating in Iraq – a figure backed by the United Nations. If true, then Najem, Abbas and al-Shammari’s mother might not be the last Iraqis to mourn loved ones killed by the “desperate” remnants of IS.