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Islamic State group, thriving in unstable places, proves it’s still a threat

In its official magazine, it mocked how many
times in its history that its foes had declared the Islamic State group to be
defeated. Its surprise attack on the prison, it crowed, had made its enemies
“shout in frustration: ‘They have returned again!’”

That description was not entirely wrong.

The battle for the prison, in the city of
Hasaka, killed hundreds of people, drew in US troops and offered a stark
reminder that three years after the collapse of the Islamic State group’s
so-called caliphate, the group’s ability to sow chaotic violence persists,
experts said. On Saturday, about 60 Islamic State group fighters still
controlled part of the prison.

In Iraq, the group recently killed 10 soldiers
and an officer at an army post and beheaded a police officer on camera. In
Syria, it has assassinated scores of local leaders, and it extorts businesses
to finance its operations. In Afghanistan, the withdrawal of American forces in
August has left it to battle the Taliban, with often disastrous consequences
for the civilians caught in the middle.

The Islamic State group, which once controlled
territory the size of Britain that spanned the Syria-Iraq border, is not as
powerful as it once was, but experts say it could be biding its time until
conditions in the unstable countries where it thrives provide it with new chances
to expand.

“There is no US endgame in either Syria or
Iraq, and the prison is just one example of this failure to work toward a
long-term solution,” said Craig Whiteside, an associate professor at the US
Naval War College who studies the group. “It really is just a matter of time
for ISIS before another opportunity presents itself. All they have to do is to
hang on until then.”

The Islamic State group, whose history goes
back to the insurgency after the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003,
reached the summit of its powers around 2015, when it ruled multiple cities in
Syria and Iraq, attracted droves of foreign fighters from as far away as China
and Australia, and ran a sophisticated propaganda machine that inspired or
directed foreign attacks from Berlin to San Bernardino, California.

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A military coalition led by the United States
partnered with local forces in Syria and Iraq to roll it back, until a
Kurdish-led militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces, pushed it from its last
patch of territory in early 2019.

Since then, the organisation has morphed from
a top-down, military-style bureaucracy to a more diffuse and decentralised
insurgency, according to terrorism experts and regional security officials.

But the importance of the prison as a target
suggested that last week’s attack would have been green lit “by the highest
levels,” Whiteside said. The group’s ability to mobilise dozens of fighters and
break into a prison that American and SDF officials long suspected was a target
was an achievement and a propaganda coup no matter how the siege turns out.

A senior American official, speaking on the
condition of anonymity, said the probable goal of the operation was to free
some of the group’s senior or midlevel leaders and fighters with specific
skills, such as bomb-making. The official estimated that perhaps 200 prisoners
had escaped.

SDF officials have not confirmed that number
and said they were still assessing the effect.

The Islamic State group has struggled to
rebuild. The killing of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in October 2019
deprived it of a unifying figure, and its new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi
al-Qurashi, is largely unknown. Tighter border controls have blocked foreign
fighters from getting to Iraq and Syria, and persistent raids by US-backed
forces in both countries have largely pushed it out of the big cities and into
the edges.

In Iraq, the group ramped up attacks in 2019
and 2020, but they have declined since then in both quantity and quality,
according to an in-depth analysis of attack data by Michael Knights and Alex
Almeida published this month.

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“For now, at the outset of 2022, the Islamic
State insurgency in Iraq is at a very low ebb, with recorded attack numbers
that rival the lowest ever recorded,” they wrote.

They cite a range of factors: a greater
security presence in rural areas; thermal cameras that can detect militants
moving at night; frequent security sweeps; and a campaign of “decapitation
strikes” against the group’s leaders.

The authors do not draw conclusions about the
group’s future, but they suggest that the group may be saving its resources
until circumstances give it an opportunity to break out.

The group has passed through weak stretches
before, the authors note, and has still managed to rebound.

Before it attacked the prison in Hasaka last
week, the Islamic State group in Syria was primarily operating in the country’s
sparsely populated east, where its fighters sought refuge in the desert to plot
attacks on Syrian government and Kurdish-led forces, according to analysts and
local residents.

From 2018 to 2021, it stepped up a campaign of
assassinations of local leaders and tribal figures, killing more than 200,
according to a study by DeirEzzor24, an activist network.

More recently, it has extorted local
businesses for cash, spread flyers against the US-backed SDF and carried out a
string of attacks on isolated checkpoints that has caused some to be abandoned,
said Dareen Khalifa, senior Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group.

“The reality is that it got worse in 2021, not
because there were so many attacks on checkpoints, but there were enough
attacks to make the internal security forces scared to man checkpoints,” she
said.

Other factors have contributed to the group’s
persistence, she said, citing the SDF’s struggle to forge trusted relations
with local residents in overwhelmingly Arab areas, porous borders, crushing
poverty that makes it easier for the jihadis to smuggle weapons and people, and
the area’s overall instability.

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Some sudden disruption — such as financial
problems for the SDF and its affiliated administration, a new military
incursion by Turkey similar to the one in 2019 or a precipitous withdrawal of
the 700 US troops based in the area to support the SDF — could give the jihadis
an opening, Khalifa said.

“ISIS is a local insurgency, and might not be
an imminent transnational risk,” she said. “But if there is a vacuum of some
sort in Syria, this is where these movements really thrive. That is when it
becomes more of an external threat.”

What the Islamic State group has not been able
to do since 2019 is control significant territory. The splashy operation in
Hasaka, analysts said, does not change that.

“Contrary to popular opinion, that doesn’t
move the needle much, and it doesn’t get them closer to reestablishing control
over populations,” Whiteside said. That control, he said, is “their reason for
being, why they call themselves ‘the State.’”

The prison attack was still one of the group’s
most ambitious since 2018, and it should not have come as a great surprise.

The prison was, in fact, a converted training
institute beefed up with bars and other fortifications, not an ideal lockup for
thousands of former fighters from a group that has historically relied on
prison breaks to replenish its ranks.

And it was a known target.

Last month, the SDF media office released a
video of a man identified as a captured commander of the Islamic State group,
saying he had been responsible for planning a foiled attack involving two car
bombs and a bunch of armed commandos.

Their goal? To storm the prison in Hasaka that
the group seized last week.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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