THE VIRUS + THE DESERT: Reasons why the Islamic State group is regrouping in Anbar

Attacks by the extremist group known as the Islamic State are accelerating in rural areas and at-risk provinces like Anbar. Locals are asking why.

By Kamal Ayash – Anbar

Those extremists still at large are fighting a kind of guerrilla war with local security forces, emerging from uncontrollable desert areas to attack and then fleeing back into the safety of the desert.

The impact of the coronavirus, Covid-19, and the resulting lockdown is only adding to these issues. According to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the number of extremist attacks have increased every year since the extremist group was pushed out of Iraqi strongholds. There were “566 reported attacks in the first quarter of 2020 alone,” the Institute’s report concluded.

Locals are asking why the Islamic State, or IS, group is able to carry out attacks like this.

“Some of the decisions made by leaders in the security forces are not well thought out,” suggests Hamad Alwan, a senior, retired commander from the Iraqi military – he is using another name because he was not authorised to comment, given his former role.  For example, he says, the decision to swap out Major General Qassim al-Mohammadi, who headed the Al Jazeera operations command in Anbar. “He was an experienced and knowledgeable leader who had been able to establish a solid network and relationships in the Anbar desert area, ever since he took on the job in 2016. This is an important and sensitive command and his removal is seen as a golden opportunity for the IS group,” the retried soldier explained to Al Menassa.

Additionally, all Iraqi forces have been focused on the pandemic and this has come at the expense of local security.

“Iraqi military units have reduced the level of mobile checkpoints on the outskirts of the cities and in rural areas,” Iraqi security expert, Hisham al-Hashimi wrote recently for an Arabic-language website. “Instead they have focused on urban areas and inside cities so they can impose the pandemic-related curfews.”

The pandemic has also caused other problems that may benefit the extremists. Unemployment has been rising in Anbar thanks to the tight lockdown restrictions. Poverty, anger and unemployment make locals more susceptible to exploitation by the IS group, who often try to recruit fighters from these Sunni Muslim-majority areas and cities.

And there’s a further, longstanding problem in Anbar: The relatives and families of the local men who joined the IS group. Sometimes family members are also extremists, sometimes they are not – but most were forced into camps in Anbar anyway because of the way that local communities rejected them, and the IS group’s creed, after the extremists lost control of local territory.

“Another of the reasons for the rise in sleeper cells and attacks is the government’s failure, as well as the failure of local tribes, to rehabilitate these families and bring them back into their communities,” says Mustafa al-Issawi, an human rights activist in the Amiriyat Fallujah district, which houses one of the IS family camps.

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