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On the ground in Iraq, the war against ISIS is just getting started

The fight against ISIS is shifting from the battlefield to the shadows.

Members of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) cheer as they carry upside-down a black flag of the Islamic State (IS) group, with the destroyed Al-Nuri mosque seen in the background, in the Old City of Mosul on July 2, 2017, during the offensive to retake the city from IS fighters. (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

ERBIL, Iraq — The atmosphere at the Classy Hotel in Erbil, Iraq, has changed dramatically over the past two months. In July, as the Iraqi army stormed the ISIS stronghold of Mosul some 60 miles away, bands of roving war reporters lugged flak jackets and camera gear through the mahogany-veneered lobby while frontline aid coordinators nervously guzzled coffee between long shifts.

That's changed since Iraqi forces completed their reconquest of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in July after months of bloody fighting. Mosul had been the crown jewel of ISIS’s self-declared caliphate, and its loss was enormous for the terror group.

Now, as ISIS continues to lose ground in both its former fiefdoms in Northern Iraq and Syria and on the front pages of global newspapers, the hotel is quieter. “There’s no one here because there’s no more Mosul crisis,” said Muhammad, the maitre’d, with a laugh as he surveyed the empty place settings.

But while the world’s attention shifts to the nuclear standoff with North Korea, military and political leaders here in Iraq have a blunt warning: The fight against ISIS is far from over, and it may take decades to rout former fighters and their sympathizers from the region.

“We should not be misled into thinking that the liberation of Mosul means the end of ISIS or the end of terrorism,” Falah Mustafa Bakir, the foreign minister for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), told me in an interview. “This will be a long-term fight, and it may be a generational fight.”

Fighting ISIS on the battlefield is one thing. Fighting it in the shadows is something else entirely.

ISIS, the terrorist group that charged across Northern Syria and Iraq in 2014, attracted tens of thousands of foreign fighters who wanted to help build an entirely new nation in the heart of the Middle East that would be governed by their puritanical interpretation of Sunni Islam. But not all of those willing to kill and die for ISIS came from abroad. Instead, many of those who supported the group — or tolerated its fighters — were native-born Iraqi Sunnis.

“The idea is an international phenomenon, but the raw materials are Iraqi,” Muhammad Ihsan, the Kurdish government’s former human rights minister, told me.

Some local Sunni political and tribal leaders were coerced into pledging allegiance to the terrorist group by threats that they or their families would be killed. Other Sunnis were frustrated by years of economic and political marginalization at the hands of the Shia-led — and American supported — central government in Baghdad.

The country’s Shia majority had been brutally repressed by Saddam Hussein’s predominantly Sunni Baathist regime for decades, but when they took control of Baghdad after the US invasion in 2003, the tides quickly turned.

Following Saddam’s ousting, the US-led transitional government implemented a program of “de-Baathification.” The policy, modeled on de-Nazification in postwar Germany, expelled officials previously affiliated with Saddam’s Baath regime from the public sector and barred their participation in the political process.

Sold to the public as an effort to purge the country of the last vestiges of Saddam’s brutal rule, de-Baathification led to the firing of tens of thousands of Sunni security personnel and civilian officials, including teachers. In practice, it sparked widespread fury among Iraq’s Sunni population.

That anger continued to build during the long US war in Iraq, where most of the heaviest fighting took place in Sunni areas of the country. By 2014, successive Shia governments in Baghdad had spent years consolidating power through the persecution of political opponents, mass arrests, and, ultimately, SWAT-style crackdowns on anti-government protesters resulting in civilian deaths.

As many Sunnis had grown disillusioned with their country’s leaders, some were enticed by a radical alternative: ISIS, a Sunni group that promised to fight Iraq’s Shia central government.

In March, the United States estimated that just 10 percent of ISIS’s 15,000 remaining fighters in Iraq and Syria had come from abroad, while 10 to 20 percent were “very hardened local and regional fighters.” Approximately half of the 15,000 fighters are in Iraq, although the US says porous borders between the two countries make precise ISIS arithmetic almost impossible.

The majority of ISIS militants are local fighters “pressed into service,” according Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of the anti-ISIS task force Operation Inherent Resolve.

Back in March, before the Iraqi government declared Mosul ISIS-free, Townsend said those fighters would be the first to “vote with their feet” and abandon the so-called caliphate. Instead of ISIS fighters running, however, Kurdish leaders in Northern Iraq are worried some have simply jettisoned balaclavas and black flags and melted back into daily life following battlefield defeats.

“Some of them shaved their beards and came among the [displaced Iraqis],” Bakir said. “Some are still in these [liberated] areas; some are in sleeper cells. They’re waiting for their moment.”

So while Brett McGurk, the White House’s anti-ISIS envoy, recently tweeted that that “Irreconcilable #ISIS terrorists should be killed on the battlefield,” the reality on the ground is more nuanced.

US airstrikes have targeted many of the most high-profile ISIS leaders, like Abu Abbas al-Qurayshi, the alleged conductor of ISIS’s deadly car bomb campaign. Other important leaders, like the terror group’s senior Mosul-based military commander Abu Bakr al-Masri, have reportedly been captured or killed in recent battles. Still, local politicians and analysts believe that many rank-and-file ISIS sympathizers have, at least temporarily, gone underground as the Iraqi army, Shia militias, Kurdish peshmerga, and coalition-backed forces tighten the noose around the erstwhile caliphate.

Hardcore ISIS fighters — some 4,500 foreigners and “hardened” local militants identified by the US last March — may fight to the death, but “thousands” of ordinary Iraqi sympathizers and onetime gunslingers are a much more complicated beast to tackle, according to Hoshang Mohamed, who oversees Kurdistan’s humanitarian response to the ISIS crisis. “The real problem is what is going to happen to this huge number of local fighters.”

Mohamed worries about “post-ISIS militia formation” among Iraqi Sunnis, about how best to bring former ISIS collaborators to justice, and, perhaps more insidiously, that active ISIS members have entered secure areas among the 1 million displaced Iraqis currently in Kurdistan.

While he cautioned against collective suspicion of all internally displaced people (IDPs), Mohamed cited recent arrests of suspected ISIS fighters hiding among Iraqi civilians in Kurdistan as evidence of the enemy’s cunning. Kurdish security forces have arrested hundreds of suspected ISIS fighters in the past months, with a noticeable uptick following battles in Mosul and Tal Afar.

The question is what to do about it. The Iraqi and Kurdish governments obviously can’t simply ignore the problem. But trying to find the fighters by aggressively searching Sunni areas or arresting young Sunni men risks sparking the same kind of sectarian resentments that led to the rise of ISIS in the first place.

Perhaps no other group suffered from ISIS more than Sunni civilians who fled or were subjected to the terrorist group’s brutal rule only to face a punishing response from the US-led coalition and allies. It was the predominantly Sunni residents of Mosul whom ISIS used as human shields and whose children remain traumatized after witnessing years of public bloodlust. Sunni civilians have died in scores as US “precision guided missiles” miss their marks and kill bystanders.

Treating all Sunnis as suspected ISIS collaborators will only restart the vicious cycle of marginalization, dispossession, and anger that leads to radicalization. Balancing humanitarian and security concerns while reengaging the Sunni community will be Northern Iraq’s greatest challenge following ISIS’s battlefield defeat.

“We need to address the needs of this community, the Sunni Arabs,” acknowledged Bakir.

“Some have become refugees; some have become displaced. Some have joined ISIS; some have become victims of ISIS. What is their future?”

The next phase of the ISIS war has already begun

In the Nineveh governorate of Northern Iraq, locals are already girding themselves for the next chapter of the battle. A cinderblock military base, which will serve as a training camp and recruitment center for a local Christian militia, is the among the newest anti-ISIS bulwarks dotting the landscape. “We are preparing soldiers and volunteers for this next period,” said Gevara Zaya, the chief political coordinator for the Nineveh Plain Protection Unit (NPU), which mans the base.

Large-scale battles will soon be a thing of the past, as ISIS continues to lose ground, weapons, and key supply lines. Instead, he said the offensive will shift toward surveillance and more quotidian policing measures like highway checkpoints and background checks. “For the next period, we are preparing our soldiers in intelligence and security, not only fighting,” Zaya said.

The NPU is demanding more resources from Baghdad for post-ISIS policing operations and appealing for private donations to maintain security in Christian villages. A glossy English-language website accepts both debit and credit card payments, assuring donors that the group “prioritizes all compliance with US law.”

Kurdish troops, who have led the anti-ISIS fight for the past three years, are also planning for a less battle-intensive phase of the conflict. They’re gearing up to oust ISIS from a final stronghold in town of Hawija, located in the Kirkuk province of Iraq. Soon, the Kurds will shift combat operations from full-scale military offensives to a counterinsurgency approach that will involve maintaining border security and managing terror threats within their own borders.

“After getting Hawija and other areas back to our control there will be a new challenge of facing terror,” said Brig. Gen. Halgurd Hikmat, spokesperson for the Kurdish forces.

The Kurds aren't alone. Senior US officials from the anti-ISIS coalition say their approach is shifting from frontline fighting — characterized by deadly, near-daily airstrikes — to a less visible security presence as Iraqi forces recapture the last ISIS-controlled areas.

“We clearly see a shift in emphasis toward police and wide-area security and counterterrorism-type training as we see ISIS devolve into an insurgency,” said Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve.

And that, in a sentence, is what most worries Iraqi, Kurdish, and American officials. ISIS may have lost its caliphate, but the group has begun what looks like it could be a sustained guerrilla war against Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

“We could see a situation in which [ISIS] loses Tal Afar, Mosul, and Fallujah ... but begins carrying out more covert insurgent operations,” said Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College London.

That's already begun. ISIS has claimed strings of suicide attacks, car bombings, and kidnappings across Iraq in recent months, targeting both military units and civilians.

Approaching on motorcycle, a small cadre of ISIS militants rushed a Kurdish peshmerga outpost near Kirkuk last month, killing three soldiers with grenades. After entering the village of Mahleh claiming to be peshmerga soldiers, 20 ISIS members beheaded five family members of a local police officer, according to local reports. ISIS claimed responsibility for a car bomb at a vegetable market in a predominantly Shia neighborhood north of Baghdad that left 12 civilians dead and another 28 wounded in August.

While not exactly the grotesque, theatrical killings ISIS carried out at the height of its power in 2014, these spasmodic attacks are just as lethal as the beheadings and coordinated executions that grabbed headlines in years past. Although ISIS’s pseudo-state is fast disappearing, these violent attacks threaten to destabilize Iraq and the region for years to come.

War by other means is still war

There is some reason for optimism.

The Iraqi Armed Forces, Kurdistan’s peshmerga fighters, and predominantly Shia militias known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) have for the moment cast aside political differences to create a semblance of security in Northern Iraq.

Sunni Arab refugee camps and neighborhoods in cities once controlled by ISIS are under tight control by these groups, says Mohammed.

Local authorities are also preparing a host of nonmilitary interventions to combat extremism at its roots. Friday sermons are monitored closely for radical content, says Bakir, and “re-brainwashing” projects are being launched.

The problem is that serious human rights abuses are happening at the same time. Predominantly Sunni areas have suffered disproportionate and at times systematic destruction in anti-ISIS battles — a fact that security forces attribute to collateral damage but many Sunnis suspect to be a revenge tactic by the Iraqi troops, peshmerga, and Shia military units who have lost thousands of soldiers battling ISIS.

Human Rights Watch has documented what appears to be the coordinated ruination of Sunni communities once under ISIS rule, including the wholesale destruction of villages after the cessation of hostilities.

That means ISIS, or its successors, could potentially find a new pool of possible recruits.

“Al-Qaeda and ISIS are always there,” said Khogir Mohammed, a research assistant at the Middle East Research Institute in Erbil. “They can capitalize on the grievances that the Sunnis have.”

Ranj Alaaldin, a visiting fellow with the Brookings Institution in Doha, Qatar, said fears that ISIS collaborators would slip back into daily life were well-founded.

“If there is anything the group [ISIS] has proved over the past decade it’s the ability to integrate themselves back into local communities, to integrate back into the social and cultural dynamics of the Iraqi society,” Alaaldin said.

Elias, a refugee in Erbil whose last name I’m withholding for security reasons, is one of those worried that he won't be able to return home anytime soon because ISIS remains in the shadows, ready to attack.

“ISIS is not finished,” said Elias, who fled Mosul when terrorists overran the city in June 2014.

Now squeezed into a clapboard refugee-camp trailer with his family, he is one of many who believe that former ISIS supporters still hold sway in the neighborhoods they left behind. “If I go to the market, I might not come back. There is no safety,” he said.

Hanan, too, doubts that the highly touted, much-tweeted liberation of Mosul has eradicated terrorists from the city. After ISIS sent a threatening message — and a bullet painted red — to her home, Hanan fled with her teenage son to a refugee camp near Erbil. Like Elias, she is afraid to return because her husband works in the Iraqi army and she fears retaliation from former ISIS members still living in the town.

On a recent visit to check on their property in Mosul, her son Tareq said he started shaking uncontrollably when he saw a man he knew had associated with ISIS casually walking down the street.

Hanan shook her head as her son recalled the incident. “You don’t know who you can trust,” she said.