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Kulajo, Iraq: In caves tucked into craggy cliffs and tunnels dug deep beneath the desert, the remnants of a vanquished army are converging for what they hope will be the next chapter in their battle for an Islamic State.
Hundreds and perhaps thousands of IS fighters have made their way over recent months into a stretch of sparsely-populated territory spanning the disputed border between the Kurdistan region and the rest of Iraq, according to US and Kurdish officials.
Off-limits to Kurdish and Iraqi security forces because of historical disputes over who should control it, this area of twisting river valleys dense with vegetation has attracted the biggest known concentration of IS fighters since they lost control of the last village of their once-vast caliphate in eastern Syria in March.
In recent weeks they have been stepping up their attacks, focused on an area of north-eastern Iraq in the province of Diyala near the border with Iran, carrying out ambushes by night and firing mortars. Grasses taller than men provide cover for snipers who sneak up on checkpoints and outposts. Government neglect and long-standing grievances foster a measure of sympathy among local residents.
“They have good military plans, they attack when you don’t expect them and they are posing a real threat to people’s lives,” said Major Aram Darwani, the commander of Kurdish forces in the area.
Major Aram Darawani of the Kurdish peshmerga forces commands a force in Kulajo, Diyala, Iraq. Credit:Photo for The Washington Post by Alice Martins
Recent visits to the Islamic State’s former capital of Raqqa and the viciously contested frontier town of Kulajo reveal the challenges the militants face, as well as the threat they pose.
IS remains a long way from possessing the capacity to retake territory, said Brigadier-General William Seely, who commands US-led coalition forces in Iraq. “These are people who are hiding out. They only come out at night to harass and take potshots,” he said. “You can’t run a revolution or create your own caliphate if that’s all you do.”
Over the past two years, tens of thousands of IS fighters have been killed, their leadership has been decimated and their self-proclaimed “caliph”, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is dead, blown up after he detonated a suicide belt during a US raid on his hideout in October. As many as 30,000 suspected IS fighters are in prison in Iraq and Syria and tens of thousands of their wives and children are detained in dismal camps, according to Kurdish, Iraqi and United Nations officials.
The group has struggled to reassert itself in former strongholds such as Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, where IS attacks have become rare. Memories of its brutal rule and the horrors of the airstrikes used to dislodge the militants deter any desire to see them return, according to Rasha al-Aqeedi, the editor of Irfaa Sawtak (Raise Your Voice), an Iraqi newsletter.
But the militants have already proved adept at infiltrating ungoverned spaces, such as the gap between Kurdish and Iraqi army lines, said Major Johnny Walker, spokesman for the US Special Operations forces that conduct most of the anti-IS operations. “While [IS] is at a serious disadvantage, finding it while it’s hiding in the complex human and physical terrain is a complex task requiring significant resources,” he said.
IS also appears to be gaining momentum in Syria’s eastern Deir al-Zor province, where the group made its last stand in March and where tribal and ethnic rivalries help sustain support for the militants. Assassinations have been on the rise in recent weeks, in part because the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces pulled fighters out of the area to confront Turkish troops to the north, according to an employee of a US-backed NGO in the province, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to safety concerns.
Over a typical Syrian breakfast in one of the towns IS once ruled, he described having to take back roads through the desert to avoid a cluster of towns where the militants still command loyalties. The group is now making a strenuous effort to rearm, he said.
IS fighters have also found refuge in the vast, barely populated desert that lies across the Euphrates River from where US troops are deployed. The area is nominally under Syrian government control, and there are indications that the militants there have established a measure of command over cells elsewhere in the country, Syrian Kurdish officials say.
For now, fewer people are being killed in IS attacks than in the anti-government protests in Iraq and the battles unleashed by Turkey’s invasion of north-eastern Syria.
But these new conflicts illustrate the danger posed by the group’s residual presence, analysts and military officials say. IS owed its conquest of territory to the collapse of state authority over a big part of Syria and the implosion of the Iraqi army in Iraq. Any further deterioration of security in Iraq or Syria would create a new opportunity for IS fighters hiding out or lying low.
The militants have not gone away and could yet rise again, cautioned Major-General Eric Hill, who commands US Special Forces in Iraq and Syria.
Over the eight months that Muawiyah Abdul Khader Akraa operated as part of a secret IS cell in Raqqa, he said he participated in 17 attacks. He doesn’t know how many people he killed because, he said, he didn’t linger to find out whether his victims died.
“I did it to avenge our brothers in the battles,” he said, displaying no remorse during an interview at the prison in the town of Tabqa, where he has been detained by Kurdish forces since his arrest in August.
He and two other confessed members of the cell agreed to be interviewed in the presence of Kurdish officials, who said they had verified the information the prisoners provided after months of interrogations. Their accounts offer a rare glimpse into the world of IS sleeper cells, which lie at the heart of its efforts to reassert its influence.
Akraa, 22, said his missions were assigned at meetings arranged during hurried calls over the encrypted Telegram app. He would be told a time and place to rendezvous, typically a landmark such as the clock tower, a park or Naim Square, where IS carried out public beheadings during its rule over Raqqa.
There he would be met by an “emir” (commander) who picked him up in a car and would deliver the orders, usually to plant a bomb but sometimes to assassinate a local official.
Akraa said he had been fighting with IS in Deir al-Zor province when he was approached by an emir in the area and asked to become an undercover operative in Raqqa. Akraa was given a fake ID identifying him as a Raqqa resident and assigned a smuggler to escort him across the front lines.
After arriving in Raqqa in January, Akraa was introduced to the head of the cell, whom he knew only as Baraa. He gave Akraa £S25,000 ($165) to rent an apartment, the promise of a $US200-a-month salary and a small bomb, which he was instructed to plant outside a bakery whose owner had refused to pay “zakat” – alms observant Muslims donate to the poor – to IS.
The bomb exploded at night and caused no casualties. “It was only a warning,” Akraa said. “He paid the zakat.”
Working with two others, he embarked on a series of attacks. On one day, it was to detonate a bomb in a vegetable cart near a hospital. On another, the task was to drive up to the home of a local official on a motorcycle, knock on his door and shoot him when he came to answer it.
In May, Akraa participated in the biggest attack of the year in Raqqa, setting off a small bomb in Naim Square to attract security forces, which were then targeted in a larger suicide bombing. At least 10 people were killed.
The two other prisoners interviewed said they had been recruited in June, months after sneaking away from IS’s last battle. Ibrahim Hassan al-Haji said he received a Telegram message out of the blue telling him to report to an emir in a Raqqa park, who informed him he was being activated to be part of a secret cell and offered him a salary of $US80 a month. He said he complied because he had been unable to find a job and had no money “and because my ideology is jihad”.
The third man said he was recruited after he sought the help of an IS smuggler to free a relative from al-Hawl camp, where tens of thousands of people related to former IS members are detained. He said he had no choice but to follow the group’s orders. “They knew where I lived,” he said.
The emirs changed frequently. In April, Baraa disappeared and a new leader known as “the doctor” showed up to arrange the bombing of Naim Square, said Akraa. Then “the doctor” vanished and was followed by two more.
Then Kurdish forces infiltrated the cell, and one day in August they burst into Akraa's apartment and detained him. The two other sleepers were apprehended shortly afterward, as were eight other members of the cell.
Attacks in Raqqa have fallen off since the cell was cracked. There hasn’t been an assassination inside the city since June, according to Raizin Dirki of the Raqqa Internal Security Forces, which is affiliated to the Syrian Democratic Forces. The only significant bombing came in early October, when three IS suicide bombers tried to storm a Kurdish intelligence office where IS prisoners were detained.
None of the cell’s emirs have been tracked down, however, said Heval Sharwan, the commander of the unit responsible for rounding up the cell. The captives have told him that two emirs relocated to Turkish-controlled territory in the Syrian province of Aleppo, while others are thought to be hiding out in the desert.
“We haven’t arrested any of the brains,” said Sharwan, referring to the leaders. “So we cannot confirm that Raqqa is safe.”
Kulajo, a tiny, drab town of flat-roofed concrete homes, lies along one of Iraq’s most fraught faultlines in the troubled province of Diyala.
Arabs and Kurds have wrangled over territory here since Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein began settling Arabs in the area in the 1980s as part of his campaign to quell the rebellious Kurds. And the area has long been home to Islamist insurgents, including al-Qaeda, according to Darwani, the Kurdish forces commander, who has been fighting the militants in the area for the past 12 years.
Today, Kulajo is populated mostly by Arabs but is under the control of Kurdish forces. The Iraqi army mans a checkpoint about half a kilometre farther south. But in some spots along the disputed Iraq-Kurdistan region border, the no-man’s land between the two forces is as wide as 30 kilometres. It is in that space that IS fighters lurk, Darwani said.
Earlier this month, he escorted a Washington Post reporter to the town in his family’s pickup truck because, he said, a military vehicle would attract unwelcome attention.
Three nights earlier, three of his men had been killed in an ambush.
Pausing the pickup at the spot where they died, Darwani described the terrifying event. A dense fog had reduced visibility and diminished the ability of the US-led coalition to launch air strikes in support of his troops. IS fighters hiding in the palm groves barely 200 metres away had first fired mortars into the town. When reinforcements arrived, they were gunned down.
At a post on the edge of the town, little more than a ring of sandbags atop an earth mound, Kurdish fighters said they felt vulnerable, armed only with the Kalashnikov rifles common across the country. IS fighters, however, have mortars and sniper rifles with infra-red sights enabling them to strike at night, said Burhan Nouri Hamasayi, one of the post’s guards, pointing to the palm groves nearby. “They could easily kill us all,” he said.
Darwani put the number of IS fighters in his area at about 300, but said he believed many more people in the area were sympathetic to them. “These were the Arabs supported by Saddam when he was oppressing Kurds. They will join any group that is against us. Even people who say they are with us are secretly with [IS],” he said.
A matter of time
As many as 3000 fighters have gathered along the 240-kilometre length of the no-man’s land, according to General Sirwan Barzani, who commands Kurdish forces farther north in the Qara Chokh mountains. US military officials say they put the number at closer to 500, strung out in remote terrain and operating in groups of around five.
Barzani said the militants are living off the land, shaking down local villagers for food and money. A local television station, Rudaw, has filmed IS fighters clambering down a cliff face in his sector of the no-man’s land, stripping naked and bathing in a river.
“I don’t think the strategy of [IS] now is to do big things. They need more time,” he said. “They are reorganising themselves, getting weapons and arms. They don’t have the power now to do a big attack.”
But the difficult terrain and rivalry between the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces preclude any kind of organised offensive to root out the militants, said Darwani.
“Iraq is on the edge of a cliff and it is falling," he said, urging a hasty departure from Kulajo as the sun set. For IS to return, he added, “it is a matter of time”.
The Washington Post
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