7,000 ISIS fighters in Iraq are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to regroup in key areas, general warns

  • ISIS is using lull period caused by the pandemic to regroup, a Kurdish general told the Times.
  • Siwan Barzani said that coalition forces had been forced to suspend training due to COVID-19
  • All the while, ISIS fighters have been infiltrating the civilian population and building up their base again.
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Thousands of Islamic State jihadists are using lull period caused by the coronavirus pandemic to regroup in key areas and are threatening a new wave of attacks, a Kurdish general has warned, according to the Times. 

Siwan Barzani, a commander of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, stationed near the northern city of Arbil in Iraq, told the Times last week that as coronavirus spread throughout the world in March, coalition forces were forced to put much of their activity on hold.

They had to suspend joint raids with Iraqi forces and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces of northern Syria and are now only operating their aircraft at about 80 percent capacity, Barzani said.

On top of this, the United States completed a reduction of its forces in Iraq to 2,500 troops last month — about half the level of less than a year ago. British troops have also been sent home after Camp Taji’s military base, north of Baghdad, was handed over to Iraqi security forces last year. Only 100 British troops remain.

Officials, former fighters, and residents now fear the drawdown is creating a security vacuum in the country, Reuters reported last month. 

ISIS fighters have been exploiting the opportunity to reorganize in Iraq and are, as per the Times, emerging from hiding among civilians to start operating in the country’s mountainous regions again.

“When the liberation started for the whole area, they shaved their beards and posed as civilians, but they were waiting for the opportunity, and slowly they went back to rejoin them,” Barzani said, according to the Times.

“They reorganized themselves quicker because of the pandemic and because there were less Coalition operations. That was something that was good for them but bad for us, of course,” he added.

Barzani estimates that there are now more than 7,000 ISIS fighters in Iraq.

The group is said to have already ramped up its attacks.

According to the Associated Press, at least 20 men and women were killed in the al-Hol refugee camp in northern Syria last month. The killings are largely believed to have been carried out by ISIS fighters who are punishing perceived enemies and trying to intimidate those that might not agree with their extremist ideologies. 

“Al-Hol will be the womb that will give birth to new generations of extremists,” Abdullah Suleiman Ali, a Syrian researcher who focuses on jihadi groups, told AP.

“There are several reasons behind the increase of crime, including attempts by Daesh members to impose their ideology in the camp against civilians who reject it,” Ali added.

The jihadist group has also said it was behind a double suicide bombing at a busy second-hand clothes market in Baghdad last month, which injured more than 100 people and killed at least 32.

It was the biggest suicide attack in Baghdad for three years.

At its peak of power in late 2014, ISIS controlled around 42,400 square miles (110,000 square kilometers) in Iraq and Syria, and eight million people were under its rule.

But while the jihadist group might not have control over territories, their dangerous ideologies remain widespread.

Colonel Wayne Marotto, the global coalition spokesman, told the Times: “We’ve defeated them territorially, but we haven’t defeated them ideology-wise and they are resilient, and right now what they’re doing, it’s almost like an insurgency.”

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