ISIS militants are taking advantage of the preoccupation with the COVID-19 crisis and the turbulent political situation in Iraq to launch fresh attacks particularly in rural areas. In March 2020, in its weekly Arab-language newsletter, al Naba, the group encouraged its supporters to liberate Muslim captives from prisons and camps and to show no mercy to the infidels and apostates. This is a clear message to its supporters to re-group and exploit the current situation, knowing that domestic and international efforts will be diverted to respond to COVID-19. On 08 May 2020, a U.S. defense official told CNN that ISIS is increasing its attacks against Iraqi security forces in the countryside north of Baghdad.
In March 2020, Iraqi security forces suspended all training in Iraq to prevent the spread of COVID. This decision also came as the US-led coalition forces suspended their activities in the region for two months. The coalition suspended training in January when Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was killed. Training was set to resume in full but coronavirus fears have halted it again. In addition, the US withdrew from six military bases in Iraq as of April 2020. With that, Iraqi security forces were left to fill the security void left by the US coalition. The lack of solidarity between the federal government and Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has also resulted in a security vacuum which ISIS has been taking advantage of, and has further aided the group in their recent surge in activity. This is clearly shown by the group’s areas of activity. Despite reports of a number of attacks in urban areas such as Kirkuk, Mosul, Anbar, Salahuddin, and Diyala. The areas where ISIS is most active remains to be remote deserts and mountains, and in the disputed territories, which has been the base for the group since before the crisis.
A U.S. defense official told the CNN, that the sophistication of the attacks has not increased, however there has been “a slight uptick in the quantity of activity”. This does not mean that ISIS is making a significant resurgence or a “comeback”. However, the increase in attacks will likely put further pressure on the government. The COVID-19 crisis along with trying to fight ISIS without the full support of the U.S. will likely exacerbate governance failures, sectarianism and deepen the economic hardship, especially with the collapse of oil prices, which Iraq heavily depend on to fund its spending. Just in October 2019, thousands of Iraqis joined anti-government protests, protesting lack of basic services, corruption and lack of jobs. The protests only briefly stopped due to the spread of the virus, and are slowly resuming despite the curfew and other restrictions. The protest movement is expected to only grow as a result of the economic impact of COVID-19.
These issues will pose are real challenge for the new Iraqi prime minister. After five months, and two failed attempts to form a government in Iraq, the country has a new Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a former intelligence chief. Shortly after his appointment, al-Kadhimi, Iraqi Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Iraqi Armed Forces, vowed to root out ISIS from Iraq once and for all. On 17 May 2020, the Iraqi army launched a military operation dubbed Desert Lions Operations to track down ISIS elements in the desert areas between the provinces of Anbar, Nineveh and Saladin. Al-Kadhimi also took measures to deal with the grievances of the protesters who soon after the formation of the new government returned to the streets. Al-Kadimi ordered the release of detained protesters and vowing to hold those who shed Iraqi blood accountable. However, as the protesters remain on the street, they will continue to be a serious challenge for al-Kadhimi, amidst the government’s efforts to contain ISIS sleeper cells, and stop its resurgence.