Islamic State strikes from shadows in vulnerable Syria, Iraq

Beirut: With a spectacular jail break in Syria and a deadly attack on an army barracks in Iraq, the Islamic State group was back in the headlines the past week, a reminder of a war that formally ended three years ago but continues to be fought mostly away from view.

The attacks were some of the boldest since the extremist group lost its last sliver of territory in 2019 with the help of a US-led international coalition, following a years-long war that left much of Iraq and Syria in ruins.

Residents in both countries say the recent high-profile IS operations only confirmed what they've known and feared for months: Economic collapse, lack of governance and growing ethnic tensions in the impoverished region are reversing counter-IS gains, allowing the group to threaten parts of its former so-called caliphate once again.

One Syrian man said that over the past few years, militants repeatedly carried out attacks in his town of Shuheil, a former IS stronghold in eastern Syria's Deir el-Zour province. They hit members of the Kurdish-led security force or the local administration then vanished.

We would think it is over and they're not coming back. Then suddenly, everything turns upside down again, he said.

They are everywhere, he said, striking quickly and mostly in the dark, creating the aura of a stealth omnipresent force. He spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety.

IS lost its last patch of territory near Baghouz in eastern Syria in March 2019.

Since that time, it largely went underground and waged a low-level insurgency, including roadside bombings, assassinations and hit-and-run attacks mostly targeting security forces.

In eastern Syria, the militants carried out some 342 operations over the last year, many of them attacks on Kurdish-led forces, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Jan. 20 prison break in Syria's Hassakeh region was its most sophisticated operation yet.

The militants stormed the prison aiming to break out thousands of comrades, some of whom simultaneously rioted inside. The attackers allowed some inmates to escape, took hostages, including child detainees, and battled the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces for a week.

It was not clear how many militants managed to escape, and some remain holed up in the prison.

The fighting killed dozens and drew in the US-led coalition, which carried out airstrikes and deployed American personnel in Bradley Fighting Vehicles to the scene. The battle also drove thousands of neighboring civilians from their homes.

It harkened back to a series of jail breaks that fueled IS's surge more than eight years ago, when they overwhelmed territory in Iraq and Syria.

Hours after the prison attack began, IS gunmen in Iraq broke into a barracks in mountains north of Baghdad, killed a guard and shot dead 11 soldiers as they slept. It was part of a recent uptick in attacks that have stoked fears the group is also gaining momentum in Iraq.

An Iraqi intelligence source said IS does not have the same sources of financing as in the past and is incapable of holding ground.

They are working as a very decentralised organisation, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss security information.

The group's biggest operations are conducted by 7-10 militants, said Iraqi military spokesman Maj. Gen. Yehia Rasool. He said he believes it is currently impossible for IS to take over a village, let alone a city. In the summer of 2014, Iraqi forces collapsed and retreated when the militants overran vast swathes of northern Iraq.

On its online channel, Aamaq, IS has been putting out videos from the prison attack and glorifying its other operations in an intensified propaganda campaign.

The aim is to recruit new members and "reactivate quasi-dormant networks throughout the region, according to an analysis by the Soufan Group security consultancy.

On both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, IS benefits from ethnic and sectarian resentments and from deteriorating economies.

In Iraq, the rivalry between the Baghdad-based central government and the autonomous Kurdish region in the north of the country has opened up cracks through which IS has crept back.

Sunni Arab disenchantment with Shiite politicians helps the group attract young men.

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