Why Has ISIS Revived?


Talking with Sunni Arab Refugees from ISIS near Mosul in 2019

In March 2019, the last bit of ISIS-controlled territory at Baghouz on the Syrian-Iraqi border fell to Kurdish fighting forces and their allies. Later that year its vaunted Caliph, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, was killed in a US military assault in northeastern Syria. President Trump proudly proclaimed the end of ISIS.

Yet intelligence reports indicate that the movement is far from dead. In fact, it appears to be on the rise. In 2019, there were estimated to be 18,000 ISIS fighters remaining in guerrilla cadres. These sleeper cells and strike teams have conducted sniper attacks, ambushes, kidnappings and assassinations. They were particularly active in rural areas of the badly-policed borders between Syria and Iraq and between Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of the country. Their targets have been government and foreign forces and anyone thought to be collaborating with them.

In 2019 the numbers of attacks increased over the year. In the first six months in Iraq alone there were almost 280 people killed in ISIS guerilla assaults, including erdUS contract security personnel. Among those killed was a Sunni Arab guard in Ramadi who went out at night to check up on his uncle’s farmland and was abducted and beheaded with a warning that a similar fate would await anyone who worked for the government.

The numbers of incidents this year are already up.  The question is why? Why has ISIS returned so quickly, and why is it thriving?

The basic reason is that the conditions that encouraged so many Sunni Arabs to support ISIS have not changed. Their feelings of marginalization in Shi’a dominated Iraq and Alawite-dominated Syria have continued to make them second-class cities. Worse, some of their major cities, like Raqqa in Syria, and Mosul, Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq, have been destroyed in the battles to end ISIS control. The Sunni Arabs who lived there often have nowhere to return.

As a result hundreds of thousands are languishing in refugee camps, where tentative hope has eroded into despair. There the ISIS message of Sunni Arab empowerment falls on receptive ears, especially among young men who find little opportunities for employment or education in the camps.

In the last several months, moreover, there are four other factors that have emerged that have propelled ISIS’ revival. All of them are related to policy decisions made by the U.S. President, often with little consultation with experts and advisors, and with little assessment of the potential consequences. These factors will have a long-range effect in strengthening the revival of ISIS:

Control in Syria diminished

When President Donald Trump announced that US forces would withdraw from the Kurdish regions of Northern Syria the shock waves were felt throughout the region. He had apparently made the decision on the spur of the moment during a telephone call with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Within a day Turkey was moving its troops into the area, pushing out the Kurds who lived there, planning to create a new buffer zone to relocate Syrian refugees and deny the Kurds a homeland from which they might influence Kurdish separatists in Turkey.

Since Kurdish forces had led the opposition against ISIS in the region, this meant that Kurdish troops were no longer able to patrol the region. The Russian-backed Syrian army was not adequate to the task. Hence the ISIS cadres had almost free reign to operate again within the formerly Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria.

Prisons left unguarded

Kurdish forces had maintained the detention centers and prisons in Northern Syria where some 10,000 former ISIS fighters were incarcerated. With the need for Kurdish troops to protect their own people in the face of the Turkish army that was trying to force an ethnic cleansing if Kurds in the region, many of the detention centers were suddenly seriously understaffed after the US decision to no longer project the Kurds. Prison breaks since then have released hundreds of seasoned ISIS militants back into society.

Control in Iraq diminished

Much of the containment of ISIS in Iraq was due to policies orchestrated by Iran through the Quds Force Commander, Qasem Soleimani. It was widely suspected that he had worked hand and glove with the US military in coordinating their offensive strategy against ISIS, despite his role in supporting anti-American groups throughout the Middle East. When he was killed in January 2020 through a US military strike ordered by President Trump, whatever coordination existed between the US and Iran was severed, and the specific strategies that were directed by Soleimani no longer had his skillful leadership to guide them.

Shi’a Extremists Emboldened

Perhaps a more important and long-lasting outcome of the assassination of Soleimani is its effect in emboldening the extremist activists within the Shi’a communities of Iran and Iraq. The moderate leaders had gambled their reputations on a peace agreement with the United States brokered in the administration of President Barack Obama, and when Trump reversed the US stand and pulled out of the deal, the hardliners appeared to have won. The killing of Soleimani was the last straw in the moderate approach. What this means is that extreme Shi’a militia now have greater liberty to prey on their ethnic rivals, Sunni Arabs and Kurds, who already are marginalized in the Shi’a dominated politics of Iraq and Syria. The beneficiary of this increased ethnic polarization is ISIS, which thrives on the suffering of Sunni Arabs, providing a voice for the dispossessed.

In a curious way, then, the effect of recent US actions in the region emboldens ISIS. By alienating Sunni Arabs, strengthening Iranian and Iraqi Shi’a hardliners, and withdrawing support from ISIS primary enemy, the Kurdish forces of Iraq and Syria, the US under President Trump has given ISIS a new lease on life.


US Intelligence figures of the number of ISIS related incidents in 2019 are cited in Eric Schmitt, Alissa Rubin, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “ISIS is Regaining Strength in Iraq and Syria,” The New York Times, August 19, 2019.

Fallout from the US-Iran War

When I heard about the assassination of Qassim Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, by an American military missile strike at the Baghdad airport on January 2, I immediately thought of the repercussions. They are likely to be global, perhaps provoking another war. American military and government installations around the world may become targets.

The balance of power in the Middle East will be affected, and hardliners in Tehran will be strengthened. They have always been suspicious of America’s intentions, even during the short-lived nuclear peace agreement, and now they have new reason to build up Iran’s nuclear armaments.

But my immediate thoughts were not about this broader spectrum of dire consequences from a decision that appears to have been made quickly without extensive consultation by a President notorious for disastrous spur-of-the-moment foreign policy decisions. Rather, I thought about the affect within Iraq, where Suleimani was killed.

I have visited Iraq many times since the US invasion in 2003, and have developed friendships with colleagues especially in the Kurdistan region in the north. I fear that the rising US-Iran tensions will have an adverse effect on Iraq’s minorities—particularly the secularists, the Sunnis and the Kurds.

When I first went to Baghdad in 2004, shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein, I talked with many academics, journalists and politicians who were hopeful about the rise of a secular democracy and new political parties organized around the interests of workers and farmers. Instead, politics in Iraq has devolved into ethnic and religious sectarian movements.

The spirit of secular democracy has persisted, however, and has been expressed most recently in the huge public rallies supported especially by young people protesting political corruption and the insidious ties to Iran. Now that Iran is under attack by the US, and the US has been using Iraqi territory as the base for which those attacks have been made, these protests have been drowned out in clamor for a martial patriotism to defend the sovereignty of Iraq. The power of the Iran-related Shi’a political parties in Iraq has been solidified.

The strengthening of Shi’a political groups is bad news for the two major ethnic minorities in Iraq, the Sunni Arabs in the Western region of the country and the Sunni Kurds in the north. My friends in the Kurdistan region have admired Americans and enjoyed the support of the United States over the years, beginning with an American-enforced no-fly zone over the Kurdistan region after the Gulf War. The Arabs in the rest of Iraq treated them as second-class citizens, and Kurds had few political allies in the region.

Though the ethnic community of Kurds comprise some 40 million people in eastern Turkey and the northern regions of Iran, Iraq, and Syria, they do not have their own nation. Moreover, their separatist aspirations are suspect in each of these four countries in which they have large populations. The United States supported them against Saddam, and then found in them useful allies in the fight against the Islamic State. Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq were crucial in ending the territorial control of the Islamic State in 2018.

The Kurds assumed that the US would show its gratitude by giving them continued support, but alas the capricious decision by US President Trump to withdraw protective American troops from Syria in 2019 left them vulnerable to Turkish incursions into the Kurdish areas of Syria. The most recent anti-American mood in Iraq following the assassination of Suleimani will make the Kurdish pro-American stand even less acceptable to Baghdad. It also makes the Iraqi Kurds feel more vulnerable, since the US is increasingly not in a position to come to their aid, even if it was disposed to do so.

The Sunni Arabs in Iraq also will feel abandoned in the pro-Iranian mood following the Suleimani assassination. When I talked with Sunnis in refugee camps who have fled ISIS-controlled territory in western Iraq and Syria, many of them said they feared Shi’a control more than the harsh terrorist regime of the Islamic State.

The overwhelming number of ordinary Sunnis who supported ISIS during its heyday did so because they felt excluded from the Shi’a- dominated political life of the country, and marginalized when it came to receiving government jobs and benefits. Participation in the Islamic State was a form of Sunni empowerment.

When the ISIS regime was defeated in the main Sunni Arab cities—Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul—what was left behind were scenes of utter destruction. Very little government funding or other efforts have been made to restore the infrastructure and help in the rebuilding of these cities. Many of the residents languish in the enormous refugee camps erected in the Kurdistan countryside.

The Sunni dissatisfaction and fear of Shi’a militia has bolstered ISIS and led to an underground resurgence of the movement. The increased power of Shi’a politics and the unleashing of militant Shi’a groups such as the Sadr Brigade will only harden the Sunni antipathy towards Shi’a control and bolster the rejuvenation of the ISIS movement.

On the evening after the assassination of Suleimani, pronouncements from the White House and Pentagon focused on this one man, who was admittedly a mastermind of many treacherous operations throughout the Middle East. The implication was that in destroying Suleimani, a measure of peace would come to the region. Alas, however, the death of this one man may lead to a spiral of consequences, affecting most immediately Iraq’s minorities, the secularists, Sunnis and Kurds.