Can ISIS Make a Comeback?

Seth J. Frantzman

U.S. forces in northern Iraq, working with partners on the ground, are confident that the remnants of the Islamic State can be confronted, two years after ISIS lost the last pockets of land it held. It has been five years since Washington committed forces to Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve. Today, operating with a relatively small footprint across central and northern Iraq, the operation is continuing but there are questions on the ground about what comes next and whether an ISIS resurgence is in the works.

Lt. Col. Jace Neuenschwander, a battalion commander in Task Force Nineveh which is part of the U.S.-led coalition effort, says that ISIS has tried to adapt to finding new places to exploit gaps in security in Iraq to stay alive. Located near Mosul, Neuenschwander and several hundred personnel are part of the tip of the spear in terms of identifying an ISIS resurgence. “[ISIS have] had a hard time staying alive,” he says. ISIS keeps a low profile and is losing ground, safe havens and smuggling routes. His sector, which stretches around the city of Mosul towards the Syrian border is “not as active as it once was” and the Iraqi Security Forces are doing a good job.

This is a far cry from two years ago when the city of Mosul, once Iraq’s second-largest and a pride of place in Saddam Hussein’s era, was devastated by the nine-month battle to root ISIS out. It was a difficult battle in the western part of the city, sometimes called the “right bank” because of the direction the Tigris River flows here. The famous Nuri Mosque, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi announced his “caliphate” in 2014, was blown up by the extremists in their last stand. ISIS destroyed archaeological treasures and minority religious sites and used the city to sell slaves. By the time the coalition-supported Iraqi forces surrounded the city in the fall of 2016, some eight hundred thousand people were displaced by the fighting and the hundreds of thousands inside the city were suffering.

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