Kurdish Gen. Sirwan Barzani warned in an April 6 interview updated Monday that the Islamic State is “coming back with a vengeance” in Iraq, and while ISIS is currently focused on guerrilla fighting and terrorist attacks on civilians, it aspires to “make a powerful comeback” and once again control territory as a caliphate.
“There’s still sectarian rivalry and the extremist ISIS ideology is still there. Even when ISIS was defeated by military force, they weren’t all killed. Many of them trimmed their beards and became civilians waiting for the opportunity to join ISIS,” Barzani told Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya.
Barzani said it would be “surely be difficult” for ISIS to regain the status it once held as a functional terror state, with territory carved out of Syria and Iraq, but ISIS operatives are “stirring unrest and instability and causing trouble for the security apparatus, army forces, and the entire Peshmerga forces” in a bid to re-create some version of their empire – and he accused factions within the Iraqi military of helping them.
“Whether they are Iraqi soldiers or ISIS fighters, they are both Iraqis who belong to these lands and these clans. So, you can understand how information is leaked,” he said, in the course of explaining how ISIS forces received advance warnings of Kurdish Peshmerga operations.
Barzani said the Islamic State is still receiving “internal and external funding” for its ideology, even though it no longer has declared leaders who might be able to negotiate with Kurdish officials. He doubted ISIS would be interested in negotiating even if they did have political leaders.
“I don’t think they believe in political solutions, in my opinion,” he said. “The mentality they were brought up with and how they were brainwashed made them believe they are fighters and fighting in the name of God and the Prophet.”
The Kurdish general optimistically hoped “very few people” would be eager to join ISIS if Iraq can stabilize its economy and get to work on “creating job opportunities, achieving stability and providing full services.”
Barzani is not the only voice warning of an Islamic State resurgence in Iraq. The French Defense Ministry told Al-Arabiya on Friday that “ISIS in Iraq and Syria has resurfaced,” and its forces are on the march even though it has been “defeated geographically.”
British and American warplanes struck ISIS targets in Iraq over the past few weeks, working in coordination with Iraqi ground forces to eliminate training camps and destroy cave networks used by the remnants of the Islamic State. On Sunday, Canadian special forces revealed they supported a major Iraqi military operation against ISIS in the Makhmur Mountains last month. The Canadians provided assistance with surveillance, resupply, and medical evacuations for Operation Ready Lion, which reportedly lasted about two weeks.
As for Barzani’s hopes that a more stable and prosperous Iraq will deprive ISIS of recruits, there are hopeful signs that Iraq’s economy is stabilizing, but Baghdad is still grappling with a crisis severe enough to make it court both Iran and its rivals in Saudi Arabia for stronger economic cooperation. One of Iraq’s lingering headaches is an enormous debt incurred to Iran for imported natural gas and electricity, which Iraq was granted exemptions from U.S. sanctions on Iran to purchase.
Another lingering problem for Iraq is the continuing reluctance of other nations to repatriate captured ISIS fighters. About 64,000 foreign nationals remain in the custody of Iraqi, Syrian, or Kurdish authorities, largely in deteriorating prison camps that provide ample opportunities for ISIS die-hards to keep their ideology alive.