Will coronavirus help ISIS?
On March 9, an elite unit of U.S. Marine Raiders encountered a group of ISIS fighters in northern Iraq — hiding in caves filled with weapons — who engaged them in a violent clash. The fighting was at close range across very rugged terrain in the Qarachogh Mountains. The Marines killed approximately 20 ISIS fighters that day. Tragically, two highly decorated Marines died, and four other U.S. personnel were seriously injured.
Beyond the Marines’ bravery, the event was notable for three reasons. First, these were the first U.S. combat deaths in Iraq since last August. Second, the COVID-19 crisis had just begun in Iraq with the government in Baghdad announcing restrictions and border closings days earlier. Third, since then, ISIS has engaged in a number of attacks — not just in Iraq and Syria but across the globe — that demonstrate its hope to capitalize on the pandemic.
There is reason to worry that the pandemic is creating favorable circumstances for ISIS. The U.S. has now suspended anti-ISIS operations in Iraq involving U.S. personnel, like the one that resulted in the March gun battle in Northern Iraq. Moreover, I learned from a source that U.S. special forces in Syria also halted their on-the-ground anti-ISIS operations and were instructed that their current priority is force protection and ensuring U.S. personnel do not contract COVID-19. In addition, in Iraq and Syria, military training programs run by U.S. personnel for forces it partners with in combating ISIS have been suspended indefinitely due to COVID-19.
With both U.S.-led operations and training programs currently shelved, ISIS fighters may find breathing room in Iraq and Syria that they’ve not had in years.
Other facets of the pandemic also play to ISIS’s strengths. ISIS preys on military-age males who feel ostracized by sectarian strife and lack of economic opportunity; its numbers swelled in 2014 as the Sunni population of Syria was being slaughtered by the Assad regime and the Sunni areas of Iraq chafed over years of political and economic deprivations enforced by the Shia majority government in Baghdad. The pandemic is now exacerbating these divisions and, because both countries are already suffering economically, the financial downturn from the pandemic could be catastrophic for them. Moreover, ISIS relies on social media to recruit; as disaffected youth spend more time on the internet during lockdowns, they are even more susceptible to traps laid for them online.
To counter this threat, the U.S.-led coalition should focus on the following priorities:
Until circumstances permit U.S. forces on the ground to assist in operations against ISIS and resume critical training programs, the coalition must step up its air campaign against ISIS forces. Two weeks ago, Great Britain seemed to do exactly that as RAF Typhoon fighters successfully bombed ISIS fighters hiding in six caves in northern Iraq. The U.S. participated, too, and the combined air campaign killed at least ten ISIS members.
With U.S. military options temporarily narrowed to just the air campaign, diplomacy is even more important. Diplomatic engagement should be focused on encouraging regional allies to take action to curtail sectarian policies that will fuel ISIS. Syria is almost a lost cause because our influence there is now limited, but we should at least continue support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with whom we do have influence and who control some parts of northeast Syria and serve as a counter-balance to sectarian actors like the Assad regime and Iran. We also must encourage Turkey not to continue actions that inflame ethnic and sectarian disputes, such as displacing traditional populations in the Syrian towns near its border.
In Iraq, there is a renewed opportunity to have influence because the parliament in Baghdad this month ratified a new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who is on good terms with the U.S. We must avoid mistakes of the past in which the U.S. stood by and watched as previous Iraqi prime ministers like Nouri al Maliki and Haider Abadi allowed their governments to freeze out Sunni Arabs from the political process. Now, more than ever, Iraq needs non-sectarian policies that enable the Sunni population to feel enfranchised, especially as the country faces uncertain economic challenges due to the pandemic. Sunni Arab areas in particular still need to be rebuilt after destruction by ISIS. With Iran likely to lean on this new prime minister to favor Iranian-backed Shia groups in Iraq which incite sectarian violence, the U.S. must lean back.
Another priority for the U.S.-led coalition is vigilance in helping to ensure prisons where former ISIS fighters are held are not emptied during the pandemic. ISIS has relied on prison breaks to invigorate its forces in the past; when it attacked Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in 2013, some 500 inmates, many of them senior jihadists, joined ISIS’s ranks, giving it the strength it needed to overtake large swaths of territory in 2014. ISIS is now eyeing how COVID-19 is creating exploitable weaknesses in security at prisons where its fighters are held.
On March 30, ISIS fighters took over part of a prison run by SDF in Hasakah, Syria. Some ISIS members escaped, but the U.S. was attuned to what might happen and sent aerial surveillance to help quell the prison break. SDF is estimated to be holding 10,000 ISIS prisoners; many other ISIS fighters are imprisoned in Iraq and Turkey. In addition to providing direct support to security forces responsible for these prisons, the U.S. should ensure they have equipment and resources to address the spread of COVID-19. Mass infections will create instability in prisons that make them easy targets. Recognizing this, the U.S. delivered $1.2 million in COVID-19 medical supplies to the SDF for prison guards and prisoners — a good start, but not enough.
One final priority for the U.S.-led coalition is to ensure refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the region receive humanitarian relief they need, especially because these populations are most impacted by the virus due to dense living conditions, lack of sanitation and the scarcity of medical equipment and critical care. There are 6 million refugees and over 10 million IDPs in the Middle East and North Africa. Many were displaced by ISIS or fighting with ISIS. In Iraq, the camps that hold them have mixed populations; some include displaced persons from Sunni areas that sympathized with ISIS and who are now vulnerable to recruitment. In Syria, the SDF hosts IDP camps estimated to have more than 70,000 former ISIS combatants and their families.
Unfortunately, the appeal of terror groups like ISIS remains, especially in Iraq and Syria. We must prevent ISIS from leveraging that while the world is focused on COVID-19 — because the consequences would be severe. As Brookings Institution warned last month, “Combined with its current campaign of fear and intimidation, targeted assassinations, and extortion, this provides it with a patchwork [and] underground infrastructure of influence that establishes a launching pad from which to seize towns and cities in the manner it did in June 2014.”
David Tafuri is an international lawyer who served as the U.S. Department of State’s Rule of Law Coordinator for Iraq at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad during the height of the war in Iraq. He was also an outside foreign policy adviser to President Obama’s 2008 campaign. He appears frequently on CNN, FOX News, BBC and other networks. Follow him on Twitter @DavidTafuri.