ISIS has significantly increased its operations over the past year after a reorganization that saw it focus on creating mobile groups of fighters to conduct smaller-scale attacks. Understanding how its reconstituting itself as an insurgent force and at these early stages is critical to preventing its resurgence.
ISIS in Iraq’s urban areas appears to have reorganized its fighters in small “mobile” subgroups. The group has reformulated its fighting strategies in accordance with new realities on the ground: a decline in its ability to fight after losing first-tier leaders and thousands of fighters in its 2017 territorial defeat, U.S. sanctions on many of its financial resources, and its decreasing ability to recruit and sustain new blood. Nonetheless, ISIS is ramping up its activities in areas in which it still has influence by exploiting Iraq’s internal problems and utilizing familiar geographical territory.
In August 2020, almost two years after the group’s military defeat, the U.N. estimated that more than 10,000 ISIS fighters were still operating in Iraq and Syria. This is similar to a late 2019 assessment from counter-terrorism authorities in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, which estimated 10,000 ISIS members in Iraq, 4,000-5,000 of whom were fighters and the rest of whom were supporters and sleeper cells integrated into local communities in the majority-Sunni provinces of western and northwestern Iraq.