by Anne Speckhard and Ardian Shajkovci, opinion contributors
After announcing the defeat of ISIS in Iraq, Iraq's armed forces held celebratory parades in Iraq's capital, Baghdad, last December. Yet, in the last two months alone, ISIS operatives have claimed responsibility for two major sleeper cell orchestrated terrorist attacks in Baghdad and near Kirkuk,the latter in which ISIS attackers had the audacity to appear in an ambush dressed in Iraqi military uniforms. Even before the liberation of Iraq from ISIS, the task of completely rooting ISIS sympathizers and sleeper cell members proved difficult in the eastern part of Mosul and Kirkuk.
Attacks such as these point out to several worrisome trends. ISIS leadership may continue to operate under the radar, given that generally they are responsible for passing down directives from the top and coordinating sleeper cell activities. This may also indicate that ISIS cells have formed and are determined to act on behalf of the group on their own - also a worrisome possibility. Likewise, ISIS continues to enjoy the support of local accomplices, which is necessary to enhance security procedures, obtain vital background information, and generate appropriate conditions to plan for both ongoing and future operations. This may also be an indication of enduring connections in terms of securing sympathies and ideological allies in the country.
The attacks also indicate the existence of battle-hardened terrorists inside Iraq who have managed to survive and successfully maneuver through the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. In the case of ISIS in Iraq, the group has long roots, dating back to the U.S. coalition invasion of Iraq and the emergence of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In our thirty interviews of ISIS cadres imprisoned in Iraq conducted for the ICSVE Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project, we are finding that many were recruited long before ISIS even existed, and their networks extend back for a decade at least.