Daesh makes comeback in Iraq with switch to guerrilla tactics

Their dreams of creating a caliphate might be dead, but could Daesh be making a comeback in Iraq? (AFP)
Updated 24 July 2018

Daesh makes comeback in Iraq with switch to guerrilla tactics

  • Attacks carried out by Daesh militants are on the rise in Iraq
  • Daesh militants are making a come back through hit and run tactics

BAQUBA, Iraq: Months after Iraq declared victory over Daesh, its fighters are making a comeback with a scatter-gun campaign of kidnap and killing.
With its dream of a Caliphate in the Middle East now dead, Daesh has switched to hit-and-run attacks aimed at undermining the government in Baghdad, according to military, intelligence and government officials interviewed by Reuters.
Daesh was reinventing itself months before Baghdad announced in December that it had defeated the group, according to intelligence officials who said it would adopt guerrilla tactics when it could no longer hold territory.
Iraq has now seen an increase in kidnappings and killings, mainly in the provinces of Kirkuk, Diyala, and Salahuddin, since it held an election in May, indicating the government will come under renewed pressure from a group that once occupied a third of the country during a three-year reign of terror.
Last month saw at least 83 cases of kidnap, murder or both in the three provinces. Most occurred on a highway connecting Baghdad to Kirkuk province. In May, the number of such incidents in that area was 30, while in March it was seven, according to Hisham Al-Hashimi, an expert on Daesh who advises the Iraqi government.
In one incident on June 17, three Shiite men were kidnapped by Daesh militants disguised as policemen at a checkpoint on the highway. Ten days later their mutilated corpses were discovered, rigged with explosives to kill anyone who found them.
Speaking in the Shiite holy city of Kerbala surrounded by children wearing photos of their slain fathers around their necks, Bassem Khudair, a relative of the men, said security forces were uncooperative.
He had implored the soldiers who found the men’s bullet-ridden car to pursue the kidnappers but was refused.
“We went alone, bearing personal responsibility, as three of our own had been taken and we couldn’t just watch,” he said. “Six of us, all civilians, walked for about 10 or 12 kilometers. We found their documents scattered on the ground as we walked.”
The next day, he received a phone call from his brother. The men were alive but held by Daesh. One of the kidnappers had said they would be executed if the government did not release all female Sunni prisoners.
The kidnapper then called Khudair daily. Khudair informed the government but none of Iraq’s intelligence agencies offered to trace the caller’s location, he said.
Ten days later, the kidnapper told Khudair the men were dead. Military commanders in the provinces of Diyala and Salahuddin ducked responsibility for retrieving the bodies.
Diyala Provincial Council Chairman Ali Al-Dani said the advantage currently lay with Daesh. “The terrorists now are moving in small groups that are hard to track. Intelligence work is needed,” he said.
“The situation is confusing, and the reason is the chaos within the security forces. There isn’t one command leading security in the province. This strengthens Daesh,” said Salahuddin Provincial Council Chairman Ahmed Al-Kareem.
That kind of disarray among the security forces has allowed Daesh to stage a comeback, according to military, police, intelligence, and local elected officials.
They said poor coordination, meagre support from the central government, and a culture of avoiding responsibility are hindering efforts to contain the group, which continues to stage a steady stream of lower-level attacks in addition to the spike in kidnap and murder.
A military spokesman did not respond to phone calls and written requests for comment. The US-led coalition fighting Daesh said in a statement that it “has no safe haven in Iraq.”
Hit and run
The militants have regrouped in the Hemrin mountain range in the northeast, which extends from Diyala, on the border with Iran, crossing northern Salahuddin and southern Kirkuk, and overlooks Iraq’s main highway. Officials describe the area as a “triangle of death.”
Military and intelligence officials gave varying estimates of how many Daesh fighters remain active in Iraq.
Hashimi puts the number at more than 1,000, with around 500 in desert areas and the rest in the mountains.
Al Qaeda once held sway over most of Iraq’s Sunni areas until it was beaten by US and Iraqi troops and their tribal allies during the “surge” campaign of 2006-2007.
Its remnants hid in the desert between Syria and Iraq and later turned into Daesh. Some officials fear an even more radical group could emerge if there are gaps in security.
“Filth wandering the desert for a loaf of bread is what they are,” said an intelligence official in Tikrit, the Salahuddin provincial capital. Fighters are resorting to Al Qaeda’s tactics: quick attacks then retreating into the desert.
Even though they possess machine guns, anti-tank weapons and mines, the militants cannot penetrate cities because they no longer enjoy support among those Sunnis who once sympathized with them, said Eid Khalaf, Salahuddin’s deputy chief of police.
“They can’t get food or weapons from citizens,” he said. “Their operations are primitive; they can’t send a car bomb into a city.”
Each Daesh cell contains between three and five fighters, said Diyala Operations Commander Lt. Gen. Muzher Al-Azawi. He said there were no more than 75 fighters in the province.
“They hide in the mountains, making it hard to find them. They plant explosives, use hit-and-run tactics, and snipers. They set up fake checkpoints for kidnappings,” he said.
‘Cities will fall’​
Numerous attempts to track down and kill Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi have failed, and his fighters are still active in other Arab states.
In Syria, Daesh still holds some territory but has suffered militarily. In Egypt, it is concentrated in the sparsely populated northern Sinai desert. It holds no territory but conducts hit-and-run attacks.
Daesh has tried to rebuild in Libya through mobile units in the desert and sleeper cells in northern cities.
The group has exploited the ethnic and sectarian divide in Iraq. Iraqi and Kurdish forces fought together against Daesh. Now ties are strained over a Kurdish bid for independence last year which Baghdad stifled.
Lack of coordination has caused a security vacuum in disputed territories, from which Iraqi forces dislodged the Kurds, creating opportunities for Daesh.
“Are we expected to go into Diyala and help them clear the area then withdraw again? We are not being attacked in those areas, Iraqi forces are. We are not there, they expelled us,” said a Kurdish security official.
Sunni tribesmen helped US and Iraqi forces turn the tide in the war against Al-Qaeda. Local tribes now say they need help as Daesh claws its way back.
“We know these areas better than the security forces and at least 280 of us have been kidnapped or killed,” said Shammar tribal chief Ali Nawaf.
Last month, militants drove into a village inhabited by Shammar tribesmen and kidnapped 30 men, he said. The next day, eight bodies were found tied up and blindfolded. Nawaf says he has 1,400 men ready to fight but they need help from the government in Baghdad.
“Either the government sends more forces, or we raise Daesh flags. If we don’t plug this hole now, entire cities will fall,” Nawaf said.


The Gulf’s war on smugglers

Updated 22 August 2019

The Gulf’s war on smugglers

  • Recent busts have included cash, cannabis and Captagon
  • Tech-savvy criminals play cat-and mouse with tech-savvy criminals

DUBAI: Bulk cash couriers, narcotics mules, counterfeit goods, wildlife trafficking —  spotting smugglers is all part of a day’s work for customs officials and law enforcement professionals in the Gulf.

Experts say that illegal trafficking in all its guises is bringing in billions each year for criminals worldwide, and the problem is increasing across the globe and the region.

In Saudi Arabia this week alone, officials arrested four passengers attempting to smuggle SR3.1 million ($830,000) in cash out of Madinah’s airport, while Saudi Arabian Border Guards intercepted two boats carrying large quantities of cannabis into the Kingdom. In a third bust, Saudi customs thwarted two attempts to bring more than 2.5 million Captagon (amphetamine) pills hidden in two vehicles into the Kingdom via a port.

Adel Hamaizia, a research fellow for the Middle East and North Africa program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at the think tank Chatham House, told Arab News that money laundering,  or cash smuggling, is a major trafficking problem for the Kingdom and wider GCC.

Smuggling of cash is a major trafficking issue for the Kingdom and region, adding to the problem of capital flight.  

“One of the methods aiding capital flight in the GCC is old-school smuggling of cash as well as precious metals,” he said. 

But trafficking of drugs, fuel and even wildlife are also adding to pressures facing customs officials.

“Cross-border fuel smuggling from Saudi Arabia into its neighbors has remained an enduring feature. However, energy pricing reforms in the Kingdom in recent years have stifled smugglers’ margins if not canceled them out altogether,” said Hamaizia. “When it comes to drugs, countries of the GCC serve as consumption destinations and transit hubs, but not production spaces.”

Many countries in the region serve as transit hubs for drug smuggling as a result of geography, infrastructure, porous borders and lengthy coastlines, he said.

“Drugs smuggled into GCC states include qat, opium, cannabis, and Captagon (the family of drugs known as amphetamines). Captagon is one of the major drugs smuggled from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. 

“Wildlife smuggling such as houbara birds, pangolins, ivory, rhinoceros horns and others are also common across Gulf states. Doha serves as transit hubs for birds, mammals, ivory, and reptiles being transported between Africa and Asia.”

The Gulf is a transit point for trade passing through the region, so any and all types of illicit goods are smuggled.

Channing Mavrellis, of the think tank Global Financial Integrity, which works to curtail trade-related illicit financial flows, also highlighted the growing threat smugglers pose in the GCC. “The Gulf is a transit point for trade passing through the region, so any and all types of illicit goods are smuggled,” he said.

Experts say smuggling tactics are becoming increasingly sophisticated. “The methods used depend largely on the type of good being smuggled, its quantity and the level of risk/enforcement,” said Mavrellis. “For bulk cash smuggling or drug trafficking in smaller quantities, someone may simply conceal the illicit goods on their body or in their luggage. For larger quantities, smugglers may conceal the goods in a shipment of legitimate goods.”

However, Hamaizia warned that criminals are adopting new high-tech tactics. “The smuggling of lightweight drugs is now often supported by drones,” he said.

Smugglers are also turning to social media. In a report — Social Media and Drug Smuggling — published in journals earlier this year, authors noted the trend, saying: “Social media can be used for legal or illegal purposes by many individuals. Some may use these applications for drug smuggling. For example, Saudi Arabia Directorate General of Narcotics Control has arrested eight individuals for drug smuggling through social media.”

Saudi Arabia’s Border Guards this week intercepted two boats carrying large quantities of cannabis.  (Social media photo)

According to customs law jointly adopted by GCC countries, illegal transportation of goods can carry a jail term of up to 15 years. 

Meanwhile, many criminals are attempting to take advantage of the busy transit routes in the region.

Hamaizia said: “Traffickers and smugglers often opt for busier international airports where they may benefit from sloppier screening. Smugglers also focus on connecting flights, where screening is rushed and even non-existent in some cases.”

At Dubai International Airport, one of the region’s busiest hubs, authorities caught more than 1,000 people attempting to smuggle illegal goods into the UAE last year, with officials employing a wealth of new technologies. 

These include the Ionscan 500 DT, which can detect a wide range of military, commercial and homemade explosives as well as common illegal drugs, and the Thermo FirstDefender, a handheld device used to identify unknown solids or liquid chemicals.

Mavrellis said the challenge at busy transit routes was to search and question travelers while keeping operations running smoothly. 

“High volumes of international trade can make detecting smuggling difficult as customs agencies must strike a balance between trade facilitation and enforcement. Basically, it is the problem of finding a needle in a haystack — but without taking too much time,” he said.