ISIS has stepped up its attacks when Iraqi security forces have been diverted towards imposing a curfew aimed at preventing the spread of a pandemic and maintaining stability, a senior official with the US-led coalition told CNN.
A US defense official also told CNN that ISIS had stepped up attacks in recent weeks, trying to take advantage of instability.
While the two officials said the sophistication of the ISIS attack did not increase, senior coalition officials said there was “a slight increase in the number of activities.”
There is also concern about how the Iraqi government will maintain stability while continuing to pursue the remnants of ISIS as oil prices have dropped dramatically in recent weeks. Baghdad relies heavily on oil revenues to fund its expenses, including the salaries of workers in its large public sector.
“Even before the fall in oil prices, Iraq had some stabilization problems,” the coalition senior official told CNN.
After months of political uncertainty and anti-government protests, the Iraqi Parliament voted on Wednesday to approve a new government led by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a former intelligence chief.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with the new prime minister on Wednesday and welcomed the formation of his government.
“It’s nice to talk today with the new Prime Minister of Iraq, Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Now arrives, hard work urging to carry out reforms requested by the Iraqi people. I promise to help him realize a bold agenda for the people of Iraq,” Pompeo wrote on Twitter .
Although Iraq is hit by instability and faces a huge shortage of funds, senior coalition officials note that ISIS has some financial challenges of its own, indicated by the fact that many of the recent attacks are aimed at increasing its resources.
“A lot of intelligence shows that various low-level ISIS leaders in the province really focus on the types of attacks that will get resources, such as kidnapping for ransom and things like that, and they get a smaller amount of money they have in the future then, there is still real money generated but not enough to support them, “said the official.
Mission increased again
But the amount of pressure applied by Iraqi and coalition forces is not what it used to be, because many missions have been reduced or adjusted due to coronavirus fears.
Coalition forces no longer accompanied Iraqi units or US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces during raids on ISIS targets due to a pandemic.
“In the pre-Covid world they (mission type) are still going on,” said senior officials, adding that “in the Covid world they are not currently happening.”
The official said that if ISIS targets of sufficiently high value were identified, such a mission could be revived.
Baghdadi’s death “had a substantial effect” on ISIS, according to the official, who said the killing of the leader of the terror group “might have a slightly more substantial effect than we had predicted before. We thought Baghdadi was a little more isolated, but when we look at the network afterwards we has seen that he really exerts influence and direction on the entire ISIS network. “
The official said that before the corona virus pause, the US-led military coalition and its Syrian and Iraqi allies had seen success in targeting middle-level ISIS leaders, saying that the group’s central leadership was “utterly destroyed” and that people like it’s difficult to replace.
But the question remains is whether ISIS will be able to use pauses related to coronavirus to rearrange its ranks.
While the coalition still advises the most senior level of the Iraqi military, helping to coordinate air strikes and share intelligence, other advisory efforts closer to the front have been limited because of the challenges of the coronavirus.
Base is closed
And while a coalition spokesman said at the time that the bases were closed “as a result of the success of the Iraqi Security Forces in their struggle against ISIS,” senior coalition officials told CNN that the closure took months before planning and was largely due to the impact coronavirus.
The original plan was to close many of the bases in the fall or early 2021, the official said.
Coalition advisers must now work with their Iraqi colleagues by telephone or video conference.
Another activity that has been temporarily stopped is the coalition’s efforts to train Iraqi forces.
“It was stopped, really, by Iraq. They stopped the training mission because of Covid. They don’t want the troops out on the field with large groups doing training, as you can imagine. We have done the same thing in the US context back in United States, “said senior coalition officials.
Because of the training pause, the coalition decided to send hundreds of international military trainers, who now do not have jobs, back home.
“They really won’t do much here. That’s why the training mission is gone,” the official said.
And while coronaviruses have a large impact on the Iraqi government and coalition, the official said that ISIS also felt the impact of this pandemic.
“Covid also has a big impact on their operations. We see in reporting that ISIS really cares about running their supply and logistics lines and deploying Covid among their troops, the same things we have to deal with,” the official said .
And the coalition has been able to resume air strikes, with a British Royal Air Force Typhoon jet killing around five to 10 fighters in an attack on the ISIS cave complex in northern Iraq late last month.