ISIS cannot recover in Iraq unless the government loses its political, military and economic stability, experts told The National as the country announced operations against the remaining sleeper cells.
In recent days questions about the ability of Iraqi security forces to maintain stability have risen, after a brutal ISIS attack on police officers in the north.
About 16 officers were killed in two separate attacks by the militants. At least 13 were killed at a police checkpoint outside the city of Kirkuk and three others in Makhmour, south-east of Mosul.
Although Iraq claimed victory over the terror group in late 2017, ISIS has continued to carry out sporadic attacks across the country.
But experts say that any terror group can still conduct deadly attacks for several years after it is defeated and can no longer hold territory, without posing a danger of taking over.
“ISIS has never been weaker in Iraq than it is today because Sunni communities have proof, from the 2014-2017 period, that living under ISIS is worse than living under the Iraqi government,” said Michael Knights, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“As long as Iraq has good political and military leadership and strong international support, ISIS cannot recover,” Mr Knights told The National.
ISIS is down to its last 5 per cent of strength but arresting or killing this last small number of fighters is far more difficult than killing militants in open battles for cities, he said.
“Surgical counter-terrorism raids will need to be undertaken for 5-10 years at least,” he said.
The only way for Iraq to retain its success over ISIS is by removing “Shiite militias from Sunni areas and by securing its borders with Syria, Turkey and Iran”, he said.
ISIS controlled about one third of Iraq and Syria from mid-2014 until late 2017.
An international coalition led by the US was formed to assist Iraqi forces in their battle against the terrorists in 2014.
Washington is planning a withdrawal of US troops from Iraq by the end of this year.
The US has 2,500 troops among the 3,500 members of the international anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq.
During the last year it has decreased its forces from nearly 5,000 that were stationed to help combat ISIS to 2,500.
In addition to the US withdrawal, Iraq faces an economic crisis and increased poverty levels. The coronavirus pandemic and decline in oil prices has added an urgency to stabilise the security environment.
If not addressed correctly, the country’s security could deteriorate if it is hit by another economic crisis, Aymenn Al Timimi, research fellow at George Washington University’s Programme on Extremism told The National.
“I don’t see a comeback like 2014 but I think the security situation could get worse if a major economic crisis hits the country,” Mr Al Timimi told The National.
The analyst said in recent times, ISIS claims of operations have been largely Iraq based rather than in both Iraq and Syria.
"There could be issues of communication with cells inside Syria, but it is as though the group has reverted to its natural home base in Iraq,” he said, adding that it was possible the group's roots are more firmly established in Iraq than Syria.