'Islamic State' sleeper cells spread fear in Iraq's Hawija

Three months after its liberation, former IS fighters remain a threat in Hawija. Judit Neurink, the first Western journalist to visit the liberated town, reports on how locals are dealing with the new threat.

Last October, after weeks of bitter combat, some 1,400 "Islamic State" (IS) fighters turned themselves in, expediting Hawija's liberation. In a series of operations, the Iraqi army swept through the region to clear any remaining pockets of IS fighters. However, in its effort to speed up the process, it hasn't been as efficient as was hoped. The eastern part of Hawija remains unsafe and has attracted sleeper cells who are still active there, emerging at night to take food from civilians.

In response, the Iraqi army recently staged a nine-day operation in an effort to smoke them out. "We found tunnels, a bomb factory and an IS-run clinic," says Mukaddam Ali, an Iraqi colonel stationed at a base outside nearby Kirkuk. "There was even a functional operation center," he told DW.

Hawija still dealing with IS legacy

A ghost town to which no one is as yet allowed to return, much of Hawija has been seriously damaged as a result of air attacks and an explosion at an IS bomb factory. On the roads, the wrecks of cars every couple of hundred meters, which IS fighters used to slow the progress of the military last October, serve as reminders of the battle. Holes in the roads mark the booby-traps the army discovered in time, while in some more remote villages buckets and water containers are used to mark spots where they have not yet been cleared.

Das Leben in Hawija nach Rückzug des IS

Much of Hawija still resembles a ghost town, but locals are trying to regain a sense of normality

In the eastern part of the region, IS fighters have reportedly formed the so-called White Flag group. The new group is named after its white flag with a lion on it, but details are hard to come by. Captain Moath Obeidi, a security coordinator with the Iraqi government, says it consists of a mixed bag of Kurdish, Turkmen, Arab and Iranian fighters, many of whom were even on different sides of the conflict in the past — some fighting alongside IS, others joining forces with the Kurdish PKK, which fought IS in the area until the Iraqi army took over in October. "The only thing they have in common is their enemy: the Iraqi army. This is a textbook case of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend,'" Obeidi told DW.

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Still, in some local villages, civilians have returned and started to work their land and repair their homes. They have reopened their schools, too, including the girls' school in Hodh Sitta village, with over 300 children aged six to 13. The girls wear colorful dresses –  a far cry from the black clothing and veils all girls and women had to wear under IS rule.

For the children's sake, it is important to raise awareness "that the ideology of Daesh [Arabic name for IS] is a criminal one," says head teacher Abdellah Najm.

The villagers, many of whose people work for the Iraqi army, police or government, suffered terribly under IS rule. Eighteen people were killed, most were displaced, and those who stayed lived in fear and poverty. Even though only six villagers joined IS, the whole village is seen as affiliated to the group. "We suffered as a result even during our displacement," Najm told DW. "We were treated as if we were Daesh, too, not real Iraqis. In everyone's minds, and that included the government and the media, it's simple: Hawija is Daesh."

Das Leben in Hawija nach Rückzug des IS

The dresses and dances are a far cry from life under IS rule

Villages still suffer through affiliation

Now anyone with ties to those groups is no longer welcome in Hodh Sitta. Their houses have been destroyed and their families are not allowed back.

For Ahmed Dekhalf, the school's assistant head master, it's simple. "All the Daeshi should be sent to prison and their families to the camps." IS families are kept in camps set up by the Iraqi government. "We don't want them back. We need to get the message across that we reject their ideology, and that not all of Hawija is Daesh."

But in the next village, a young sheikh of the Jibouri tribe disagrees. Ahmed al-Muheiri, who lost his father and two uncles to IS, fears that people will feel like outcasts in the camps. "The children that come out of there will be worse than their families are now. That way, we will have another crisis on our hands 10 years from now."

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Over strong coffee, the sheikh explains that he would prefer to bring the women and children back into the community, where they can be monitored closely, rather than leave them in camps, where they will be vulnerable to indoctrination. But he is fighting a losing battle: "We are a difficult society, and people do not see this as an alternative."

Das Leben in Hawija nach Rückzug des IS: Ahmed al-Muheiri

Sheikh Ahmed al-Muheiri is concerned about the Islamic State's legacy

In the Hawija area, around 7,000 died during the conflict and another 5,000 are still missing. The sheikh, who took over his father's tribal position as a conflict mediator in 22 of Hawija's villages, says the loss has at least made the community aware of the need for tighter security. Previously, people were unwilling to report those who spoke out or acted against the government. Many even welcomed IS as a Sunni revolution against the much-hated Shiite government. That has now changed completely.

"The Sunni revolution is dead in Hawija," says the young sheikh. "And when we find someone who still supports it, we report them to the security services. We do not let them walk around freely. We do not accept any group, religious or otherwise, that is against the government."


Where did it come from?

The "Islamic State" (IS) — also known as ISIL, ISIS and Daesh — is an al-Qaida splinter group with a militant Sunni Islamist ideology. It emerged in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Their goal is to create a worldwide "caliphate." It gained worldwide notoriety in 2014 after a blitzkrieg military campaign that resulted in the capture of Mosul.


Where does it operate?

IS is believed to be operational in more than a dozen countries across the world. It controls territories in Iraq and Syria. However, the group has lost much of the territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria at the height of its expansion in 2014.


Who is fighting back?

The US leads an international coalition of more than 50 countries, including several Arab nations. Russia, Iran and its Lebanese Shiite ally Hezbollah, which all support the Syrian government, also fight IS. Regional forces such as the Kurdish peshmerga (above) and US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters, fight IS on the ground. The Iraqi army and militia have pushed IS from large parts of the country.


How does it fund itself?

One of IS' main sources of income has been oil and gas. At one point, it controlled an estimated one-third of Syria's oil production. However, US-led airstrikes deliberately targeted oil resources and the Syrian government as well as US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters have retaken most oil wells. Other means of income include taxes, ransom, selling looted antiquities and extortion.


Where does it carry out attacks?

IS has claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks across the globe. The militant group has targeted capitals across the EU, including Berlin, Brussels and Paris. IS leaders have encouraged so-called "lone wolf" attacks, whereby individuals who support IS carry out terrorist acts without the direct involvement of the group.


What other tactics does it use?

The group uses various tactics to expand its power. IS fighters have looted and destroyed historical artifacts in Syria and Iraq in an attempt at "cultural cleansing." The group has also enslaved thousands of women from religious minority groups, including Yazidis. IS also uses a sophisticated social network to distribute propaganda and recruit sympathizers.


How has it impacted the region?

IS has further exacerbated the ongoing Syrian conflict. Millions of Syrians and Iraqis have fled their homes, many traveling to Europe in pursuit of refuge. Although it has lost all of its strongholds, the militant group has left extraordinary destruction in its wake. Areas affected by the militant group's rule will likely take years to rebuild.