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IS Tries to Stage Comeback Amid Tension01/28 07:04

   The Islamic State group's self-styled "caliphate" across parts of Iraq and 
Syria seemed largely defeated last year, with the loss of its territory, the 
killing of its founder in a U.S. raid and an unprecedented crackdown on its 
social media propaganda machine. 

   BEIRUT (AP) -- The Islamic State group's self-styled "caliphate" across 
parts of Iraq and Syria seemed largely defeated last year, with the loss of its 
territory, the killing of its founder in a U.S. raid and an unprecedented 
crackdown on its social media propaganda machine. 

   But tensions between the United States and Iran and the resulting clash over 
the U.S. military presence in the region provide a comeback opportunity for the 
extremist group, whose remnants have been gradually building up a guerrilla 
campaign over the past year, experts say.

   American troops in Iraq had to pause their operations against IS for nearly 
two weeks amid the tensions. From the other side, Iranian-backed Iraqi 
militiamen who once focused on fighting the militants have turned their 
attention to evicting U.S. troops from the Middle East. 

   In the meantime, Islamic State group sleeper cells intensified ambushes in 
Iraq and Syria in the past few weeks, killing and wounding dozens of their 
opponents in both countries. Activists and residents say the attacks have 
intensified since the U.S. killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a 
Jan. 3 drone strike at Baghdad's airport.

   It is not clear whether the uptick is related to the repercussions that 
followed from the strike, and it is possible some of the attacks had been 
planned before Soleimani's killing. U.S. officials deny seeing any particular 
increase in IS activities. "They haven't taken advantage of it, as far as we 
can see," said James Jeffrey, the State Department envoy to the international 
coalition fighting the Islamic State. 

   Mervan Qamishlo, a spokesman for Syria's U.S.-backed Kurdish-led force, said 
the intensification of IS attacks began even earlier, since October, when 
Turkey began a military operation against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.

   Still, the militants clearly gained at least temporary breathing room as the 
killing of Soleimani, along with a senior Iraqi militia leader, brought Iran 
and the U.S. to the brink of all-out war and outraged Iraqis, who considered 
the strike a flagrant breach of sovereignty. 

   On Jan. 5, Iraq's parliament called for the expulsion of the 5,200 U.S. 
troops from the country who have been there since 2014 on a mission to train 
Iraqi forces and assist in the fight against IS. The U.S.-led coalition then 
put the fight against IS on hold to focus on protecting its troops and bases. 
It said last week that it had resumed those operations after a 10-day halt.

   "This tension will for sure help Daesh, as all forces fighting it become 
busy with other matters," warned Abdullah Suleiman Ali, a Syrian researcher who 
focuses on jihadi groups, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

   Among other things, he said Iran-U.S. tensions help give IS the opportunity 
to restructure as its new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, 
strengthens his grip. Al-Qurayshi was announced in the post after longtime 
leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed by a U.S. raid in Syria in October. 

   "The day the American-Iranian clash began, Daesh started intensifying its 
attacks," said Rami Aburrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory 
for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor.

   On Jan. 14, IS launched a cross border attack from Syria into Iraq, killing 
an Iraqi officer. A day later, IS fighters attacked an Iraqi force in the 
central Salaheddine region, killing two soldiers and wounding five. Two days 
later, an Iraqi intelligence major was killed in a car bomb north of Baghdad.

   One of the deadliest attacks occurred in Syria on Jan. 14, when IS fighters 
stole some 2,000 cattle from a village near the eastern town of Mayadeen. One 
of the four shepherds that own the cattle informed authorities, and a Syrian 
government military force was sent to the area, where they were met by IS fire.

   As the forces returned to their base, IS gunmen laid an ambush, killing 11 
troops and pro-government fighters as well as two shepherds. 

   IS published photos showing bodies of soldiers said to have been killed in 
the attack, along with a destroyed armored vehicle and an overturned truck.

   On the same day, seven shepherds were found shot dead west of the eastern 
city of Deir el-Zour. On Jan. 4, 21 shepherds were found shot in the back of 
their heads, their hands were tied behind their backs. 

   Dozens of members of the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian democratic Forces 
have been killed over the past months in attacks claimed by IS as well.

   With the painful strikes, IS is "taking advantage to boost its influence" 
and send a message to their supporters that they are still strong, said Omar 
Abu Laila, an activist from Deir el-Zour now based in Europe. 

   "Some civilians don't dare leave their homes after sunset because of fear of 
Daesh," Abu Laila said.

   The group is also trying to restore its presence on social media and the 
Internet --- a key component to its ability to raise financial support from 
abroad and recruit new fighters. 

   IS members and supporters have for years sown fear and projected power with 
the grisly videos they released on social media showing beheadings, amputations 
and victims burned to death or thrown from buildings.

   In recent weeks, European authorities, coordinated by Europol, have shut 
down thousands of IS propaganda platforms and communication channels in an 
unprecedented crackdown. In particular, the crackdown forced IS's news agency 
and other channels off the Telegram text messaging system, the group's primary 
outlet since 2015.

   "The Europol campaign of November had a massive impact on ISIS support 
networks on Telegram," said Amarnath Amarasingam, a terrorism researcher at 
Queen's University in Ontario, Canada. 

   Since then, the extremists have shifted to other messaging platforms 
including the Russia-based TamTam, Canada-based Hoop Messenger and BCM 
Messenger. They also tried to get back on Twitter using hacked accounts, 
Amarasingam said.

   So far, those efforts have not been very successful as international 
authorities work to chase them down on those outlets as well.

   "None of this is really matching the presence they had on Telegram from 2015 
onwards," Amarasingam said.


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