ISIS Took Advantage of COVID-19 Restrictions to Ramp Up Attack in Iraq, Report Finds

Security forces detonate an explosive device placed by the Islamic State militants in Iraq.
In this July 23, 2019, file photo, security forces detonate an explosive device placed by the Islamic State militants during a search operation in Taramiyah, 31 miles north of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

The Islamic State took advantage of COVID-19 restrictions on the movements of U.S. troops and Iraqi Security Forces to step up attacks in Iraq during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Defense Department Inspector General's office revealed in a report released Tuesday.

Both U.S. and coalition forces "contended with complications and restrictions emanating from the coronavirus disease" as they worked to prevent a resurgence of ISIS, the IG said in its quarterly report to Congress on Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria.

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The efforts to combat ISIS also "were taking place against a backdrop of continued uncertainty about how many U.S. forces will remain in Iraq and Syria, and for how long," Sean O'Donnell, the acting IG, said in a message included in the 128-page report, covering April through June.

According to Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, or CJTF-OIR, "ISIS conducted a surge of attacks during Ramadan and exploited restrictions placed on security forces due to COVID-19 to conduct more attacks," the report states.

However, CJTF-OIR also said that ISIS could not sustain the high tempo of attacks during the Ramadan holy month of prayer and fasting from April 23 to May 23. The overall conclusion was that "ISIS is not resurging."

There were 405 ISIS attacks during the quarter in Iraq, with major spikes during Ramadan, according to data analysis from the IG. While attack counts vary somewhat from source to source, the Combating Terorrism Center at West Point shows a steady rise in ISIS attacks in Iraq beginning in the first quarter of 2019. ISIS attacks in Iraq reached a daily peak this year in April, according to IG data, with 22 attacks in a single day.

ISIS also stepped up attacks in Syria during Ramadan, but the Defense Intelligence Agency said that overall claims of attacks by ISIS in Syria appeared to have decreased from April through June, compared to the previous quarter.

As the epidemic spread in the Middle East, "CJTF-OIR initially assessed that COVID-19 would likely negatively affect the ability of Coalition members to fill personnel requirements in Iraq and Syria," the report states. However, "the pandemic did not have a significant impact on the health of Coalition forces in either country this quarter."

In Syria, the report also cited increasing pressure from Russia and the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad on the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces to break with the United States in return for protection from Turkish attack.

"Since the October 2019 Turkish incursion into northeast Syria, the SDF has turned to Russia and the Syrian regime for protection against Turkish and Turkish-aligned forces," the report states.

CJTF-OIR also expressed concerns about the thousands of ISIS prisoners in detention centers in Syria guarded by the SDF, and the potential for major escapes, the report adds. CJTF-OIR, according to the report, saw the ISIS prisoners as "an enduring and ever-increasing risk to mission."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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