ISIS militants facing defeat in Syria are slipping across the border into Iraq, where they are destabilizing the country's fragile security, US and Iraqi officials say.
Hundreds — likely more than 1,000 — ISIS extremists have crossed the open, desert border in the past six months, defying a massive operation by US, Kurdish, and allied forces to stamp out the remnants of the group in eastern Syria, according to three Iraqi intelligence officials and a US military official.
Indications of the extremist group's widening reach in Iraq are clear.
Cells operating in four northern provinces are carrying out kidnappings, assassinations, and roadside ambushes aimed at intimidating locals and restoring the extortion rackets that financed the group's rise to power six years ago.
"ISIS is trying to assert itself in Iraq, because of the pressure it is under in Syria," said Brig. Gen. Yahya Rassoul, the Iraqi army spokesman.
The militants can count between 5,000 and 7,000 among their ranks in Iraq, where they are hiding out in the rugged terrain of remote areas, according to one intelligence official.
In Syria, Kurdish-led forces backed by the US-led coalition have cornered the militants in a pocket less than one square Kilometer in Baghouz, a Euphrates River village near the 600-Kilometer border.
The Iraqi army has deployed more than 20,000 troops to guard the frontier, but militants are slipping across, mostly to the north of the conflict zone, in tunnels or under the cover of night. Others are entering Iraq disguised as cattle herders.
They are bringing with them currency and light weapons, according to intelligence reports, and digging up money and arms from caches they stashed away when they controlled a vast swath of northern Iraq.
"If we deployed the greatest militaries in the world, they would not be able to control this territory," Rassoul said. "Our operations require intelligence gathering and airstrikes."
Many fear the militants could stage a comeback despite Baghdad declaring victory over the group in December 2017. The group is already waging a low-level insurgency in rural areas.
The Associated Press verified nine ISIS attacks in Iraq in January alone, based on information gathered from intelligence officials, provincial leaders, and social media. ISIS often boasts of its activities through group messaging apps such as Telegram.
In one instance, a band of militants broke into the home of a man they accused of being an informant for the army, in the village of Tal al-Asfour in the northern Badush region. They shot him and his two brothers against the wall, and posted photos of the killing on social media.
In other instances, ISIS cells have killed mukhtars — village leaders and municipal officials. They have attacked rural checkpoints with car bombs and mortar fire, and burned down militia members' homes. In the town of Shirqat in central Iraq, militants stopped a police vehicle last month and killed all four officers inside.
Other activities have aimed at restoring the group's financial footing.
On Sunday, militants kidnapped a group of 12 truffle hunters in the western Anbar province, marking a return to a strategy of intimidating and extorting farmers and traders for financial gain.
Naim Kaoud, the head of provincial security, urged locals to suspend truffle gathering, which has just one season a year and is an important source of income for rural families.
Other truffle hunters have disappeared in the countryside, according to former lawmaker and Anbar tribal figure Jaber al-Jaberi. He said the militants are taking cuts from truffle hunters in exchange for access to the land, and kidnapping or killing those who refuse to cooperate.
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