Months after Iraq declared victory over ISIS, its militants are making a comeback with a scatter-gun campaign of kidnap and killing.
With its dream of its so-called “Caliphate” in the Middle East now dead, ISIS has switched to hit-and-run attacks aimed at undermining the government in Baghdad, according to military, intelligence and government officials interviewed by Reuters.
ISIS was reinventing itself months before Baghdad announced in December that it had defeated the group, according to intelligence officials who said it would adopt guerrilla tactics when it could no longer hold territory.
Iraq has now seen an increase in kidnappings and killings, mainly in the provinces of Kirkuk, Diyala, and Salahuddin, since it held an election in May, indicating the government will come under renewed pressure from a group that once occupied a third of the country during a three-year reign of terror.
Last month saw at least 83 cases of kidnap, murder or both in the three provinces. Most occurred on a highway connecting Baghdad to Kirkuk province. In May, the number of such incidents in that area was 30, while in March it was seven, according to Hisham al-Hashimi, an expert on ISIS who advises the Iraqi government.
In one incident on June 17, three men were kidnapped by ISIS militants disguised as policemen at a checkpoint on the highway. Ten days later their mutilated corpses were discovered, rigged with explosives to kill anyone who found them.
Speaking in the city of Kerbala surrounded by children wearing photos of their slain fathers around their necks, Bassem Khudair, a relative of the men, said security forces were uncooperative.
He had implored the soldiers who found the men's bullet-ridden car to pursue the kidnappers but was refused.
"We went alone, bearing personal responsibility, as three of our own had been taken and we couldn't just watch," he said.
"Six of us, all civilians, walked for about 10 or 12 kilometers. We found their documents scattered on the ground as we walked."
The next day, he received a phone call from his brother. The men were alive but held by ISIS. One of the kidnappers had said they would be executed if the government did not release all female prisoners.
The kidnapper then called Khudair daily. Khudair informed the government but none of Iraq's intelligence agencies offered to trace the caller's location, he said.
Ten days later, the kidnapper told Khudair the men were dead. Military commanders in the provinces of Diyala and Salahuddin ducked responsibility for retrieving the bodies.
Diyala Provincial Council Chairman Ali al-Dani said the advantage currently lay with ISIS. "The terrorists now are moving in small groups that are hard to track. Intelligence work is needed," he said.
"The situation is confusing, and the reason is the chaos within the security forces. There isn't one command leading security in the province. This strengthens ISIS," said Salahuddin Provincial Council Chairman Ahmed al-Kareem.
That kind of disarray among the security forces has allowed ISIS to stage a comeback, according to military, police, intelligence, and local elected officials.
They said poor coordination, meager support from the central government, and a culture of avoiding responsibility are hindering efforts to contain the group, which continues to stage a steady stream of lower-level attacks in addition to the spike in kidnap and murder.
A military spokesman did not respond to phone calls and written requests for comment. The US-led coalition fighting ISIS said in a statement that it "has no safe haven in Iraq".
The militants have regrouped in the Hemrin mountain range in the northeast, which extends from Diyala, on the border with Iran, crossing northern Salahuddin and southern Kirkuk, and overlooks Iraq's main highway. Officials describe the area as a "triangle of death".
Military and intelligence officials gave varying estimates of how many ISIS militants remain active in Iraq. Hashimi puts the number at more than 1,000, with around 500 in desert areas and the rest in the mountains.
"Filth wandering the desert for a loaf of bread is what they are," said an intelligence official in Tikrit, the Salahuddin provincial capital. Fighters are resorting to Al-Qaeda's tactics: quick attacks then retreating into the desert.
Even though they possess machine guns, anti-tank weapons and mines, the militants cannot penetrate cities because they no longer enjoy support among those Sunnis who once sympathized with them, said Eid Khalaf, Salahuddin's deputy chief of police.
"They can't get food or weapons from citizens," he said.
"Their operations are primitive; they can't send a car bomb into a city."
Each ISIS cell contains between three and five fighters, said Diyala Operations Commander Lieutenant General Muzher al-Azawi. He said there were no more than 75 militants in the province.
"They hide in the mountains, making it hard to find them. They plant explosives, use hit-and-run tactics, and snipers. They set up fake checkpoints for kidnappings," he said.