Despite being a pale shadow of its former self, the Islamic State group (IS) appears far from having been completely vanquished, or having been limited to a virtual dimension only.
Several reports indicate that the group is slowly but steadily recovering its capabilities, stepping up its operations and demonstrating a significant tactical proficiency in Iraq and beyond. Such a situation attests not only to the resilience of the organization, but also to a weltanschauung considering victories and defeats alike as parts of a process inevitably destined to result in the victory of the mujahideen. It is in this framework that, well before Mosul and Raqqa were freed (2017) and a few months before being killed (2016), one of IS’ most iconic commanders, ‘Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, expressed his confidence in “Islamic State” resilience: “Do you think, America, that defeat is the loss of a city or a land? Were we defeated when we lost cities in Iraq and were left in the desert without a city or a territory? Will we be defeated and you will be victorious if you took Mosul or Sirte or Raqqa or all the cities, and we returned where we were in the first stage? No, defeat is the loss of willpower and desire to fight”.
Al-ʿAdnani’s words explicitly referred to the difficult situation the organization had to face especially from 2007 onwards, when several parts of the Arab-Sunni insurgency joined a US-led offensive against the group obliging it to abandon the territories lying at the core of its first iteration of the “Islamic State”. This strategic withdrawal represented a huge blow for the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), but it allowed the group to survive and to gradually lay the foundations for its successful comeback that culminated with the occupation of Mosul and the proclamation of the Caliphate (2014).
Yet, it would be wrong to compare IS’ current situation to the one the group experienced in 2007-2010. At that time the organization had no possibility to plan and execute a proper withdrawal. Outnumbered, chased by enemies and (former) friends alike and deprived of its founder (‘Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi was killed by a US strike in 2006), in a matter of few months ISI was obliged to abandon its strongholds in central Iraq and to find shelter in its rear bases located in the Nineveh governorate. When its positions crumbled, ISI lost many of its operatives together with most of its financial resources and military equipment. During what is widely perceived as ISI’s darkest hour, the movement was on the brink of complete collapse. The lesson was not lost on IS leadership.
While strengthening their defenses and declaring their will to protect every inch of IS territory, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his top aides laid the foundations for a new phase aimed at guaranteeing the survival of the organization. It is in this framework that the group shifted key human, military and economic assets underground, dispersing them in different parts of the “Syraqi” operational theatre.
This stance became particularly evident after the liberation of Mosul: while the battle for the northern Iraqi city lasted over nine months and ended after a stiff defence put up by the local garrison, the liberation of IS’ remaining strongholds was much easier and surprised officials and analysts alike. Significative in this sense, was the liberation of Raqqa, anticipated by the withdrawal of many of IS cadres, as well as the fall of Hawija, whose forces preferred to surrender after engaging in a feeble defence.
IS’ success in protecting part of its assets makes its positions much more solid today than in 2007-2010. The financial resources at its disposal, coupled with the dire economic situation in Iraq, is providing the group with extremely valuable leverage, able to attract new and old cadres as well as to acquire the support of actors deemed fundamental for its recovery. Furthermore, they allow IS to decide where to invest, instead of struggling to guarantee the financial sustainability of the movement.
Financial resources apart, the movement can also count on a network of weapon caches dispersed over all Iraqi territory able to sustain its military operations for years to come.
Furthermore, the Islamic State organization partially modified its geographical distribution. IS traditionally gravitated around the Jazira, the area comprised between the Tigris and the Euphrates river basins. North-western Iraq, in particular, represented one of the cores of the different IS iterations, thanks to its proximity to Syria, to a complex terrain that Iraqi institutions always struggled to control and to the presence of communities that, if not necessarily sympathetic to IS, nurtured a strong hostility towards Baghdad.
While not having abandoned its old strongholds, the group appears to have moved a substantial part of its cadres eastwards along an axis stretching from Kirkuk to Diyala. Instead of focusing on the control of key urban areas, IS now tends to focus on rural and scarcely populated territories defined by complex geographical and human terrains. By doing so, often exploiting local feuds or lingering geopolitical competitions, the group aims at creating no-go zones for Iraqi security forces and institutions, or – at the very least – at carving out spheres of influence from where it can keep assaulting its enemies. Diyala, in this sense, represents the perfect example of such a position, as aptly demonstrated by the heightening number of operations the group conducted during the last year.
Finally, strategic repositioning apart, the Islamic State’s partial resurgence has been significantly favoured by a series of exogenous factors directly linked to the growing destabilization of the Iraqi system. US-Iran competition, in this sense, played a crucial factor, taking important resources away from the battle against the group and diminishing US and Iranian capability to counter IS, both directly and through proxies.
 Hassan Hassan, Out of the desert: Isis’s strategy for a long war, Middle East Institute, Policy Paper, n. 8, 2018, p. 3.
 Andrea Plebani, After Mosul: What Fate for IS in Iraq?, in Andrea Plebani (ed.), After Mosul: Re-Inventing Iraq, Ledizioni LediPublishing, 2017, p. 127-157, https://www.ispionline.it/sites/default/files/pubblicazioni/iraq_web_new...
 IS keeps a significant presence in north-eastern Syria (especially along the Raqqa - Deir el-Zor – Hasaka triangle) and in western Iraq (in Nineveh and al-Anbar in primis). Aaron Y. Zelin and Michael Knights, The Islamic State's Resurgence in the COVID Era? From Defeat to Renewal in Iraq and Syria, Policy Watch n. 3322, May 29, 2020
 Michael Knights – Alex Almeida, Remaining and Expanding: The Recovery of Islamic State Operations in Iraq
in 2019-2020, CTC Sentinel, 13:5, 2020, p. 12-27.