(VOA) — By Jeff Seldin
Across much of Iraq and parts of Syria, the Islamic State terror group is in retreat. Yet, Iraqi and U.S. officials tell VOA they have a creeping fear that the larger war is still very much undecided.
To be clear, few worry IS will again be able to make the kind of sudden, massive land grab it did in 2013 and 2014 when, bolstered by tens of thousands of foreign fighters, it captured one Iraqi city after another.
Rather, they fear something more subtle: that the resilient terror group has played the long game well enough that even as its self-declared caliphate teeters on the verge of collapse, it will be a force to reckon with for some time to come.
“They have sleeper cells. They have networks,” Najmaldin Karim, the governor of Iraq’s Kirkuk province, said during a recent visit to Washington. “They exist everywhere.”
The extent to which IS has permeated Iraqi society, despite losing its grip on upward of 65 percent of the territory it once controlled, is difficult to estimate. But Iraqi and U.S. officials caution that IS has found ways to slip past even the most watchful eyes.
Perhaps the terror group’s most successful and insidious tactic is its use of teenagers, young enough to avoid suspicion but old enough to be highly effective. U.S. and Iraqi officials describe them as the first wave of brainwashed youth truly capable of serving IS’s cause.
“Those who were 14 or 15 years old when ISIS came, now they are very active,” Karim said, describing them as hardened veterans.