Two days ago, Salim Qader* and his unit, based in the central Iraqi city of Ramadi were able to arrest a man they believed was a former member of the Islamic State group.
“We arrested him as he was trying to enter Fallujah,” Qader explained. “We interrogated him and while we were doing so, he offered us money to let him go. He acted as though he was fairly familiar with that kind of bribery. We refused to let him go. But,” Qader conceded, “he will most likely find another party who will do a deal with him.”
We know these families had relationships with the armed groups ... people are still scared of them and won’t deal with them.
The extremist group known as the Islamic State controlled many of the cities and towns in the Sunni-majority state of Anbar. Since the extremists were pushed out of Anbar, security has been far tighter. It is almost impossible for anybody who left the city during fighting or while the Islamic State, or IS, group was in control, to return home now without undergoing a series of security checks. Returnees and their families are supposed to be checked out by a number of special committees who then share the information with all of the various security forces operating in the province.
It sounds like a good plan. However, according to many Anbaris, it is not working.
“Not a day passes when we do not arrest one of the wanted people from the IS group,” Qader continues, noting that usually there are between two and five arrests daily. “And often when we arrest them, we find that they have the official documents that say they are not dangerous. And sometimes we find we are arresting people who have been arrested before. Clearly, they are clever enough to know how to get away, every time they are caught,” Qader notes.
Qader’s arguments may be based in the growing prejudice in Anbar against anyone who associated with the IS group. People like Qader say the individuals have IS connections but officials who investigated them may well argue that, saying the person was checked and found not to be a problem. Or it may be because associates of the IS group really are returning home.
Anbar police transport two arrested locals.
Locals are aware of the return of their IS-supporting neighbours. But people won’t do anything about it because they are worried the returnees might be dangerous. The majority of ordinary people think it would be suicidal to report suspected IS members to the police or army because even if they were arrested, who is to say they would not be able to bribe their way out again and do the informer harm.
Hamid al-Jumaili, 61, owns a real estate business in Fallujah and is also the local community leader in his neighbourhood. He says it is obvious that members and associates of the Islamic State are returning. Some of the houses that used to belong to the families of the IS group’s members were rented out, after the original owners fled, along with the extremists.
But now the new tenants are coming back to his office to seek new accommodation, because the original owners have returned.
“We know these families had relationships with the armed groups and although the security forces often know about them, people are still scared of them and won’t deal with them,” says al-Jumaili, who believes none of the IS-associated families should be allowed back into town.
If the terrorists manage to get back into Anbar, they can make use of the weak security structures and the corruption to form new sleeper cells.
Also in the office that day was Amar Abu Ahmad, a 58-year-old local. He was there to arrange the sale of his home. “I used to think that the era of the IS group had ended,” he told NIQASH. “But today we are seeing the return of large numbers of those associated with the group or those who supported the group, and who used to espouse their cause.”
That’s why he is selling up, he explained. He’s been displaced once and does not want to suffer that fate again. “The biggest difference between today and back then is that previously we couldn’t speak to them [because we did not know who they were]. But today we can speak to them and we are afraid of how they will react,” he said.
Locals are also afraid that current security measures are not working. As one 35-year-old resident of Ramadi explains, he spent more than two hours at the notorious Al Soqour checkpoint, at which all those who enter Baghdad from Anbar must present their IDs and potentially be searched.
“The security procedure is complicated but it is necessary,” Mohammed al-Thabani says. “But on the other side, when cars go into Anbar, they move through within minutes. That’s disappointing to me. If the terrorists manage to get back into Anbar, they can make use of the weak security structures and the corruption to form new sleeper cells,” he warns.
*Not his real name; for security reasons, he was not authorised to talk to media.