Foreign ISIS fighters in northern Syria. Photo: AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — Citing intelligence sources, the commander of the US-led coalition to defeat ISIS estimated that there are about 7,000 ISIS militants in Iraq with around 2,000 of them in and around western Mosul and Tal Afar, adding that “10 or 20 percent are hardened local and regional fighters” and foreign fighters are “10 percent.”
“So our current estimates — the best the intelligence community can give us right now are that there are somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria,” US Army Lt. General Stephen Townsend said this week from Baghdad during a video conference, adding about half of those are believed to be in Iraq, but the number is difficult to ascertain because ISIS militants can traverse across the border.
Townsend described pockets of ISIS fighters in western Nineveh province as essentially being isolated from other ISIS militants believed to be in Iraq.
“We assess right now that there's somewhere between 2,000 plus or minus in and around western Mosul, including the area out to Tal Afar. So that pocket there that's isolated from the rest of Iraq, probably 2,000 plus or minus a few hundred,” he said. So are they [ISIS fighters] hiding amongst the civilian populations? They're doing that in west Mosul, they're doing that in Raqqa. They're hiding amongst the civilian population. Then they're doing that in other places too in Iraq and Syria, and that's what our partners are all about.”
At the start of the third phase of the Mosul offensive, the spokesperson for the Joint Operations Command said that Iraqi forces had "accurate intelligence" on ISIS positions, methods, and their movements in western Mosul.
“The figures for the armed militants, based on the intelligence, are somewhere between 1,800 to 2,000, and there are about 200 suiciders," Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasul told Rudaw TV.
Speaking about reports of the morale of ISIS militants, Townsend said “almost all of [ISIS leader] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's inner circle has been killed in the last six months, six to nine months.”
Townsend described his understanding of the makeup of ISIS, saying that “[the average ISIS fighter is] probably willing to follow the orders of his leadership. If they tell him to stay, he'll stay. If they tell him to go, he'll go.”
The US commander speculated on the nationalities of ISIS fighters “at the other end of spectrum.”
“Probably, the foreign fighter percentage, those hard case guys are probably only about 10 percent of the enemy's ranks and there's probably another 10 or 20 percent that are very hardened local fighters and regional fighters,” Townsend said.
Iraq’s elite Golden Forces captured 75 ISIS militants, many of them carrying Russian identity papers in Mosul’s Maamoun neighborhood, Rudaw reported on Sunday.
According to Townsend many people join ISIS because of threats or not believing they have other options.
“You've got fighters that have been pressed into service…” Townsend said, according to his information, “their families have been threatened or they've been personally threatened or they just don't think that they can say no. And those fighters will vote with their feet at the first opportunity.”
Details of the Pentagon’s plan to combat ISIS, which US President Donald Trump received on Tuesday, have not been disclosed, but Townsend added that fighting by, with and through local partners was succeeding and that needs to continue to further diminish ISIS in Iraq.
After the completion of the Mosul offensive, for which Townsend declined to provide a timeline, he said the intent is “with our partners to go root them out of the other population centers first and then chase them into the valleys and river valleys and palm groves and the rural areas after they've been chased out of the city.”
In the third phase of the Mosul offensive that began on Feb. 19, a phase to recapture western Mosul from ISIS militants, Iraqi forces have in recent days announced the retaking of the strategic Mosul airport, encircled the southern district of Wadi al-Hajar and retaken nearby al-Tayyaran district.