After having lost Mosul, their main capital in Iraq, ISIS have had to shift their resources and fighting forces to other strongholds such as Tal Afar, al-Qaim, Rutbah, al-Anah and Hawijah. The most important one being the town of al-Qaim in Anbar, located 20km from the Iraq-Syria border. Al-Qaim has been under the control of ISIS since August 2014, and many tribal fighters part of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) claim that it is the most important strongholds under ISIS control.
Two tribes share power in the al-Qaim area, the Albu Mahal and the al-Karbouli tribes. Both groups have been engaged in territorial battles for influence for years, both in terms of political and military power. ISIS has been able to exploit the differences between the two tribes in al-Qaim for their own purposes and eventually forced all of the local tribes to swear allegiance to the them.
Al-Qaim is strategically and tactically one of the group’s most important strongholds. It is surrounded by fertile agricultural land so in case of a blockade, the city would not be cut off from food supplies. It is also surrounded by large uninhabited areas, with hills, plateaus and canyons, as well as a number of natural tunnels. This means that weapons can be stored all around the area and that IS fighters can move through the tunnels without being spotted by fighter jets or drones.
According to Iraqi military intelligence, ISIS has now moved some of its most important operations to Al Qaim. Its leaders are here in secret headquarters and they hold regular meetings with many senior members of the group. Al Qaim also hosts some of the extremists’ largest factories for the manufacture of improvised explosive devices. Volunteers from all over the world are brought here to sign up and train.
For these reasons, ISIS still command significant operational capabilities due to its base in al-Qaim. Removing the group from the strategic town will notably damage the group’s presence in Iraq.