A new group in Iraq called White Flag is coming under close scrutiny by U.S. intelligence agencies amid concerns the terrorist organization could become a regional successor to the Islamic State.
White Flag is an armed group operating in areas of northwestern and central Iraq since late last year and appears to be a union of Kurdish terrorists and former ISIS fighters, according to U.S. defense and military officials.
"It's kind of a hodge-podge of people and a white flag with a lion on it is their emblem," said a military official familiar with the region.
Little is known about the new organization and some reports from the region say White Flag has adopted the Islamic State jihadist ideology.
But so far the group has not conducted suicide bombing attacks, a key ISIS terror tactic, and the lack of such attacks is raising suspicions White Flag may be a front group for Iraqi factions vying for power.
The military official said intelligence on the group is sketchy but preliminary indications are it poses a threat to the areas of Iraq where it has operated. White Flag, however, does not currently have capabilities for conducting terror attacks outside the country.
Estimates of numbers for White Flag members vary widely from as few as 100 terrorists to as many as 1,000.
The Iraqi government is concerned about the group and Iraqi government-supported Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militias in the region are said to be fighting against the Kurdish-ISIS force. The PMF militias include Iranian-backed forces closely aligned with Tehran.
A defense official said there are some concerns in the Pentagon that White Flag could become "ISIS 2.0"—a third iteration of the al Qaeda terrorist organization.
The military official, however, said White Flag is unlikely to eclipse ISIS but could become a model for smaller, ISIS-affiliated terror groups.
ISIS evolved from Al Qaeda into the ultra-extremist terror group that took over major portions of Iraq in 2014 based in part on a U.S. and allied counterterrorism policy that emphasized killing al Qaeda leaders but failing to effectively counter al Qaeda ideology.
After three years of fighting, ISIS has been largely defeated in Iraq. The so-called ISIS caliphate of territories and its operation as a quasi-government in large parts of Iraq and Syria was dismantled.
Intelligence officials, however, recently warned that the Islamic State is continuing to regroup in Iraq and Syria and spread worldwide.
"Over the next year, we expect that ISIS is likely to focus on regrouping in Iraq and Syria, enhancing its global presence, championing its cause, planning international attacks, and encouraging its members and sympathizers to attack in their home countries," Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said in congressional testimony Feb. 13.
"ISIS core has started—and probably will maintain—a robust insurgency in Iraq and Syria as part of a long-term strategy to ultimately enable the reemergence of its so-called caliphate," he added.
Army Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said ISIS remains dangerous and is going underground.
"ISIS members are dispersing and prioritizing clandestine terrorist operations to preserve their core capabilities," he said, noting the group "remains capable of executing complex, destabilizing terrorist attacks."
"In addition, ISIS probably will seek to establish a foothold in other ungoverned or under-governed spaces with populations that are sympathetic to the Salafi jihadist ideology."
Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of the U.S. Central Command, told a Senate hearing Tuesday that 98 percent of ISIS territory has been reclaimed but that Iraq is facing difficult political and cultural challenges.
"ISIS' reversion to an underground insurgency will remove the greatest unifying factor among Iraq’s competing factions and may reignite unresolved grievances," Votel said.
Bill Roggio, a counterterrorism expert and editor of the Long War Journal, said details on the shadowy White Flag are not known.
The group could be a rebranding of Ansar al-Islam that is allied with al Qaeda, or a mix of Islamic State and Kurdish jihadists, Roggio said. The group also may be a Kurdish faction intent on attacking Iraqi government forces.
"If the White Flag is independent of the Islamic State, I seriously doubt it will emerge as ISIS 2.0," he said. "While the Islamic State has lost overt control of territory in Iraq, it still remains a potent guerrilla force with plenty of manpower and resources to threaten the state."
A former military officer who works extensively in Iraq said he believes White Flag is not composed of former ISIS fighters but is made up of Kurds and Sunni terrorists covertly operating to counter Shia militias in the northern part of the country.
"The central government of Iraq and the Iranians want people to believe it's former ISIS and while some may be, I don't think they're of the Islamist bent," the former officer said.
ISIS began as an organization of former Sunni Bathists and former Iraqi army officers that brought in ultra-extreme Islamists who eventually took over.
"If IS had remained Bathist and Iraqi nationalist, they would have taken over the whole of Iraq," the officer said.
The former officer said White Flag may be a symptom of Iraq's coming political fragmentation. "In about 18 to 24 months, Iraq will come to resemble the Syria today with a variety of factions all fighting for control of it," he said.
The military official said White Flag terrorists are being targeted in security operations by Iraqi government forces and the Popular Mobilization Forces.
An Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman, Sa'd Ma'n told the Iraqi news outlet Al Massallah in January the threat from new jihadist groups such as White Flag and another Kurdish extremist group called Khubash is overstated.
"The role and effectiveness of such groups is being magnified on purpose by some sides that are benefiting from it," he said, without elaborating. "Intelligence efforts managed to specify the size and danger of these armed groups. The security forces have started to handle them."
A news report from Iraq in December reported that the threat from White Flag was increasing.
The London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi quoted a commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces as saying the group was being cleared from mountains in centraI Iraq.
"These groups are composed of bands of secessionists, Ansar al-Sunnah [Sunni supporters] and groups of the PJAK [Free Life Party of Kurdistan, present in Iran] and Ahrar al-Sunnah, who call themselves the White Banners group, pointing out that the security forces have accurate information about these groups," Abu-Rida al-Najjar, the PMF northern commander, said.
Conflicting reports about the group have variously claimed White Flag is a jihadist terror group made up of the remnants of ISIS, or a false flag operation run by Kurdish Peshmerga militias that is using former ISIS members to oppose the Iraqi government.
The Kurdish Peshmerga has denied the allegations and claim pro-Iranian militias are spreading the rumor to justify their operations near Kurdish areas.
Another theory is the White Banner is secular and is made up of former Iraqi Bath Party members loyal to the late Saddam Hussein. The Bathists are said to be operating in training camps and reorganizing into armed units.