NO nonsense and straight talking. That’s the immediate impression one gets on first meeting Lise Grande. Outside of certain diplomatic and humanitarian circles, few people will have heard of the American woman who has the daunting task of helping Iraq recover from the ravages wrought by the jihadist Islamic State (IS) group and the long, bloody military campaign to oust them from the country.

As a veteran of various countries undergoing conflict and transition, Ms Grande has served in some of the United Nations’ largest and most challenging humanitarian, peacekeeping and recovery operations from South Sudan to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

It was just a few months ago when I met her at Baghdad’s Mansour Hotel overlooking the Tigris River. It was a beautiful clear morning and were it not for the concrete blast walls, endless searches and armed security guards you would have thought nothing was amiss.

Loading article content

Officially, Ms Grande’s title is Deputy Special Representative of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI). It’s a rather convoluted title, doing little to convey the harsh realities and intricacies of the job she faces.

When we spoke that morning much of the detail of what she said was off the record, but her overarching theme was the need to make sure complacency doesn’t set in when it comes to the threat IS still pose.

At its peak, the group controlled nearly one-third of Iraq and more than one-quarter of Syria, an area roughly the size of Britain with a population of 10 million.

Lately though much has been made of the terror group’s demise. How IS has been “defeated” or its threat greatly “diminished”. Certainly there’s no doubt that the jihadists have lost vast swathes of the physical territory that once fell under the control of their self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq.

This week though, just as she did that day in Baghdad, Ms Grande was at pains once again to flag up just how easily those military gains could be lost if newly liberated areas are not stabilised quickly.

Nothing is more important for Iraq right now the UN coordinator stressed, as the world body presented analysis that spoke of a complex and fluid situation on the ground.

With three million Iraqis still displaced by the war, helping to improve conditions in their homes is the first step in giving people confidence in their future and just as significant, depriving IS of the disaffection they exploit and that helped bring them to power in the first place.

According to the UN, five of those areas recently retaken from IS are urgently in need of stabilisation. Most congregate around the group’s former strongholds in northern Iraq, places like Tal Afar and Qaim that sit close to the Syrian border.

Other areas near the towns of Hawija, Tuz Khurmatu and Shirqat, are of particular concern too because they have a long-standing history of political and security concerns that the jihadists have readily used in their favour.

The UN and other analysts that have drawn up the data point to certain common denominators in those areas where IS could easily resurrect itself. High tallies of security incidents, the presence of religious, sectarian or political groups that have an affinity with IS and the existence of IS sleeper cells themselves, are all indicators of a threat that far from having gone away, bubble instead just beneath the surface of some communities. Islamist insurgencies have a way of lying low and flaring up when the time and circumstances are ripe, this not least in Iraq where the country’s peace is desperately fragile.

Ms Grande is right when she says that these vulnerable territories are precisely the areas that need the most intense and speedy attention. There is no better way to neutralise or immobilise the spectre of IS than to rehabilitate electricity grids and water systems, remove unexploded ordnance and reopen schools and hospitals. This by far is the most powerful and persuasive tool in showing ordinary Iraqis that change can happen without resorting to bombs, bullets and the empty promises of IS.

More than a year ago as the jihadists were pushed into retreat, its leaders signalled that they had drawn up contingency plans to revert to their roots as a guerrilla force after the loss of their territory in Iraq and Syria.

But as history has shown any guerrilla or terrorist force deprived of popular support is destined to shrivel and die and in this regard IS is no different.

But while the remnants of IS might scatter into the desert, the game is far from over. Vanquished militarily they might be, but Iraq remains fertile ground for their comeback if the warnings of Ms Grande and others are not heeded.

Outwith Iraq itself the pressure too must be maintained. For years while controlling its so-called caliphate, IS relied on taxation, extortion, and income from foreign donors to fund its military offensives.

Those sources of overseas funding need also to be to neutralised, no matter how embarrassing politically it might be to certain Middle Eastern friends and allies of the UK, US or anyone else.

IS too doesn’t need a caliphate to maintain its online appeal to its sympathisers here closer to home in Britain and Europe. The group’s online propaganda and “virtual caliphate” of volunteer media operatives, which it refers to in Arabic as the “munasirun” – helpers, protectors, friends – will readily take up this role say intelligence analysts.

Here too the job must be to keep them on the backfoot and is another reminder that this is not the time to declare IS and its virulent ideology conquered.

The jihadists grand plan might for now have been thwarted, but the organisation still exists. Getting rid of the IS threat cannot be based on a one-dimensional approach. Military and intelligence efforts need to work in tandem with political efforts. Should we take our eye of the task in hand they will be back with a vengeance.

In her straight talking no nonsense approach, Ms Grande hits the nail on the head. Let’s be under no illusions regarding IS’s capacity to return. It has not yet gone away. Only through international efforts can IS defeat become permanent. That means bringing Iraqis and others onside by giving them the humanitarian support they now need and desire.