SITTING on the banks of the Tigris River, the Mansour Hotel is a familiar Baghdad landmark. With its lobby of gleaming polished marble and brass it has a jaded old world feel about it, harking back to another, if not necessarily better, time in Iraq.

It was a clear sunny morning when I was last there a few months ago, and were it not for the concrete blast walls, endless searches and security guards toting M4 carbine assault rifles you would have thought nothing was amiss.

I had come that day to the comparative safety of the Mansour to meet Lise Grande.

Officially, Grande’s title is Deputy Special Representative of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq. It’s a rather convoluted description, doing little to convey the harsh realities and intricacies of the job this no-nonsense, straight-talking American woman faces as the UN’s chief humanitarian coordinator in Iraq.

Anyone meeting her is immediately left in no doubt that this is someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

The day we met, Grande was there to talk about Iraq, and while much of the detail of what she outlined was off the record, there was no mistaking her key message.

In a nutshell, she warned emphatically of how failure by the international community to stabilise areas recently retaken from the Islamic State group, runs the risks of breathing new life into the jihadist ambitions in Iraq and beyond.

It was a message that only last week the UN was once again at pains to emphasise, after releasing analysis showing that five of the areas newly liberated from IS in Iraq urgently require humanitarian stabilisation.

“There is a risk that if we don’t stabilise these areas quickly violent extremism might emerge again and the military gains that have been made against IS could be lost,” Grande warned.

So just how real is the threat of an IS resurgence in Iraq despite its considerable military setbacks on the battlefields of its self-proclaimed caliphate? While the remnants of the group have scattered into the desert is it really a case of game over, as some US and other coalition officials seem to suggest?

At face value this constant playing down by some political and military officials of the threat IS now pose in Iraq seems strangely at odds with what most American and European counter-terrorism analysts acknowledge is a difficult situation to assess.

By and large intelligence experts admit they know little about the exact capabilities IS retains in Iraq and neighbouring Syria, or how much the appeal of the group’s ideology has been dented by its string of heavy military defeats.

To date, more than 98 per cent of the areas it previously held have been retaken, and more than seven million Iraqis and Syrians have been freed from the group’s control, according to the US-led coalition fighting IS. The Iraqi government itself declared “final victory” over IS on December 9, while at the end of the same month the coalition said fewer than 1,000 IS fighters remained in Iraq and Syria, barely a third of the estimated 3,000 figure given earlier the same month.

Many intelligence analysts however are less sanguine when it comes to IS’s retreat.

“Islamic State is not finished,” Aaron Y Zelin, who studies jihadist movements at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the New York Times recently.

“IS has a plan, and that is to wait out their enemies locally in order to gain time to rebuild their networks while at the same time provide inspiration to followers outside to keep fighting their enemies farther away.”

As early as 2016, before his death in an American drone or Russian airstrike in Syria, IS spokesman Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, urged the group’s followers to fight on as a lean, mobile insurgency instead of the bureaucratic monolith it had become.

“True defeat is the loss of willpower and desire to fight,” insisted al-Adnani. “We would be defeated and you victorious only if you were able to remove the Quran from the Muslims’ hearts.”

This engrained and lingering Islamist jihadist fervour is precisely what the latest UN analysis and observations made by Grande fear could be rekindled among local communities should sufficient humanitarian stabilisation not be immediately forthcoming.

Jason Burke, a journalist and author of The New Threat: The Past, Present and Future of Islamic Militancy, is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading experts on IS. Burke’s thinking largely falls in line with the concerns of the UN.

He says that while a coalition military campaign is one thing, there has to be a political effort working in tandem if success against IS on the battlefield is to be more widely consolidated in ordinary communities.

“There are still deep wells of resentment and fear among Iraqi Sunnis,” Burke says. “The project of constructing an Islamic state has been defeated, but the organisation has not.”

Like the UN, Burke anticipates that further insurgencies are likely as IS are pushed off the conventional battlefield to a tried and tested underground strategy that again would involve exploiting local grievances and lingering resentment.

IS’s ability to weld religious fervour to the political resentments of disenfranchised Sunni Muslims in Shiite-dominated Iraq already saved it once, when it appeared broken by the American military surge in Iraq in 2007 and 2008.

According to the UN, preventing a repeat of this means addressing an urgent need for humanitarian stabilisation in five key areas if military gains are not to backslide.

Most of these areas congregate around the group’s former strongholds in northern Iraq 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 has drawn up data that points to certain common denominators in those areas where IS could easily resurrect itself. High numbers 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 is far from having gone away.

As recent history has shown, Islamist insurgencies have a way of lying low and flaring up when the time and circumstances are ripe. With three million Iraqis still displaced by the war, the UN says that helping to improve conditions in their homes is the first step in giving people confidence in their future while simultaneously depriving IS of the disaffection they exploit and helped bring them to power in the first place.

To those ends Grande and her UN colleagues have drawn up a blueprint that allows for the channelling of stabilisation funds to sensitive areas to help thwart a rapidly evolving threat. What better way to do this, goes UN thinking, than to rehabilitate electricity grids and water systems, remove unexploded ordnance and reopen schools and hospitals?

Even if such a strategy should prove successful in neutralising IS on the ground in these five key areas, concerns remain as to the potential of its cadres to cause renewed violence.

Many are still believed to be roaming the border zone between Iraq and Syria and hiding in vast desert spaces, caves and mountains.

Charlie Winter of King’s College London is a leading expert on IS’s online and offline strategic communication strategy and suggests that some of its latest activity on this platform indicates the group’s current direction of travel.

On IS’s encoded Telegram channel images periodically emerge of fighters hanging out in caves, suggesting, says Winter, they are “biding their time” underground until the group is ready for a resurgence.

According to Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, two key areas worth watching are Iraq’s Diyala province, and what he calls the Baghdad “belts,” residential and agricultural areas ringing the city.

While Diyala has long been a Sunni Islamist insurgency stronghold, some of Baghdad’s surrounding districts have been subjected to what Knights calls “microbombings,” low profile attacks but which when tallied up provide a bellwether of any rise in insurgency and IS activity.

“Individually, they aren’t high-profile events – they were all markets, bus stops, etc.,” Knights explains. “But when you add them up there are a lot of them. It’s really inflammatory stuff.”

While neutralising IS activity in Iraq is one thing, curtailing its activities beyond the country’s borders are something else entirely Already across the globe it has made its presence increasingly felt as fighters who once roamed Iraq and Syria now reappear in new battlefields in locations like Yemen and Afghanistan.

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 and US insist the experts.

Back in 2014 when IS first seized the central bank of Iraq’s second largest city Mosul, the terrorists had an estimated £1.5 billion in assets.

Since then its revenue stream has plummeted from a monthly average of £60m in the second quarter of 2015 to £11.2m in the same period of 2017, according to IHS Markit analysis in London.

Just as revenue streams need to be targeted, so too must new efforts be made to tackle what many predict will be a shift in IS cyber and online strategy.

“As its offline manifestation has buckled and distorted, IS’s online presence has come to look much more like that of a conventional” terrorist group, says Winter. He believes that IS’s online propaganda and ‘virtual caliphate’ of volunteer media operatives will readily take up this new role.

Despite all these myriad strands needing a response from the international community to quell any full IS resurgence, it remains on the ground in Iraq and Syria that the main job needs to focus for now.

Humanitarians like Grande and others speak of grappling with rebuilding a basic infrastructure, overcoming the lingering effects of indoctrination or years of missed education.

From the trail of unexploded ordnance left by IS, to the razing of entire neighbourhoods in battle, to the lack of basic services such as water and electricity, to the stigmatisation of women who suffered sexual violence under the jihadists’ rule, these are the challenges that urgently need to be addressed to prevent the predatory creep of IS back into the lives of ordinary people.

“I think what is missing is there is a lack of international support and international vision for the day after IS,” warns Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch. “All the energy of the international coalition has been focused on the war effort, and a lot of resources were put into it, but actually very little resources, very little thought, were provided for the day after.”