The Islamic State group's self-styled "caliphate" across parts of Iraq and Syria seemed largely defeated last year, with the loss of its territory, the killing of its founder in a U.S. raid and an unprecedented crackdown on its social media propaganda machine.
But tensions between the United States and Iran and the resulting clash over the U.S. military presence in the region provide a comeback opportunity for the extremist group, whose remnants have been gradually building up a guerrilla campaign over the past year, experts say.
American troops in Iraq had to pause their operations against IS for nearly two weeks amid the tensions. From the other side, Iranian-backed Iraqi militiamen who once focused on fighting the militants have turned their attention to evicting U.S. troops from the Middle East.
In the meantime, Islamic State group sleeper cells intensified ambushes in Iraq and Syria in the past few weeks, killing and wounding dozens of their opponents in both countries. Activists and residents say the attacks have intensified since the U.S. killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a Jan. 3 drone strike at Baghdad's airport.
It is not clear whether the uptick is related to the repercussions that followed from the strike, and it is possible some of the attacks had been planned before Soleimani's killing. U.S. officials deny seeing any particular increase in IS activities. "They haven't taken advantage of it, as far as we can see," said James Jeffrey, the State Department envoy to the international coalition fighting the Islamic State.
Mervan Qamishlo, a spokesman for Syria's U.S.-backed Kurdish-led force, said the intensification of IS attacks began even earlier, since October, when Turkey began a military operation against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.
Still, the militants clearly gained at least temporary breathing room as the killing of Soleimani, along with a senior Iraqi militia leader, brought Iran and the U.S. to the brink of all-out war and outraged Iraqis, who considered the strike a flagrant breach of sovereignty.
On Jan. 5, Iraq's parliament called for the expulsion of the 5,200 U.S. troops from the country who have been there since 2014 on a mission to train Iraqi forces and assist in the fight against IS. The U.S.-led coalition then put the fight against IS on hold to focus on protecting its troops and bases. It said last week that it had resumed those operations after a 10-day halt.
"This tension will for sure help Daesh, as all forces fighting it become busy with other matters," warned Abdullah Suleiman Ali, a Syrian researcher who focuses on jihadi groups, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
Among other things, he said Iran-U.S. tensions help give IS the opportunity to restructure as its new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, strengthens his grip. Al-Qurayshi was announced in the post after longtime leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed by a U.S. raid in Syria in October.
"The day the American-Iranian clash began, Daesh started intensifying its attacks," said Rami Aburrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor.
On Jan. 14, IS launched a cross border attack from Syria into Iraq, killing an Iraqi officer. A day later, IS fighters attacked an Iraqi force in the central Salaheddine region, killing two soldiers and wounding five. Two days later, an Iraqi intelligence major was killed in a car bomb north of Baghdad.
One of the deadliest attacks occurred in Syria on Jan. 14, when IS fighters stole some 2,000 cattle from a village near the eastern town of Mayadeen. One of the four shepherds that own the cattle informed authorities, and a Syrian government military force was sent to the area, where they were met by IS fire.
As the forces returned to their base, IS gunmen laid an ambush, killing 11 troops and pro-government fighters as well as two shepherds.
IS published photos showing bodies of soldiers said to have been killed in the attack, along with a destroyed armored vehicle and an overturned truck.
On the same day, seven shepherds were found shot dead west of the eastern city of Deir el-Zour. On Jan. 4, 21 shepherds were found shot in the back of their heads, their hands were tied behind their backs.
Dozens of members of the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian democratic Forces have been killed over the past months in attacks claimed by IS as well.
With the painful strikes, IS is "taking advantage to boost its influence" and send a message to their supporters that they are still strong, said Omar Abu Laila, an activist from Deir el-Zour now based in Europe.
"Some civilians don't dare leave their homes after sunset because of fear of Daesh," Abu Laila said.
The group is also trying to restore its presence on social media and the Internet — a key component to its ability to raise financial support from abroad and recruit new fighters.
IS members and supporters have for years sown fear and projected power with the grisly videos they released on social media showing beheadings, amputations and victims burned to death or thrown from buildings.
In recent weeks, European authorities, coordinated by Europol, have shut down thousands of IS propaganda platforms and communication channels in an unprecedented crackdown. In particular, the crackdown forced IS's news agency and other channels off the Telegram text messaging system, the group's primary outlet since 2015.
"The Europol campaign of November had a massive impact on ISIS support networks on Telegram," said Amarnath Amarasingam, a terrorism researcher at Queen's University in Ontario, Canada.
Since then, the extremists have shifted to other messaging platforms including the Russia-based TamTam, Canada-based Hoop Messenger and BCM Messenger. They also tried to get back on Twitter using hacked accounts, Amarasingam said.
So far, those efforts have not been very successful as international authorities work to chase them down on those outlets as well.
"None of this is really matching the presence they had on Telegram from 2015 onwards," Amarasingam said.
Iranian officials and satellite images suggest the Islamic Republic is preparing to a launch a satellite into space after three major failures last year, the latest for a program which the U.S. claims helps Tehran advance its ballistic missile program.
Satellite images from San Francisco-based Planet Labs Inc. that have been annotated by experts at Middlebury Institute of International Studies show work at a launchpad at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Iran's Semnan province.
The photos also show more cars and activity at a facility at the spaceport, some 230 kilometers (145 miles) southeast of Iran's capital, Tehran. Such activity in the past has signaled a launch looms.
The increased activity corresponds to an uptick in reports in state and semiofficial media in Iran about launches coming amid celebrations marking the days before the nation celebrates the 41st anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran routinely unveils technological achievements for its armed forces, its space program and its nuclear efforts during this time.
Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Iran's information and communications technology minister and a possible contender in the country's 2021 presidential election, also increasingly has been tweeting about the country's satellite program.
He responded to a tweet late Monday night by the U.S.-based broadcaster NPR highlighting Planet Lab's satellite photos acknowledging Iran planned to launch a satellite system called the Zafar.
An earlier report by Iran's state-run IRNA news agency quoted Jahromi as saying Tehran planned to launch six satellites into orbit this year, including the Zafar 1 and 2. IRNA described the Zafar 1 and 2 as communication satellites aimed at "broadcasting a single message to all users, establishing one-way voice communication between two users and sending a message to 256 direct users."
The apparent preparations for a rocket launch come after two failed launches of the Payam and Doosti satellites last year, as well as a launchpad rocket explosion in August. A separate fire at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in February 2019 also killed three researchers, authorities said at the time.
The satellite failure in August drew even the attention of President Donald Trump, who later tweeted what appeared to be a classified surveillance image of the launch failure. The three failures in a row raised suspicion of outside interference in Iran's program, something Trump touched on in his tweet.
"The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran," Trump wrote, identifying the rocket used. "I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One."
The U.S. alleges such satellite launches defy a U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Iran to undertake no activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
Iran, which long has said it does not seek nuclear weapons, maintains its satellite launches and rocket tests do not have a military component. Tehran also says it hasn't violated the U.N. resolution as it only "called upon" Tehran not to conduct such tests.
Over the past decade, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launched a monkey into space.
The launch comes amid heightened tensions between Iran and the U.S. since Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers in May 2018. Iran since has begun breaking terms of the deal limiting its enrichment of uranium.
Meanwhile, a series of attacks across the Persian Gulf culminated with a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad killing Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani and a retaliatory ballistic missile strike by Iran on Iraqi bases housing American troops earlier this month. Iran also accidentally shot down a Ukrainian commercial airliner taking off from Tehran amid the tensions, killing all 176 people on board.
Authorities in Germany have confirmed the country's first case of the new virus that emerged in central China.
The health ministry in the southern state of Bavaria said late Monday that the man from Starnberg, south of Munich, is "in a clinically good condition."
Officials said the man is being medically monitored and isolated. Persons who were in close contact with the man are being informed about possible symptoms and hygiene measures.
The ministry said it considers the risk to the general population in Bavaria to be "low."
Authorities planned to hold a news conference in Munich on Tuesday where they would release further details.
The new coronavirus has infected thousands of people in China. Nearly all of the dozens of cases outside China are among people who recently traveled from there.
Two pilots were killed in a Sukhoi Su-30 aircraft crash on Monday night in Algeria's Oum El Bouaghi province, 450 km southeast of the capital Algiers, local media reported.
The state run television specified that the jet belongs to the Algerian Air Force, as it crashed near the military air base of Oum El Bouagui.
The incident occurred in an unpopulated area, the report said, without providing further details.
It is the second air crash in this province. On February 2014, a C-130 Hercules military transport aircraft crashed into a mountainous district, killing 77 people on board.
The latest and worst air disaster in the history of Algeria dates back to April 2018, as 257 people, including soldiers and members of their families, were killed after an Ilyushin Il-76 military airplane crashed down shortly after taking off from Boufarik military airport, 30 km southwest of Algiers.
Over 2,000 kg of carrots and sweet potatoes have been airdropped to endangered Australian brush-tailed rock-wallabies since the start of the new year, as wildlife authorities scramble to deal with the country's unprecedented bushfire crisis.
The marsupials found on the east coast of Australia have been ravaged by recent wildfires and are in desperate need of food.
To tackle the problem, wildlife conservation group Aussie Ark and the New South Wales state government have begun flying in vegetables.
"Rock wallabies have lost nearly 80 percent of their habitat due to fire," Aussie Ark President Tim Faulkner said on Tuesday.
"How they recover from this is an uncertainty, but food drops, camera monitoring and intervention at a species level for insurance populations are critical."
To make matters worse for the kangaroo's slightly smaller cousins, Faulkner said areas that haven't been fire-affected are still terribly affected by the drought.
"Whilst there are encouraging signs that food drops are working and there is still available water in some areas, to find deceased wallabies is an absolute kick in the guts," he said.
"The state department response is most welcome and is buying the wallabies time until the conditions improve."
"Food drops can by time, giving the wallabies nourishment and hydration until the rain comes."
With specialist facilities also in place, Aussie Ark has the ability to implement an "emergency intervention" if needed, where it could shelter and feed up to 45 wallabies at each of its seven rehabilitation centers.
But Faulkner was hopeful that the conditions will start to improve.
"We can keep them safe, we can keep them in sanctuaries but they belong in the wild," he said.