Baghdadi video shows evolving threat from ISIS’s ‘virtual caliphate’
The recent video appearance of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his praise of the large-scale terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka highlight the continued threat the Islamic State poses to countries around the world, including the United States.
The video aimed to underscore that, despite the loss of its territory and so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State (ISIS) will be a force to reckon with in the coming years, especially because it seems to inspire extremists around the globe. While there is not enough evidence to say ISIS planned or directed the deadly Easter attacks in Sri Lanka, the terrorists in that plot may have been inspired by ISIS propaganda.
Soon after those attacks, FBI Director Christopher Wray, speaking April 26 at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, warned of the evolving threat from ISIS’s “virtual caliphate.” The “threat isn’t gone,” he emphasised and countries around the world should not be complacent about it. Online radicalisation, he added, is becoming a “bigger and bigger problem” and so the “threat is real.”
This is not the first such warning from Wray. Last October, he told a congressional committee that ISIS has “proven dangerously competent in employing digital communication” and that such terrorists can “spot, assess, recruit and radicalise vulnerable persons” in the United States to travel abroad or “conduct an attack on the homeland.”
In his Council on Foreign Relations appearance, Wray, perhaps indirectly referring to US President Donald Trump, said “people talk about ISIS and the fall of the caliphate — absolutely true” but added that the FBI worries about how ISIS can “organise in a way” that doesn’t require “the same kind of physical infrastructure.”
Trump has made several comments in recent months suggesting that the fight against ISIS was over. In December, he declared: “We have won against ISIS… we’ve beaten them badly. We’ve taken back the land.” In late February, Trump said: “You kept hearing it was 90%, 92%, the caliphate in Syria, now it’s 100%. We have the whole thing.”
He seemed oblivious to the fact that an estimated 20,000-30,000 ISIS fighters escaped the destruction of the caliphate and hid in communities in both Syria and Iraq, various experts said. Some of those fighters have shifted tactics and undertaken classic terrorist attacks, as opposed to the previous policy of trying to hold territory.
Indeed, in January, ISIS took responsibility for a terrorist bombing in northern Syria that killed 19 people, including four Americans. ISIS cells have undertaken several terrorist attacks in Iraq in recent months.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, like Wray, has warned of the threat, stating that ISIS “is not just a small organisation, it’s widespread and will try to put confidence back in its militants and carry out acts such as those in Sri Lanka.”
Some terrorism experts say that, in addition to ISIS fighters who escaped the fall of the physical caliphate, the organisation transferred “caches of money and gold” to other locations, said Edmund Fitton-Brown, the former UK ambassador to Yemen and now coordinator of the UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team concerning ISIS and other terrorist groups.
With such prominent people, including the FBI director, warning about not being complacent and taking a victory lap, why is Trump not recognising these realities?
This has to do with his 2016 campaign pledge to wipe out ISIS and Trump’s nervousness that his supposed singular foreign policy success will be diminished if the American people in 2020 consider ISIS a continuing threat to the US homeland.
Trump’s foreign policy positions in 2016 were contradictory but seemed to resonate with a substantial portion of the American people. He called US interventions in the Middle East — such as the Iraq war of 2003 — a “disaster” and a very costly mistake but also said he was determined to eradicate ISIS, saying he would “bomb the sh.. out of them,” to keep the American people safe.
With ISIS having lost its physical caliphate, Trump wanted to use that development to boast that he accomplished two goals, defeating this terrorist group and bringing US troops home. He has backtracked on the latter, agreeing to keep about 400 troops in Syria after stating he wanted to bring all of them home from that country, but he has not backtracked on his claims to the former.
This is not at all surprising since Trump has exhibited a disdain for the professional intelligence services. In late January, he lashed out at his intelligence chiefs for giving public analytical assessments to Congress, which, among other things, said ISIS was degraded but not defeated — not music to Trump’s ears.