ISIS remains a threat despite killing of Baghdadi
The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, during a US raid October 27 in the Syrian province of Idlib, was a big blow to the terrorist organisation.
In Washington, the counterterrorism exploit was treated as a feather in the cap of US President Donald Trump, who is fighting off an impeachment procedure while trying to boost his chances for re-election in 2020.
For many foreign governments, as well as for many among the Syria war belligerents, the dramatic raid unleashed a race in claiming credit for helping the Americans.
Beyond the expedient and predictable reactions, there has been debate over the effect of Baghdadi’s demise and the extent it could affect the terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State (ISIS) in the region and the world.
As Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of Russia’s upper house of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said: “Countering terrorism is a much more difficult task than the physical destruction of its leaders, even the most irreconcilable.”
Despite its military defeat and the virtual demise of its claims to have control of territorial borders to its “caliphate” in the Levant, ISIS can count on the loyalty of thousands of fighters.
US Representative Mike Rogers, a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said that after 8 years of war in Syria “about 10,000 ISIS fighters remain in the region and will continue to carry out guerrilla attacks and seek new territory.” Others put the ISIS figure at 14,000. Regardless of the obvious margin of error in such estimates, the shadow of ISIS lurks in the Levant.
In Syria and Iraq, the terrorist group can draw on its dormant cells as well as on reserves constituted by the captured fighters of ISIS and their families in detention centres and displacement camps, such as Syria’s al-Hol refugee camp.
In recent months, even with its declared demise, ISIS has continued its mischief in the two countries with guerrilla-style attacks, bombings, kidnappings for ransom and arson for the purpose of extortion.
In Iraq, “sleeper cells” are said to be active in many provinces, including Diyala, Saladin, Anbar, Kirkuk and Nineveh. In Syria, attacks were attributed to ISIS in the Damascus region as well as in Deir ez-Zor, Hasakah, Homs, Aleppo and other locations.
For years now the sphere of influence of the terrorist organisation extended well beyond the Levant. Many jihadist factions proclaimed themselves ISIS-affiliates in West Africa, the Maghreb and other parts of Africa. In Asia, the presence of ISIS is a concern in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Iran, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and other countries.
Malaysian police counterterrorism chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay told Reuters the death of Baghdadi “will have little effect here as the main problem remains the spread of the Islamic State ideology.”
“What we are most worried about now are ‘lone-wolf’ attacks and those who are self-radicalised through the internet. We are still seeing the spread of ISIS teachings online. ISIS publications and magazines from years ago are being reproduced and re-shared,” he said.
Whether in France, the Philippines or elsewhere, ISIS has sought to put a horror show on the world stage. Its soldiers were lone wolves inspired by the extremist ideology online. A threat that is unlikely to subside.
From extortion, theft and kidnapping for ransom, ISIS cells are self-reliant. From previous years, it has financial reserves estimated by the United Nations at $50 million-$300 million.
Most of the victims of ISIS have been in the Arab and Muslim world, with Islam being the first and foremost casualty. Preying on vulnerable individuals, ISIS tried to promote a distorted interpretation of the Muslim religion to impose its totalitarian model of society.
In the future, Arabs and Muslims will have to reckon with an extremist organisation and its fanatical ideology. They are better equipped to counter its draw through counter-radicalisation strategies.
There is corruption and oppression in the Arab and Muslim world. There is rising bigotry and perceived injustice in Western attitudes towards Muslims. Such misgivings cannot justify the hate and violence of the ISIS extremists nor their evil and bloodshed.