ISIS is still a threat in Syria and Iraq

Even at a time ISIS is thought to be encircled, the terrorist organisation seems to draw new recruits.
Sunday 21/10/2018
A member of the Raqqa civil council’s local security forces inspects a motorcycle and its riders at a checkpoint in former ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, on October 16. (AFP)
A member of the Raqqa civil council’s local security forces inspects a motorcycle and its riders at a checkpoint in former ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, on October 16. (AFP)

Like a horror movie that refuses to end, the Islamic State (ISIS) remains a concern in Syria and Iraq. Predictably, there is less inclination among members of the US-led coalition to take victory laps over ISIS’s supposed defeat.

There are indications the terrorist group is adjusting its tactics to keep its lethal capability and long-term totalitarian strategy alive.

Many political leaders might project the military defeat of ISIS as a feather in their cap but military commanders and security experts caution that the extremist group could pose a threat even if it is believed to control barely 2% of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria.

ISIS might not be in the business of controlling territory anymore but its murderous threat in Syria and Iraq has not ceased.

The Russian news agency TASS reported that ISIS took approximately 700 people hostage in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province on October 13. That’s a geographic zone once controlled by US-backed forces. Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed the information, adding that ten hostages had been executed. He added that ten more hostages might be executed every day if ISIS’s demands were not met. The number of the hostages is in dispute but not the type of threat.

“It’s not about the land mass, it’s about taking away ISIS capabilities,” US Army Colonel Sean Ryan, spokesman for the US coalition-established Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said during a news conference October 16. “We’ve still got about three months to go and a lot can happen in 2018.”

Part of the problem might be the relative demobilisation of the regional and global powers in the fight against ISIS based on the assumption that the objectives of the 4-year-old war against the extremist group have been met.

“Perhaps the greatest challenge facing us today is the danger of complacency,” US Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently warned.

Even at a time ISIS is thought to be encircled, the terrorist organisation seems to draw new recruits.

Dunford pointed out that ISIS attracts about 100 followers, who cross into Syria from Turkey, every month. That may seem a trickle compared to the 1,500 would-be fighters a month three years ago but the continuing influx of arrivals means would-be jihadists will swell the ranks of the 30,000 ISIS fighters estimated to be in Syria and Iraq.

Also in Syria and Iraq are about 700 ISIS detainees from more than 40 countries. It’s not clear what will happen in many of their cases. The way they are treated will go a long way towards sending a signal one way or the other to would-be jihadists who might be tempted down the path of radicalisation by the ISIS narrative.

Meanwhile, there is the issue of the use of the internet by ISIS to attract recruits and sympathisers from among vulnerable young Muslims.

Many other factors constitute a fertile ground for radicalisation. These include the socio-economic marginalisation of youth in the region and beyond, the manipulation of religious discourse and the resilience of the financial networks that support ISIS’s mischief.

Research published by Foreign Policy magazine online sheds light on the continuing threat of ISIS.

The research is by Vera Mironova, a visiting scholar at Harvard University, and Mohammed Hussein, a fellow at American University of Iraq in Sulaimaniyah. They point to an emerging threat in Iraq in which former ISIS fighters are joining armed Shia militias. They cite the Badr Organisation and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq among such groups. In these groups, former ISIS operatives launder their combat experience in exchange for protection and a steady income.

“For men with few skills besides war making — and given Iraq’s high youth unemployment rate of 18% — signing up with another force was rational,” Mironova and Hussein point out.

In a separate Foreign Policy paper, Colin P. Clarke, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, said ISIS still has sources of revenue that finance its activities. On top of the millions of dollars that its leadership might have smuggled, the terrorist organisation is adept at various criminal activities such as extortion, drug trafficking and the smuggling of artefacts.

A UN report from July suggested that ISIS controlled some oilfields in north-eastern Syria.

The recent US crackdown on ISIS financial networks in Iraq indicates the international fight against the terrorist group is likely to continue beyond the military battlefield.

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