US sees many reasons for concern about seeming resilience of ISIS
Despite major battlefield successes against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq, US officials are not dropping their guard against the terrorist organisation.
The extensive loss of territory once held by ISIS in the heart of the Middle East can be considered a victory for the United States and its coalition partners as well as for various indigenous forces, such as the Iraqi Army and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which suffered many casualties in the anti-ISIS campaign.
The ISIS self-declared caliphate is no more since Raqqa fell to the US-supported SDF last year. Symbolically, the caliphate had captured the imagination of many disaffected Muslims in the Middle East and the West and convinced thousands of them to travel to Syria to join the movement.
However, for at least some of these fighters, the caliphate’s demise showed that ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, were not invincible and its promise of creating a just society was a myth.
ISIS now controls only a small portion of desert territory in Syria along the Iraqi border. Within Iraq, it has occasionally undertaken terrorist bombings since its loss of territory but it has become more of an irritant than a real threat.
That said, the fight against ISIS is not over.
Washington is concerned about ISIS for two main reasons, including the possibility that ISIS or a like-minded group could rebound. US security officials took notice of a report by the UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team that claimed some 30,000 ISIS fighters remain in Iraq and Syria, divided equally between the two countries. Some of them, the report stated, are active on the battlefield and others are hiding in local communities.
A US military spokesman in Baghdad said the figures on ISIS fighters “seemed high” but admitted there was no way of accurately knowing the true number.
The concern is that some factors that enabled ISIS to stage such remarkable growth in 2013-14 in Syria and Iraq have not gone away. In Iraq, ISIS took advantage of substantial Arab Sunni dissatisfaction with the Shia-led government in Baghdad and feelings of disenfranchisement. Many of those Sunnis saw ISIS as a sort of saviour against heavy-handed Shia rule. In Syria, ISIS took advantage of the chaos of the civil war as well as Arab Sunni resentment of the Alawite-dominated government of Bashar Assad to gain adherents in eastern Syria.
Although Arab Sunnis in Iraq participated in the May 2018 parliamentary elections, many who were from western and northern Iraq are internal refugees because the cities they once inhabited are in ruins. Even those who returned to damaged cities, such as Mosul, are having a difficult time rebuilding their homes and are waiting for reconstruction funds from the government. If such funds do not materialise soon, resentment is likely to rise again.
In Syria, much of Raqqa is in ruins because of the anti-ISIS bombing campaign and similar resentments could rise. This area of Syria, made up mostly of Arab Sunni Muslims, is experiencing ethnic tensions because it is under the control of the Kurdish-dominated SDF. One Arab resident, after the city was liberated from ISIS, stated sarcastically that Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish Workers’ Party in Turkey who many Kurdish SDF fighters see as their hero, should be declared the new caliph of Raqqa.
If these political, economic and ethnic problems are not soon ameliorated, ISIS or another Sunni extremist group could re-emerge.
The second cause of concern is that the ISIS propaganda machine is still active. Over the past several years, it attracted tech-savvy militants who knew how to exploit social media. An ISIS operative told the Washington Post in May that the ISIS leadership “is convinced that, even if the state has disappeared, as long as they can influence the next generation through education, the idea of the caliphate will endure.”
Baghdadi resurfaced on August 22 with a message that acknowledged the loss of cities and towns but emphasised that the “tides of war change.”
He urged his followers to attack targets in the West with bombs, knives and vehicles, an attempt to convince so-called lone wolves to carry out random attacks that have long worried US and Western security officials because many of those adherents have no known terrorist connections and are difficult to monitor and apprehend.
Therefore, while ISIS does not have a territorial base and infrastructure to plan and carry out a 9/11-type operation, it retains enough of a cell structure and media operation to cause worries to US military and security professionals.