At the end of 2018, Donald Trump announced that the Islamic State had been defeated, and that the US was pulling its troops out of Syria. The defeat of ISIS was a hard won process of reclaiming territory over five years, until finally there was only one ISIS-held village left. After a siege lasting over a month, that village too was taken, destroying the last part of ISIS’s territory, or ‘caliphate’ as they called it, that had once been the size of Great Britain.
On October 26th of this year the United States declared that the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, had been killed. On the face of it, the loss of territory and the death of a leader might sound like the threat from the Islamic State, which at its peak had 33,000 members from over 100 nationalities and launched attacks in almost 40 countries, is finally over. Sadly, things are not that simple, and the Islamic State is unlikely to disappear any time soon.
Although ISIS has lost the territory it once controlled, that does not mean it has ceased to exist. It has just gone back to operating like a more “typical” terrorist group, as controlling as much territory as ISIS once did is unusual for a terrorist group. It is estimated that ISIS still has between 14 and 18.000 fighters left in just Iraq and Syria, and between 20 and 30.000 globally. Given that its membership peaked at around 33,000, a huge number of fighters are still active. Many of these are being held in detention camps in Syria, but there is a risk that some of these will escape because of Turkey’s recent attack on the area.
While the destruction of the caliphate did slow down the flow of foreigners coming to fight for ISIS, there is still a small but steady stream arriving, and ISIS’s finances are still looking very healthy. ISIS also seems to be innovating somewhat, with increased reports of the use of female fighters, less likely to be suspected by security forces. Also, even though they don’t technically hold any territory, they still have de facto control over parts of Syria and Iraq as they have successfully intimidated and attacked town leaders.
Worryingly, ISIS has a history of bouncing back from near defeat – in 2010, when the US pulled its troops out of Iraq, it had only 700 fighters left, but then grew to be one of the most powerful terrorist organisations. Given that the group is vastly more powerful now than it was then, it seems unlikely it will simply wither away, but will try to retake territory. The US pulling out of Syria could potentially mimic the conditions that their pulling out of Iraq did in allowing ISIS to gain a lot of ground, so the declaration of their defeat by Trump is likely to be very dangerous for the region.
Even the death of the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, is unlikely to undermine ISIS too much. Al-Baghdadi was a very important figure in ISIS. When ISIS members, or those who weren’t actual members but were inspired by ISIS, committed attacks in foreign countries, they would typically record themselves making a pledge before committing the attack. This pledge was not to the Islamic State, but to Al-Baghdadi himself. However, there is some evidence that this pledge is now being made to the new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, suggesting that, while followers of the Islamic State may be shaken by the death of Al-Baghdadi, they are willing to continue under a new leader. Even if some fighters decide to leave ISIS, they will probably splinter into new terrorist groups as they remain radicalized. All of this means that we are unlikely to hear the last from ISIS any time soon.
DoD photo by Army Staff Sgt. Timothy R. Koster on CentCom
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