- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2017

With the Islamic State’s two main pillars of its so-called caliphate now in the hands of the U.S.-backed coalition, the terrorist group is looking to decentralize and expand its operations through outposts in Libya, Afghanistan and the Philippines as it attempts to recoup its battlefield losses in Iraq and Syria.

Tuesday’s liberation of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed Syrian capital of Raqqa represents the high-water mark of success for the U.S.-led coalition against the terrorist group since Washington and its allies in Iraq and Syria began to roll back its territorial gains three years ago.

Raqqa was one of the first major metropolitan areas to fall under the Islamic State banner when the group began its violent campaign across Syria and northern Iraq, and it had been the group’s spiritual home and main hub for planning and executing attacks around the globe.

The city’s liberation by coalition forces has crippled Islamic State’s ability to recruit fighters, raise money and carry out attacks against the West, Army Col. Ryan Dillon, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, told reporters Tuesday at the Pentagon.

Islamic State revenue from illegal oil sales have been slashed by 90 percent, Col. Dillon said during a briefing from coalition headquarters in Baghdad. The flow of foreign fighters to the region, which had topped 1,500 individuals a month, is “down to near zero today,” he added.

Leaders of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the loose collection of Arab and Kurdish paramilitaries battling Islamic State in Syria, said Tuesday they had taken control of Raqqa’s government center, municipal stadium and Paradise Square — where the terrorist group would conduct public executions.

The majority of Syrian fighters loyal to Islamic State fled the advancing SDF assault this week, with the remaining cadre of local jihadis escaping the onslaught Monday night, according to local reports. A handful of foreign fighters remain scattered throughout Raqqa, representing a shadow of what was once the crown jewel in Islamic State’s “caliphate” in the Middle East.

“Everything is finished in Raqqa. Our forces have taken full control of Raqqa,” SDF spokesman Talal Sello told Agence France-Presse. Militiamen, backed by U.S. air power, continue to clear pockets of Islamic State resistance in the city.

But Col. Dillon warned that even with the caliphate in shambles, the virulent ideology and fanaticism that spurred Islamic State’s meteoric rise in the Middle East remains.

“Even after the defeat, the military defeat of ISIS there’s still going to be work to be done,” said Col. Dillon. “ISIS will be defeated militarily, but we know that there still is going to be the ideology and the continued insurgent activity as they devolve into that.”

The Islamic State’s loss of Raqqa and Mosul, the northern Iraqi city that served as its main stronghold in the country and where leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the creation of the group’s caliphate, sounds the death knell for the group’s goal of creating a radical state in the Middle East.

But Islamic State’s extremist core beliefs have spread into contested territories in Southwest Asia and North Africa, and have metastasized into previously untouched regions such as the Pacific.

“While their territory continues to shrink, they remain a credible terror threat both at home and abroad, so we must continue to fight against the affiliate groups and their networks that carry out and inspire terror around the globe,” Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement Tuesday.

Regional expansion

Backed by U.S. air power and heavy artillery, Arab and Kurdish militias tied to the SDF were in the midst of the four-month campaign to wrest Raqqa from Islamic State control — but the group already was shifting its focus to reclaiming territory in war-torn Libya.

U.S.-backed militias had largely crushed Islamic State’s Libya operation in late 2015, but signs that the group is gaining a new foothold in the North African nation began emerging last month. Images of Islamic State fighters moving through the vast deserts around their former stronghold in Libya’s northern coastal city of Sirte circulated through the terrorist group’s social media and online propaganda sites in mid-September.

While the Trump White House for months has publicly resisted a major U.S. military role in Libya, the Pentagon wasted little time responding to the flurry of Islamic State activity there. On Sept. 22, military officials announced that American fighter jets had been dispatched to pound an Islamic State encampment roughly 150 miles south of Sirte.

Sleeper cells reportedly are terrorizing neighborhoods and villages surrounding Sirte, and their ranks will likely expand over the coming weeks and months as veterans of the wars in Iraq and Syria will be absorbed into the group’s North African wing, national security sources say.

In May, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the U.S. military’s “strategic approach” centers on severing the “connectivity between ISIS affiliates” and the remnants of the group’s leadership currently dug into safe havens in Syria’s Deir-e-Zour region.

“We’re doing this,” Gen. Dunford said at the time, “in Libya, Somalia and Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.”

In Afghanistan, the group’s faction known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — Khorasan Group, or ISIS-K, continued to bludgeon the country’s security forces from bases in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province and areas along the border with Pakistan.

Most recently, U.S. counterterrorism forces in Afghanistan launched a drone strike against suspected Islamic State targets in the Kunar province, reportedly killing 14 militants, The Associated Press reported Saturday. The strike targeted a suspected meeting of ISIS-K commanders in the Chawkay district of Kunar, Abdul Ghani Musamim, spokesman for the provincial governor Wahidullah Kalimzai, told the AP.

The strike comes as ISIS-K operatives increasingly have targeted the country’s capital of Kabul, claiming responsibility for a Sept. 29 bombing of a Shiite mosque in the heart of the city that killed five and wounded scores of civilians.

The rise of Islamic State in Afghanistan comes as U.S. forces are entering their 17th year of war in the country. Another country with a long and storied history of military ties to the U.S., the Philippines, also is dealing with its own Islamic State insurgency.

Maute Group

Roughly 20 to 30 jihadis, including six to eight foreign fighters, tied to the Islamic State-affiliated Maute Group continue to hold Philippine forces at bay in the southern city of Marawi.

Holding 20 hostages and sealing off critical parts of the city to government forces, Maute Group members have been able to keep Islamic State banners flying over the city for the past four months.

Despite that resistance, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared Marawi liberated from Islamic State control during a visit to the besieged city on Tuesday.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I hereby declare Marawi city liberated from the terrorist influence,” he told members of the Philippine counterterrorism units in the city.

“They’re leaderless, and they have no more organization,” he said of the Maute Group, adding that the resistance put up by the remaining militants amounts to no more than skirmishes.

Mr. Dutere visited a day after the reputed “emir” of Islamic State’s burgeoning terrorist cell in the southern Philippines and one of the group’s senior commanders were killed by government forces in Marawi.

Isnilon Hapilon, who had led the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf before pledging allegiance to Islamic State in 2014, and Omar Maute, a top commander of the terrorist group bearing his family’s name, were killed during a military rescue operation in the southern Philippine city, the government in Manila confirmed Monday.

The Maute Group overran Marawi in July after a failed raid by Philippine military and police on Hapilon’s base near the city. The city has remained under Islamic State control since then.

The Maute Group’s hold on Mawari has been bolstered by an influx of advanced weaponry and combat-hardened Islamic State advisers — mostly from the Middle East and Chechnya — directed into the country by the group’s operational leadership in Syria, analysts say.

• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at cmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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