The Pentagon’s top officer for the Middle East warned Wednesday that the U.S. will face “huge problems” from a resurgent Islamic State over the coming decade unless Washington develops a sweeping initiative to deradicalize young men and women in several Middle East hot spots.
Although the terrorist group known as ISIS has been stripped of its “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, who heads U.S. Central Command, sounded the alarm that the group remains active and bent on recruiting a new generation of jihadis.
Speaking at an online forum hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace, Gen. McKenzie offered a sobering glimpse of the challenges facing Washington and its partners. Analysts say ISIS remains fully capable of conducting smaller-scale terrorist strikes while pursuing deeper strategic aims in various regions around the world.
Some foreign policy specialists have warned that the group has already forged a tenuous, albeit mutually beneficial, relationship with elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan toward the goal of thwarting the American-led peace efforts there.
Such an alliance could be especially dangerous as the U.S. draws down troop levels in the war-torn nation over the coming months as part of a landmark deal the Taliban reached with the Trump administration this year to reduce violence.
Pentagon leaders have expressed confidence that ISIS no longer poses the direct global and U.S. national security threat it represented at its peak five years ago, but Gen. McKenzie suggested that a robust and long-term deradicalization initiative is missing. He said Washington may be committing a strategic blunder that could result in a serious ISIS resurgence down the road.
DOCUMENT: Reported ISIS attacks in July 2020
The general made specific reference to the al-Hol refugee camp in northeastern Syria, which houses more than 65,000 displaced men, women and children from Iraq and Syria as well as captured Islamic State fighters.
He cited al-Hol as an example of the long-term challenges facing the U.S. and its allies. It is “one of the worst places in the world,” he said, and could, along with similar camps, emerge as a major breeding ground and recruitment center for the next wave of ISIS terrorists.
“I look at it as a tactical problem and a strategic problem. The tactical problem, we’re managing that. We’re continuing operations against ISIS,” Gen. McKenzie told the U.S. Institute of Peace forum.
“The strategic problem, though, unless we find a way to repatriate, to deradicalize, to bring these people that are at grave risk in these camps back … we’re buying ourselves a strategic problem 10 years down the road, 15 years down the road,” he said. “We’re going to do this all over again. I would prefer to avoid that.
“Bad things are going to happen if you keep a lot of people there,” he said of al-Hol. “If we stay where we are, we’re going to have huge problems.”
The heart of the problem, regional analysts say, is the presence inside the camps of young men from a range of ethnic backgrounds and nationalities who are or have been sympathizers of ISIS in Syria or Iraq.
The Trump administration has struggled to persuade the fighters’ countries of origin — whether in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East or elsewhere — to take custody of the young men.
Camps like al-Hol are also filled with thousands of women and children who were driven from their homes by ISIS, and the international community has no clear plan for what to do with them in the long term.
“I am still struggling to find something that works,” Gen. McKenzie said Wednesday.
An evolving threat
U.S. officials say the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has mostly completed a metamorphosis from extremist army to scrambling terrorist outfit focused on targeted attacks such as suicide bombings, despite having a significantly reduced capability over the past three years.
“It has some capabilities but far weaker than what it used to have,” Ambassador William Roebuck, the administration’s deputy special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, said during the forum.
“To a significant degree, it is not able to mount sophisticated attacks or operations or [to] tactically coordinate,” Mr. Roebuck said. “Most of what you see it launching is [attacks] against targets of opportunity, assassination of individuals who cooperate, for example, with our partner forces” in Iraq and Syria.
In July, the group carried out at least 23 attacks in Syria alone, according to data compiled by the Counter Extremism Project. Those attacks were aimed mostly at forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, who for years has waged a simultaneous war against ISIS and U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a key American ally in battling the terrorist group.
Perhaps more alarming are recent attacks perpetrated more than 2,000 miles away in Afghanistan by the group’s affiliate there, ISIS-Khorasan, or ISIS-K.
This month, ISIS-K mounted a major assault on a prison in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province, in an attempt to free hundreds of militant fighters held there. At least 29 people were killed as Afghan security forces exchanged gunfire with the ISIS-K fighters for hours.
Hundreds of prisoners escaped during the assault, though Afghan government officials say the vast majority were rounded up and returned to the prison.
While ISIS and the Taliban have traditionally have been rivals, Afghan government officials have argued that they are pursuing a marriage of convenience. In some cases, they say, the Taliban could be clandestinely providing intelligence and logistics for ISIS-K to carry out attacks in order to maintain the appearance that the Taliban are sticking to the terms of their reduction in violence deal with Washington.
In exchange for a Trump administration commitment to significantly reduce the number of American troops in Afghanistan, the February deal called for the Taliban to cease any attacks on U.S.-led coalition forces and to stop providing safe haven for extremist groups, including ISIS and al Qaeda.
The deal also laid out a blueprint for peace talks between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government in Kabul. Attacks such as the one that rocked the Jalalabad prison would likely poison such talks if the Taliban are proved to be involved.
Analysts warn that incidents such as the Jalalabad prison attack could become more common in the region.
“Jail raids like the one in Jalalabad send a clear message to the jihadists who have been captured: Your co-religionists will not abandon you,” Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote in a recent analysis published by the think tank. “It’s a message that is intended to boost morale, especially after the group has suffered multiple setbacks.”
• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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