Despite “tremendous progress” over the past several years, the Islamic State terror group still poses a threat to the United States and its allies in the Middle East, a panel of government officials and analysts said Tuesday during a online discussion sponsored by the Atlantic Council.
The Islamic State is not the same force it was back in 2014 when its fighters drove Iraqi forces out of Mosul and other key cities, occupied large swaths of eastern Syria and shocked the world with horrifying videos of public executions of soldiers, aid workers and journalists.
The group also known as ISIS lost the capital of its “caliphate” in Raqqa, Syria, and most of the territory it captured from a U.S.-led military coalition of more than 70 nations.
Meanwhile, thousands of ISIS fighters remain behind bars in prisons manned by U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters.
But while more than eight million people who once lived under ISIS control have been liberated, said Christopher P. Maier, director of the Pentagon task force overseeing the fight against Islamic State, “we do face significant challenges.”
While it may no longer be the unrecognized terror-state it once was, Islamic State can still mount an insurgency campaign against Iraq and other governments in the region.
“It’s attempting to regroup and look for opportunities,” he said.
The most crippling hits Islamic State has taken have been in regions of northeast Syria where the U.S.-led coalition is based. The group has fared better in places where Russia and the Syrian government forces are located, Mr. Maier said.
Despite President Trump’s determination to draw down the force, about 750 U.S. military personnel remain in Syria. Part of the goal is to hand off more of the mission to Kurds’ Syrian Democratic Forces and ensure the group cannot reconstitute itself. The ultimate goal is to move past security to stabilization and finally governance.
“That means local forces are capable of dealing with the threat on their own or with limited outside help,” Mr. Maier said.
While ISIS has been severely degraded as a fighting force, most of the underlying conditions — such as authoritarianism and sectarian tensions— that led to its rise have not been fully addressed, Jasmine El-Gamal, a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative.
“Even if ISIS as an organization is to be defeated, the fact is that violent extremism and violent extremist organizations still have the opportunity to take hold in Syria,” she said.
Practical concerns rather than any rigid authoritarian ideology drove many fighters to join Islamic State, Ms. El-Gamal said.
Potential recruits are asking, “‘Who is going to pay me the most? ‘Who is going to secure my family from the enemy of today and the enemy of tomorrow?’” she said. “That sense of uncertainty is very much still there.”
About 2,000 foreign Islamic State fighters from 60 different countries are being held in prisons operated by the Syrian Democratic Forces. The U.S. is pushing their home countries, including many in Europe, to repatriate them.
“ISIS would like to have them back on the battlefield,” said Mr. Maier.
Oil remains a critical factor in the Islamic State endgame. The organization exploited oil fields in northeast Syria to fund much of its military operations and President Trump has talked about the U.S. claiming rights to the oil. Russia, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, is also looking to exploit the resource, Mr. Maier said.
“This is likely to be more and more a prominent issue and one we’re going to focus on,” he said.