The Pentagon is ramping up its war against an enemy declared “territorially defeated” two years ago, fueling questions about whether the U.S. and its allies have the right long-term strategy to truly crush the Islamic State terrorist group once and for all.
Although the U.S.-led coalition in the Middle East has excelled at rolling back the expansive “caliphate” that ISIS controlled in its heyday, it has yet to eradicate ideological support for the group or to reverse the conditions on the ground that enabled its rise. That, in turn, has produced what analysts say is a revamped, more resilient version of the Islamic State group after thousands of fighters disappeared into civilian populations across Iraq and Syria or holed up in remote, rural areas that are difficult to find, especially given the shrinking U.S. military footprint in the region.
One sign of the group’s ability to endure: an aggressive allied campaign of airstrikes against ISIS positions in the Middle East in recent months, including a fresh sortie and ground attack over the weekend that included at least one U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle targeting Islamic State positions in Iraq’s Salahuddin governorate north of Baghdad. Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Yahya Rasool tweeted Saturday that the mission destroyed two ISIS camps and killed at least two fighters.
Leaders of the Islamic State group have even mounted recruiting efforts at refugee camps such as Syria’s infamous al-Hol facility, leading top U.S. military commanders to openly question whether the site has become a breeding ground for the next generation of ISIS fighters.
Renewed fighting across Iraq and Syria is coupled with a troubling uptick in attacks in Afghanistan, a chilling insurgency in Mozambique, a stubborn presence in Somalia, and a host of other evidence that the Islamic State group is gaining footholds across the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
Declarations of victory over ISIS, specialists say, have been premature.
“We are still talking about having defeated the Islamic State territorially. It no longer controls Mosul, Fallujah, Raqqa, all the places in Iraq and Syria that had hit the front pages for so many years. But it is not defeated,” said Katherine Zimmerman, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who studies extremist groups and their evolutions.
“The real challenge is what I would say is a growing low-level insurgency. It is coming back,” she said. “We had a military campaign, but we did not really marry that up with a political campaign to reverse all of the various conditions that have enabled … the Islamic State to come into play. It left the conditions open for the Islamic State to return.”
There is little doubt that the ISIS of 2021 is a vastly different organization from the de facto terrorist state that six years ago controlled huge swaths of land across Iraq and Syria — a “caliphate” from which it took on the traditional powers of government while enforcing a particularly brutal form of Islamic practice. The group captured the world’s attention with high-profile beheadings, the burning alive of prisoners, and other unspeakably horrific killings and terrorist acts that eventually led the U.S. military, which left Iraq in 2011 under President Obama, to hastily return to the fight.
Along with Iraq’s security forces, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and other allies — and aid from adversaries such as Russia and Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad — the U.S. reduced what was once a jihadi army that numbered in the tens of thousands to a shell of its former self.
Raqqa, which ISIS proclaimed as the capital of its caliphate, was recaptured in a brutal battle in October 2017.
But a recent Pentagon report estimated that 8,000 to 16,000 ISIS fighters are still in Iraq and Syria. By contrast, the U.S. has just 2,500 U.S. forces in Iraq and about 900 in Syria, according to recent Defense Department figures.
Biden administration officials stress that the Islamic State group has been territorially defeated, but they readily acknowledge that it remains a serious threat as it morphs from a ground combat force into a more traditional, covert terrorist outfit.
John Godfrey, the White House’s acting special envoy for the international anti-ISIS coalition, told reporters last week that lasting “counterterrorism pressure” is needed to keep a lid on the global threat.
“We do assess that ISIS does continue to constitute a significant security threat, both to local partners in Syria as well as more broadly to the region, particularly across the border into Iraq, and even beyond that, ranging further afield to Europe and potentially to North America,” he said during a State Department briefing. “One of the reasons for that is that there continues to be a cadre of capable ISIS actors in Syria who have experience with plotting attacks further afield, and who we assess retain aspirations to continue doing that.”
ISIS, he added, is in the market for partners in the fight. “They’ve demonstrated some connectivity to actors further afield that we’re very closely focused on,” Mr. Godfrey said.
On the attack
Indeed, ISIS has proved itself to be chillingly effective at striking fear into the hearts of local populations with horrific terrorist attacks. In mid-March, ISIS militants reportedly shot eight people dead in Albu-Dour, Iraq, including six members of a family who were slaughtered in their home.
ISIS social media sites claimed responsibility for the massacre and said those killed were “spies” working with the Shiite-led paramilitary Popular Mobilization Forces, which have extensive ties to Iran.
In November, ISIS gunmen stormed Kabul University in Afghanistan and killed at least 22 people. Just last week, the group’s rapidly growing affiliate in Africa claimed responsibility for an attack in Mozambique that killed at least 55.
Those and other incidents have led to a major offensive by U.S. military forces, the SDF and Iraqi troops, with a recognition that the Islamic State group would gather even more momentum if left unchecked.
One offensive began March 9 with the U.S. military and its Iraqi allies launching at least 312 airstrikes and a ground assault that officials say killed at least 27 terrorists. Iraq supplied the ground forces while U.S. aircraft struck the group from above.
At least 120 ISIS “hideouts” were destroyed in the assault, U.S. military officials said.
In March, the Operation Inherent Resolve coalition “completed 78 operations against [the Islamic State group], preventing 107 terrorists from committing acts of terror,” spokesman Col. Wayne Marotto said in a Twitter post. He urged Iraqi and Syrian civilians to report any signs of ISIS fighters in their midst by calling a coalition hotline.
Even more U.S. military assets are joining the fight. Late last week, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group began flight operations from the eastern Mediterranean Sea to support Operation Inherent Resolve, providing a fresh influx of fighter aircraft and ships.
The Navy’s 6th Fleet said in a statement that the strike group’s “operation in the Mediterranean Sea demonstrates the capability of the U.S. Navy to support OIR from multiple theaters, highlighting the mobility, flexibility, and power projection capability of the U.S. Navy’s carrier strike groups.”
Meanwhile, SDF forces late last month raided the al-Hol detention camp, a sprawling facility in northern Syria that holds at least 64,000 people, according to estimates from the United Nations. The SDF arrested suspected ISIS recruiters operating inside the camp.
The site has been a top concern for U.S. military commanders in the region who think al-Hol is fertile ground for ISIS to find its next wave of fighters.
“The living conditions are horrible,” said Ms. Zimmerman, the American Enterprise Institute analyst. “If there’s an Islamic State recruiter who comes in and tries to offer a better life, that’s enticing to someone who sees no future, who sees no way out of the camp.”