The Washington Times Weekly

Islamic State’s resurgence has U.S. rethinking strategy

- BY BEN WOLFGANG

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 highprofil­e 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 antiISIS 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.

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 Shiiteled 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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States