Al-Baghdadi is dead, but ISIS will endure

Sustained by message, money and global reach

- Ilan Berman Ilan Berman is senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council.

This weekend’s news that Islamic State emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had killed himself in Syria’s Idlib province while being pursued by U.S. special forces operators is unquestion­ably a major milestone in the fight against the world’s most notorious terrorist group. It also represents an unalloyed political victory for the Trump administra­tion, which has come under fire of late for its decision to draw down the American presence in Syria.

Yet, however momentous, al-Baghdadi’s death remains part of a larger struggle. Although ISIS is significan­tly diminished, it still possesses formidable strategic capabiliti­es and resources that make it an enduring threat to the United States, as well as to America’s interests and its regional allies. The numbers tell the story.

At its most powerful, ISIS was estimated to boast a force of 40,000 foreign fighters drawn from a multitude of nations (among them Russia, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia). Most of this cohort remains active today, despite the collapse of the ISIS caliphate.

As of early this year, the U.S. government gauged that the group still had 20,000 to 30,000 active fighters at its disposal. These forces, in turn, will be bolstered in the years ahead by a new generation of radicals being incubated in enclaves like Syria’s notorious alHawl refugee camp.

ISIS also retains a truly global reach. In fact, over the past year, as its Middle Eastern caliphate has declined, the terror group has succeeded in reposition­ing itself to other global theaters — with ominous results. ISIS cells and affiliates are active today throughout Africa and Southeast Asia, where they pose a growing threat to the stability of countries like Nigeria, Indonesia and the Philippine­s. Indeed, the group may even be poised for a comeback in the Middle East.

In its report on “Operation Inherent Resolve,” as the campaign against the Islamic State is formally known, the Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General reiterated that in the absence of continued military pressure on the group from the United States, ISIS remains capable of reclaiming lost territory in Syria within as little as six months to a year.

In terms of finances, too, ISIS remains a potent force. At the height of its power, ISIS ranked as the best-funded threat group in history, thanks to a sophistica­ted business model that revolved around multiple revenue streams ranging from oil sales to looting to the taxation of territorie­s under its control.

Not much has changed in this regard. Despite the collapse of its territoria­l control, experts estimate that ISIS still has access to hundreds of millions of dollars and continues to generate a steady stream of revenue through informal networks and illicit activities. These funds, in turn, have enabled it to continue funding global operations on an ongoing basis.

Most of all, the Islamic State’s corrosive ideologica­l message remains as enduring, and as appealing, as ever. Counterter­rorism experts and officials caution that there has been no discernibl­e change to patterns of recruitmen­t and radicaliza­tion in the broader Muslim world over the past year.

They also note that the organizati­on’s outreach — carried out through a sophistica­ted apparatus that adroitly exploits social media, online propaganda and new technology — means that it remains a formidable force in the most important arena of all: the struggle for “hearts and minds” taking place in the Muslim world.

Even before al-Baghdadi’s demise, the United States was giving every indication that, having successful­ly destroyed the physical ISIS caliphate, it was eager to turn the page on the “war on terror.”

In the wake of the ISIS emir’s death, the impulse for the Trump administra­tion to consider its counterter­rorism mission accomplish­ed is sure to be stronger than ever.

That would be a dangerous misreading of the resilience of the group that alBaghdadi once commanded — and whose ideologica­l message continues to both mobilize and inspire.


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