According to a comprehensive study on the current status of Islamic State (ISIS) by Jennifer Cafarella, Brandon Wallace and Jason Zhou, ISIS is not defeated despite the loss of the territory it claimed as its so-called Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, rather it is much stronger than its predecessor Al Qaeda in Iraq or AQI was in 2011, when the United States withdrew from Iraq.
While AQI had around 700-1,000 jihadist fighters in 2001, ISIS had as many as 30,000 in Iraq and Syria in August 2018 according to a Defense Intelligence Agency estimate.
Islamic State built from the small remnant left in 2011 an army large enough to recapture Fallujah, Mosul, and other cities in Iraq and dominate much of eastern Syria in only three years. It will recover much faster and to a much more dangerous level from the far larger force it still has today, experts said.
According to counterterrorism experts, the slow-motion reduction of ISIS’s territory and strength initiated by President Obama gave the group plenty of time to plan and prepare for the next phase of the war. Islamic State had a plan to recover ready before the “caliphate” fell and has been executing it during the anti-ISIS campaign conducted by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and the US-led anti-ISIS Coalition.
They added, ISIS deliberately withdrew and relocated many of its fighters and their families from Mosul, Raqqa, and other important cities into new and old support zones in Iraq and Syria. ISIS’s forces are now dispersed across both countries and are waging a capable insurgency. ISIS retained a global finance network that funded its transition back to an insurgency and managed to preserve sufficient weapons and other supplies in tunnel systems and other support zones in order to equip its regenerated insurgent force.
Seeing the risk of the reemergence of ISIS notoriety, experts said the jihadist outfit began reconstituting key capabilities in late 2018 that will enable it to wage an even more aggressive militancy in coming months.
ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi asserted greater operational control over his forces in Iraq and Syria in June 2018 and is reconstituting command-and-control structures. ISIS is also reconstituting its capability to detonate waves of Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs) across Iraq and Syria – the signature of its early campaigns leading up to the conquest of Fallujah and Mosul in 2014. It has already detonated VBIEDs in liberated cities including Mosul and Raqqa. ISIS also resumed standardized media releases in July 2018, indicating that it has rebuilt key media capabilities.
One of the key reasons behind ISIS regaining control over the lost territory is because the areas it has lost in Iraq and Syria are still neither stable nor secure.
When the world is cheering the fall of ISIS, this notorious jihadist outfit has systematically eliminated village leaders and civilians who cooperated with anti-ISIS forces. Its goal is to weaken resistance and to fuel the population’s distrust of the Government of Iraq.
According to intelligence reports, ISIS has re-imposed taxes on local populations in its historical support zones, displacing civilians and de facto controlling small pockets of terrain in Iraq. In Syria, the jihadist outfit is waging a three-front militancy against the US-backed SDF, the regime of Syrian President Bashar-al-Assad, and Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Its campaign degrades governance structures and halts reconstruction efforts, contributing to the perpetuation of state failure and violence in the Syrian Civil War.
Commenting on the potential risk posed by the return of Islamic State, experts said, ISIS’s next breakout success could be even more devastating than its 2014 campaign. Its external provinces outside Iraq and Syria are contributing resources to its insurgency in those countries while giving the organization renewed global momentum.
ISIS declared the start of a new global campaign called the ‘Battle of Attrition’ on May 31, 2019. Its propaganda instructed its forces to seize terrain temporarily as a way to attrite their opponents. ISIS’s ability to campaign simultaneously abroad and in Iraq and Syria gives it new opportunities. Its successful reconstitution of a physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria would produce new waves of ISIS attacks in Europe and dangerously legitimize ISIS’s narrative of inevitable long-term victory.
ISIS will seek to re-establish territorial control in Iraq and in Syria. It will likely succeed if the U.S. withdraws. American support on the ground in Syria coheres disparate SDF elements that would almost certainly fracture if the U.S. leaves. The U.S. presence in Eastern Syria enables vital intelligence and air operations that could not be replaced if America withdrew. It also deters Turkey from invading northeastern Syria, which would at minimum cause the SDF to pull forces away from the Middle Euphrates River Valley to defend against Turkey in the north, creating even more space in which ISIS could re-emerge. A strong and capable SDF in eastern Syria is also necessary to prevent ISIS from using Syria as a base to fuel its campaign in Iraq.