Vijaya Laxmi Tripura
Islamic State (ISIS) has already established a global finance network and is anticipated of returning in a much bigger way thus posing the gravest threat to the international community. According to a report by Jeff Seldin in the Voice of America on June 26, 2019 The Islamic State terror group has set conditions for a comeback that “could be faster and even more devastating” than when it first burst onto the world stage
ISIS’s Second Comeback: Assessing the Next ISIS Insurgency, by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW), also warns the terror group, often referred to as IS or ISIS, is likely to reclaim territory both in Syria and in Iraq, where it is already seizing control.
“ISIS has systematically eliminated village leaders and civilians who cooperated with anti-ISIS forces,” the report says. “It 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, IS faces a more daunting task, where it is still battling the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad, and Hay’at Tharir al-Sham, al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate.
Still, the report’s authors believe IS is well-prepared for the fight, having taken advantage of the slow and methodical U.S.-backed campaign to roll back the terror group’s self-declared caliphate.
“ISIS deliberately withdrew and relocated many of its fighters and their families,” the reports states.
“ISIS’s forces are now dispersed across both countries and are waging a capable insurgency,” it says. “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.”
The concerns about a possible ISIS resurgence are not new.
As far back as August 2018, U.S. defense officials were warning IS was “well-positioned to rebuild and work on enabling its physical caliphate to re-emerge.”
More recently, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Stabilization Denise Natali warned, “the threat persists.”
And even this week, a statement by the Global Coalition to Defeat IS, admitted the terror group remains both resilient and undaunted, with cells in Syria and Iraq to conduct an increasing number of attacks against coalition partners and coalition partner forces.
“This is a major concern for the entire Coalition, as it puts at risk key military gains and the stability necessary for recovery,” the statement said.
Data compiled by the Syrian-based Rojava Information Center and published earlier this month seems to support such concerns.
The center found there were 139 attacks by IS sleeper cells in northeastern Syria alone in May, an increase of 61% over the previous month. The number of deaths also rose, 42% in May to 78, with increases even in previously secure areas.
In addition to the attacks, IS has been blamed for burning hundreds of hectares of farmland in Syria and Iraq.
According to the most recent U.S. estimates, IS still commands at least 10,000 fighters across the two countries. But despite the threat, U.S. troops involved in supporting the fight against IS have been leaving Syria.
“The number of U.S. forces that are present now is quite a bit lower than when the drawdown began,” Chris Maier, the director of the Pentagon’s Defeat IS Task Force, told a small group of reporters last month.
“U.S. force numbers will continue to draw down as conditions continue to, we hope, improve,” he added.
Since then, some U.S. forces have been assigned to return to Syria, but according to U.S. defense officials, their primary mission is to protect forces there from growing threats from Iranian proxies in the region.
The overall trendlines, though, concern the authors of the ISW report, calling the lessening U.S. engagement, especially in Syria, “a critical mistake.”
Instead, the report calls on the U.S. to develop a long-term strategy that combines both military and a plan to address ongoing economic and humanitarian problems.
“Another limited intervention will not be sufficient,” concludes study co-author Jennifer Cafarella.
“The ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria has demonstrated to ostensibly liberated communities that they are not safe, perpetuating conditions of fear and distrust that will make it increasingly difficult to establish durable and legitimate security and political structures.”
The real size of ISIS
Getting a handle on the scope of Islamic State’s might and resources has long been a challenge for Western military and intelligence agencies.
To date, the U.S.-led coalition has carried out about 24,000 airstrikes, killing close to 70,000 IS fighters, according to some U.S. military officials.
“That is more than two times the original high-end estimate, and more than three times the original low-end estimate [of IS fighters],” Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told VOA. “It would be impossible for any fighting organization to maintain its cohesion while replacing its entire force structure.”
Yet, if any of the estimates are right, it appears IS has managed to do just that, thanks in part to an influx of upward of 40,000 so-called foreign fighters from more than 40 countries.
Many of those foreign fighters are thought to have been killed, and intelligence officials say the flow of jihadists into Iraq and Syria has been slowed to a trickle, at most.
“The fighters that do remain, they’d be pretty seasoned at this point,” a counterterrorism official told VOA, adding that tracking them, especially in war-torn Syria, is difficult at best.
Others are holed up in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, near Hajin, where U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are preparing for a final assault.
“I’m not going to speculate on the numbers,” British Army Maj. Gen. Felix Gedney, the coalition’s deputy commander for strategy and support, told Pentagon reporters during a video briefing.
“There’s over a thousand we know of,” he added. “We’ll find out when we get there, and we will deal with them all.”
More still would seem to be out of reach for the United States and its coalition partners.
The latest U.S. military intelligence estimate says the vast majority of IS fighters in Syria, between 8,000 and 9,000 are in regions controlled by Syrian government forces or their Russian or Iranian allies.
The terror group’s finances, while not what they once were, also appear to be in good enough shape.
“Its financial reserves have declined but not dried up,” according to the U.N. report released earlier this week. “One Member State estimates its total reserves to be in the low hundreds of millions of United States dollars.”
The report said IS continues to make money from extortion, kidnapping and taxes, and from oil, having taken advantage of a slowdown in fighting earlier this year to regain access to oil fields in northeastern Syria.
Smuggling routes are also active, despite efforts by coalition partners to crack down.
Just this past week, partner forces captured seven smugglers trying to move five IS fighters in the At-Tanf area of Syria, the coalition said. Last month, 25 Islamic State fighters were captured in the same area.
Sweeps across liberated parts of Iraq also continue to turn up IS fighters by the dozens.
“The ISIS problem is far from over,” said coalition spokesman Col. Sean Ryan.
“We cannot emphasize enough that the threat of losing the gains we have made is real, especially if we are not able to give the people a viable alternative to the ISIS problem,” he warned.