June 18, 2020

ISIS: Resilient on Sixth Anniversary

Originally published in The Islamists

The post-caliphate insurgency was foreshadowed in “The Jihadi Threat,” a report by 20 experts published by the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in 2016-17. On ISIS’s six anniversary, the authors again assessed the ISIS threat to the Middle East and the wider world in 2020. Their compiled commentary is available here.

The surge of attacks by Islamic State militants in Iraq—now widely reported—displays a quiet return of a group that six years ago threatened Iraq’s capital and the integrity of the state. The group’s resurgence in Iraq may not follow the path charted in the lead-up to the acme of its power in 2014 and 2015. Similarly, how the group reasserts itself in neighboring Syria will take a different course. A distinction must be made, however, between the strength of the Islamic State—the transnational network under Abu Ibrahim al Hashimi al Qurayshi—and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—the regional group. Conflating the two makes the same mistake as assessing al Qaeda’s strength and threat from its fortunes in Afghanistan-Pakistan. 

ISIS poses a growing threat to U.S. partners in Iraq and Syria, including the Iraqi government and security forces and the Syrian Defense Forces. It will seize opportunities created by the U.S. troop reduction in Iraq to reestablish itself further though it has a long way to rebuild before it can control terrain as it once did. ISIS may provide a vector to vet foreign recruits for high-profile attacks, but the foreign fighter flow has largely tapered off. Certainly, an ISIS comeback bolsters the Islamic State globally and has an outsized impact on perceptions of the Islamic State. The cadre of Islamic State leaders hiding in Iraq and Syria very likely relies on the ISIS network for some of its security.

The Islamic State’s threat to the West remains very real. That threat remained high even after the territorial defeat of ISIS in Baghouz, Syria, in March 2019 and the death of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in October 2019. Islamic State groups outside of Iraq and Syria, especially in Africa, have been thriving. German police arrested five individuals were plotting attacks against U.S. air force bases in Germany on terror charges in April 2020. The cell had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and were in touch with senior operatives. Stamping out the Islamic State and its ability to inspire terror attacks require more than pressure on ISIS or individual branches, a lesson the U.S. should have learned from its approach to fighting al Qaeda.