ISIS defeated: Does the militant group still pose a threat?

A Syrian flag flutters next to the Islamic State's slogan at a roundabout where executions were carried out by ISIS militants, in the city of Palmyra.
A Syrian flag flutters next to the Islamic State's slogan at a roundabout where executions were carried out by ISIS militants, in the city of Palmyra.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIRUT (REUTERS) - US-backed fighters say they have captured the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) last shred of ground in eastern Syria - but while its era of territorial rule may be over for now, there is near universal agreement that ISIS remains a threat.

1. WHAT HAS ITS TERRITORIAL DEFEAT ACCOMPLISHED?

ISIS's possession of land in Iraq and Syria set it apart from other like-minded groups such as Al-Qaeda and became central to its mission when it declared a caliphate in 2014, claiming sovereignty over all Muslim lands and peoples.

The destruction of the quasi-state it built there has denied the group its most potent propaganda and recruiting tool as well as a logistical base from which it could train fighters and plan coordinated attacks overseas.

It also freed its former subjects from summary executions and draconian punishment for breaking its strict laws or, for some minorities, sexual slavery and slaughter.

Warfare wiped out thousands of its fighters. And, financially, its defeat deprives it of greater resources than any modern Islamist movement has enjoyed, including taxes on its inhabitants and the proceeds of oil sales.

2. WHAT THREAT DOES ISIS STILL POSE IN IRAQ AND SYRIA?

In its previous guise as an Al-Qaeda offshoot in Iraq a decade ago, ISIS navigated adversity by going underground, biding its time to rise suddenly again.

Since suffering devastating territorial losses in 2017, ISIS has steadily turned again to such tactics. Sleeper cells in Iraq have staged a scatter-gun campaign of kidnappings and killings to undermine the Baghdad government.

 
 

The group has also carried out many bombings in north-east Syria, which is controlled by US-backed Kurdish forces, including one that killed four Americans in January. Kurdish and US officials say it remains a menace there.

In Syria, ISIS fighters still have a presence in sparsely populated territory west of the Euphrates River in an area otherwise held by the Syrian government.

The US Pentagon's internal watchdog released a report last month saying ISIS was regenerating functions and capabilities more quickly in Iraq than Syria.

"Absent sustained (counter-terrorism) pressure, ISIS could likely resurface in Syria within six to 12 months and regain limited territory," the report said.

3. WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO ITS LEADERS, FIGHTERS AND FOLLOWERS?

The fate of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi remains a mystery.

The US government's top experts strongly believe he is alive and possibly hiding in Iraq, US sources recently said. Other top-echelon leaders have been killed in air strikes.

Thousands of ISIS insurgents and civilian followers have also been killed and thousands more captured. An unknown number remain at large in both Syria and Iraq.

Iraq is putting on trial, imprisoning and often executing ISIS detainees. The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) holds many hundreds of ISIS fighters and followers, but the numbers have ballooned as the SDF advanced into the area near Baghuz.

The SDF said over the past two months, more than 60,000 people have left the Baghuz enclave, including 29,000 surrendering ISIS supporters, 5,000 of whom were fighters.

Many low-level local operatives have been released in Syria.

The SDF complains that Western states are reluctant to take back the foreign fighters, who are widely seen as a security threat at home, but who might be hard to legally prosecute.

4. CAN IT STILL ORGANISE OR INSPIRE ATTACKS OVERSEAS?

As ISIS clung to its last scrap of land, the head of Britain's spy agency MI6 warned that the group would return to "asymmetric" attacks.

 
 

Even after it began losing ground militarily, ISIS still claimed responsibility for attacks made in different countries, though often these have been blamed on "lone wolves" without its direction.

It started years ago to call on followers abroad to plan their own attacks, rather than focusing purely on ones staged by trained operatives supported by the group's hierarchy.

In early 2018, the head of US military central command said ISIS was resilient and remained capable of "inspiring attacks throughout the region and outside of the Middle East".

5. WHAT DOES ITS FALL MEAN FOR THE FUTURE OF GLOBAL ISLAMIC EXTREMISM?

Although ISIS's core territory was in Iraq and Syria, Islamists fighting in other countries, notably Nigeria, Yemen and Afghanistan, pledged their allegiance to it.

Whether those groups will still wear its mantle, especially if Baghdadi is captured or killed, is an open question, but there seems little chance they will soon end their campaigns.

Al-Qaeda also retains numerous franchises around the world, and other militant Islamist groups operate in countries where normal governance has broken down.

Islamist ideology has long proven itself able to mutate as circumstances change, and there is no shortage of warfare, injustice, oppression, poverty, sectarianism and naked religious hatred for Islamist militants to exploit.