ISIS just as dangerous two years after defeat, Kurds warn

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces in the village of Baghouz in Syria's eastern Deir Ezzor province near the Iraqi border on March 24, 2019.
Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces in the village of Baghouz in Syria's eastern Deir Ezzor province near the Iraqi border on March 24, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

AL-OMAR, SYRIA (AFP) - Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forces remain as dangerous today as when they were ousted from their last Syrian bastion two years ago, Kurdish forces warned on Tuesday (March 23) as they marked the anniversary.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said counter-terrorism efforts today were "more difficult than face-to-face fighting with IS jihadists, and are considered more dangerous", using an alternative acronym for ISIS in a statement to mark their victory in March 2019.

"The fall of the last patch of IS territory in north-east Syria does not mean complete defeat," the SDF added.

On Tuesday, the Kurdish authorities, local tribal leaders and members of the US-led coalition who pushed ISIS from their Syrian stronghold, marked the anniversary with a military parade in the US-protected Al-Omar oil field in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor.

The ISIS defeat in the eastern riverside hamlet of Baghouz marked the end of a cross-border "caliphate" declared in 2014 across swathes of Iraq and Syria.

But two years on, ISIS has shown that it does not need a stronghold to pose a potent threat, with the militants carrying out regular attacks and ambushes, including setting off roadside bombs and machine-gunning vehicles.

They are also feared to be recruiting fresh fighters, including among tens of thousands of suspected ISIS relatives detained in overcrowded displacement camps.

"We are currently at the most difficult stage of our counter-terrorism efforts," the SDF added.

'Most difficult stage'

ISIS retains some 10,000 active fighters in both Syria and Iraq, although the majority are reported to be in Iraq, the United Nations said in a recent report.

Syria's vast desert near the Iraqi border has emerged as a key "safe haven" for ISIS operatives and a springboard for attacks, the UN said.

The ISIS group is "building and retaining a cellular structure which allows it to carry out terrorist attacks", General Kenneth McKenzie, head of the US Central Command that oversees troops deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, said last month.

At Al-Omar, SDF banners were raised to mark the anniversary, alongside posters carrying pictures of fighters killed during the years-long battle against terrorists.

Fighters in fatigues marched in a show of strength.

"In the spirit of the liberation of Baghouz... we will liberate all our lands," one poster read, referring to the village where ISIS made its last stand.

Kurdish fighters joined ranks with Arab forces to form the US-backed SDF alliance in 2015.

They would go on to oust ISIS from key areas, including the extremists' de facto capital Raqqa in 2017.

In October 2019, a US strike on Syria killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and several other prominent figures.

But Baghdadi's successor, Mohammed Said Abd al-Rahman al-Mawla, has been able to direct and inspire new attacks.

Danger 'lives on'

The tens of thousands of extremists in Kurdish jails and suspected ISIS relatives held in displacement camps have emerged as an extremist powder keg.

Syria's Kurds hold nearly 43,000 foreigners with links to the terror group in jails and informal displacement camps, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.

They include 27,500 children, at least 300 of whom are in squalid prisons, while the rest are kept in rehabilitation centres or locked camps, HRW said.

Repeated calls for Western countries to repatriate their nationals have largely fallen on deaf ears, with just a handful of children and a few women being brought home.

"Men, women, and children from around the world are entering a third year of unlawful detention in life-threatening conditions... while their governments look the other way," HRW's Ms Letta Tayler said.

The SDF reiterated calls on Tuesday for countries to boost repatriation efforts and establish international tribunals to prosecute those in detention accused of being terrorists.

Most suspected ISIS relatives are being kept in the Al Hol camp, the largest of the settlements controlled by Kurdish authorities.

Al Hol holds almost 62,000 people, mostly women and children, including Syrians, Iraqis and thousands from Europe and Asia accused of family ties with ISIS fighters.

Some detainees see the camp as the last vestige of the cross-border "caliphate".

"The danger of the IS group lives on in the thousands of prisoners held in jails as well as... their relatives detained in camps," the SDF added.

In a report published last month, the UN said it had documented instances of "radicalisation, fund-raising, training and incitement of external operations" at Al Hol.

It also warned of the fate of around 7,000 children living in a special annex designated for foreign ISIS relatives.

They are "being groomed as future ISIL operatives", the UN said, using a different acronym for the ISIS group.