Two years after defeat, IS just as dangerous, Kurds warn

Al-Omar, Syria: Islamic State forces remain as dangerous today as when they were ousted from their last Syrian bastion two years ago, Kurdish forces warned Tuesday 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," in a statement to mark their victory in March 2019.

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

On Tuesday, Kurdish authorities, local tribal leaders, and members of the US-led coalition who pushed IS 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 IS defeat in the eastern riverside hamlet of Baghouz marked the end of a cross-border "caliphate" declared in 2014 across swaths of Iraq and Syria.

But two years on, IS has shown that it does not need a stronghold to pose a potent threat, with the jihadists 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 IS 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'

IS 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 IS operatives and a springboard for attacks, the UN said.

The IS 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 jihadists.

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 IS 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 IS from key areas, including the jihadists' de facto capital Raqa in 2017.

In October 2019, a US strike on Syria killed IS 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 jihadists in Kurdish jails and suspected IS relatives held in displacement camps have emerged as an extremist powder keg.

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

They include 27,500 children, at least 300 of whom are in squalid prisons, while the rest are kept in rehabilitation centers 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 the third year of unlawful detention in life-threatening conditions...while their governments look the other way," HRW's Letta Tayler said.

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

Most suspected IS 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 IS 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 "radicalization, fundraising, 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 IS relatives.

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

'Caliphate' or not, Islamic State expands its reach

In the two years since Kurdish forces wrested away from the Islamic State's last Syrian bastion, the jihadist group has proved it does not need a stronghold to pose a potent threat in more countries than ever.

At their apogee, the extremists controlled a territory the size of Britain covering large swaths of Syria and Iraq, where it waged one of the most brutal campaigns of systematic terror in modern history.

Its defeat on March 23, 2019, was, it turns out, far from definitive, with the group managing to maintain its cohesion despite the dispersal of its leadership.

It has also continued to claim scores of deadly attacks far beyond its original base while taking advantage of the vast deserts of war-scarred Syria to target forces loyal to the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad.

"It has for the time being gone to ground, but with the goals of maintaining its insurgency in Iraq and Syria and a global cyber-presence," General Kenneth McKenzie, head of the US Central Command that oversees troops deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, said last month.

At the same time, the group is "building and retaining a cellular structure which allows it to carry out terrorist attacks," he said.

Shortly afterward, France requested a meeting of the coalition partners who teamed up with Kurdish forces to drive out the insurgency, warning of a "strong resurgence of Daesh," an Arabic acronym for the group.

The worries are well-founded, analysts say.

Between the fall of IS' eastern Syria holdout of Baghouz and last month, the group has claimed responsibility for 5,665 military operations -- an average of eight per day -- according to a widely followed terrorism expert who publishes on Twitter as "Mister__Q_".

And Syria and Iraq are still subjected to IS attacks, like the one when twin suicide bombers struck Baghdad in January, killing more than 30 people at a market.

New goals?

The group's gruesome propaganda videos of prisoner beheadings, immolations and other atrocities, which drew scores of foreign fighters to its "caliphate," have also resonated beyond the Middle East.

IS fighters are now active in 30 countries ranging from Egypt, Mali, and Mozambique to the Caucasus and Southeast Asia.

Even the death of its chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during a raid by US forces in October 2019 had only a limited impact, with its new leader Mohammed Said Abd al-Rahman al-Mawla still able to direct and inspire attacks by its far-flung affiliates.

Al-Mawla's aims may still be uncertain, but the deadly potential of the group's decentralized command structure remains intact.

"Taking out ISIS leaders is still of value to the international coalition, particularly in terms of intelligence, but it's not going to remove ISIS from the battlefield," said Charles Lister, a counter-terrorism expert at the Middle East Institute.

And no matter where it operates, the tactics are the same. "First it exploits a state's instability by hounding its armed forces in a kind of war of attrition," the analyst known as Mister__Q_ told AFP.

"It then forces its rivals to flee the territory, and sets itself up as a guarantee of security for the local population," he said.

The third phase of setting up an administrative "caliphate" comes later -- though many analysts now believe the Islamic State does not actually want or need it.

"The idea that the caliphate ended when the international coalition re-took territory in Iraq and Syria is a Western conception mostly alien to ISIS itself, especially given its expansion internationally," Lister said.

"In the minds of its members and supporters, it still exists today," he said.

'The caliph'

Tore Hamming, a researcher at the King's College Department of War Studies in London, agreed that the Islamic State's ability to quickly shift tactics poses a huge challenge to nations hoping to stop it from taking root.

"I don't think the group would agree that the caliphate ended," he said. "After all, their leader is still entitled 'the caliph'."

Looking ahead, officials warn that IS leaders will focus on recruiting the huge numbers of young people whose lives have been upended by the years of sectarian conflict in the Middle East and West Africa in particular.

The US estimates for example that 62,000 suspected relatives of IS fighters are held at the squalid al-Hol camp in Syria. Two-thirds of them are younger than 18 years old, and half under 12.

For them, the group's notorious black flag could be a powerful magnet after a life steeped in misery, violence, religious fanaticism, and hatred of the West.

"The longer-term risk is the systemic indoctrination of this population to ISIS's ideology," McKenzie said in February.

"Failing to address this now means ISIS will never be truly defeated," he added.

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