It all seemed clear on 6 October, at least to Donald Trump: ISIS had been defeated; he could ‘bring the boys home’ from Syria. Only a few weeks later, however, his own Defense Intelligence Agency is disagreeing with him.
These government analysts, who work for the Department of Defense, this week reported that the US withdrawal from Syria gives ISIS time and space to regroup. Then ISIS could start attacking targets in the West again. As the US military journal Military Times puts it, ISIS is “likely to exploit the reduction in counterterrorism pressure to reconstitute its operations in Syria and expand its ability to conduct transnational attacks”.
What part will the Kurds play? There is the accusation that Trump has betrayed the Syrian Kurds, who lost at least 10,000 people in their war with the common enemy of ISIS. Although the US forces in northern Syria were small, their presence deterred Turkish moves against the Kurds. Now they have left, Turkey has sent forces across the border and the Russians have quickly established a helicopter base at an airport south-west of the Kurdish-controlled city of Qamishli on the Turkish border. Assad, meanwhile, has been able to move his own forces closer to the Kurdish region. Because of this the Defense Intelligence Agency assesses that the Kurdish-linked Syrian Democratic Forces will prioritise defending their own people against the Turks and Assad’s forces, greatly limiting their support for any action against ISIS.
The agency also argues that the death of the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, four weeks ago will not hinder the group. After all, al-Qaida was not destroyed when the US killed its leader, Osama bin Laden, in 2011: within a year what was to become ISIS grew out of its predecessor, al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI). In both cases the leaders were certainly still significant – more so bin Laden – but both had lived in isolation, leaving commanders on the ground in effective control.
After the caliphate
Since the loss of the geographical caliphate in northern Syria and Iraq, ISIS has had important successes elsewhere. It has growing influence in the Sahel region of the southern Sahara, where, it actually controls territory in northern Nigeria and has established what amounts to a proto-caliphate.
Something similar has happened in eastern Afghanistan, where ISIS is busiest in four provinces – Nangarhar, Nuristan, Kunar and Laghman – with the high-altitude zones of Kunar especially well controlled. As I wrote in June, the view from Moscow is that this province will be at the centre of a ‘launch pad’ for international activities, much as south-eastern Afghanistan was for al-Qaida in the run-up to 9/11.
The much wider Taliban movement in Afghanistan controls much of the country away from the cities and larger towns, but it is primarily nationalist; ISIS, which calls Afghanistan its Khorasan Province, looks outwards. For that reason, US security analysts see recent major bombing attacks in Kabul as practice for working in the world of the ‘far enemy’ – western Europe and the US.
This takes us back to Syria, where events are unfolding as ISIS in Iraq continues with frequent attacks on government forces. ISIS is also aided by the release of thousands of its supporters, including hardened paramilitaries, from detention centres in Kurdish-controlled Syria. As an earlier column in this series reported, this mirrors the experience of the rise of ISIS in 2012-13, when so much of its new strength came from thousands of AQI paramilitaries who were broken out of Iraqi prisons in the infamous ‘Breaking the Walls’ project.
In addition to the ISIS-linked detainees, which include hundreds of children, Turkey itself is reported to be holding over 2,200 ISIS members from thirty countries, with at least 1,100 from western states. It has begun deporting them to their countries of origin: last week it returned a family of seven to Germany, where the father was detained, and the rest of the family allowed to return home. Last Thursday a 26-year-old man was arrested at Heathrow having arrived from Turkey.
Turkey’s actions may be part of a diplomatic campaign to press EU states for support: the country is hosting as many as 3 million refugees from Syria and Iraq. But it sharpens the question of whether a resurrected ISIS will prioritise actions in western countries.
There is an argument for caution: like any other security or intelligence agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency is a bureaucracy that depends for a healthy budget on identifying a need for its work, which creates the risk of exaggerating threats. A wider view of the evolution of ISIS, however, does suggest that attacking the ‘far enemy’ will indeed be an attractive route to take.
When Baghdadi announced the creation of the ISIS caliphate in the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul on 29 June 2014, it was quickly clear that the priority for the group was the expansion of the caliphate. Attacking the far enemy was much less interesting. That approach persisted for the best part of a year until the intense US-led air war against ISIS began to have its effect. It was only then that attacks came in France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, the UK and elsewhere.
The new line from ISIS has two elements. One is to present the short-lived caliphate as an example of what could be done against the world’s most powerful military machine, this symbolic success being a clear indication of what, it will assert, will surely come again. The second element follows directly from this: the requirement to show ISIS’s potential for attacking the West. This, too, would be a symbol of potential power, as well as increasing social divisions in the countries attacked.
If this is a correct assessment, and it certainly fits in with the ISIS narrative over the past five years, then the manner in which Trump has conducted his chaotic foreign posturing will not only prove the point that ISIS is still there, but it will mean that US allies in Europe will experience the consequences first-hand.