Early last year Donald Trump tweeted that ISIS had been defeated, the US had won the war and the caliphate was no more. At the time it seemed premature, to say the least, and so it has proved. At least three separate developments show ISIS is reforming and diversifying.
Over the past year one of these has been its entrenchment in Afghanistan, where it is establishing a permanent base in mountainous areas in the east of the country. As an earlier column pointed out, this has even served as a sufficiently secure base for the group to start planning attacks overseas.
Its local leadership has made a point of staging some of the worst bombing atrocities in supposedly secure parts of Kabul. The most recent example is last weekend’s bombing of a wedding party in the west of the city, in a district that is home to members of Shi’a Hazara minority, who ISIS regards as apostates. The location was close to the Darul Aman palace where President Ashraf Ghani was due to celebrate a national holiday two days afterwards and not far from where a bomb had exploded earlier in the month: then, fourteen people were killed and 145 injured as a police base was attacked.
ISIS now sees a further opportunity to expand its base in Afghanistan since Trump is determined to do a deal with the Taliban, declare victory and withdraw thousands of troops before his re-election bid. It sees a chance to peel off many of the more hard-line Taliban paramilitaries and begin the process of becoming the ‘true’ opposition in a post-American Afghanistan.
The second way in which ISIS has come back is in taking control of areas in West Africa, especially north-eastern Nigeria but with influence in many other parts of the Sahel. ISIS also has links with jihadist paramilitaries in North Africa, Yemen, Somalia and even the Philippines, but West Africa is currently the main area of expansion, almost to the extent of founding a mini-caliphate.
The western response has been to support local state forces while also engaging directly through the use of armed drones and special forces. The US and France are at the centre of this but other states, including the UK, are also involved. Even so, it is the third element of the ISIS comeback that may become the most significant: recent developments in Iraq and Syria.
This really has come as a surprise, given the sheer intensity of the ‘shadow’ air war that was fought against ISIS between 2014 and early 2018, killing tens of thousands of its followers. There certainly were indications that ISIS had gone to ground in both Iraq and Syria, still able to mount local attacks but rarely anything more substantial. Recent reports from the US and UN, though, now indicate that much more is happening in both states.
For one thing, the west hasn’t managed to cut off the money supply to ISIS. It looks like the organisation can still access around $400 million, either in safe locations in Iraq and Syria or in neighbouring countries. In northern Iraq it raises money by extorting payments from farmers under penalty of destroying crops, and it also has investments in markets ranging from car sales and fish farming to production of cannabis.
Furthermore, the ungoverned spaces that are so valuable to ISIS remain both in eastern Syria and across northern Iraq, with particularly useful territory in the border areas between the Kurdish regions of Iraq and those that the central government controls. And small ISIS units are operating much more widely, especially in Iraq. In the six months to the end of June, there were 139 attacks and 274 people killed in the Iraqi provinces of Nineveh, Salahuddin, Kirkuk, Diyala and Anbar. Many of these targeted government security forces and their bases, but most of the people killed were civilians.
And for all Trump’s talk of victory, no one thinks ISIS lacks soldiers. In the early months of the expansion of ISIS in 2013-14, US sources estimated its strength at between 20,000 and 30,000 paramilitaries, although Kurdish sources thought these were serious underestimates. Given that US Special Operations Command more recently put the ISIS casualties in the four-year war at 60,000, it now seems that the Kurdish assessment was more accurate. The key point here, though, is that US government sources now estimate ISIS strength in Iraq and Syria at 18,000, even if most are lying low.
How big could an ISIS comeback be? The main issue will be its ability to recruit followers – which is what it is doing among tens of thousands of people housed in displacement camps, especially in Syria.
The largest of these is a sprawling complex at Al Hol in north-east Syria where 70,000 people have gathered, many of them children and young adults. Some assistance is provided by the Red Cross and various other non-government groups, but the Syrian Kurdish forces running the complex are not able to provide much aid or security. Al Hol is, according to US sources quoted in The New York Times, “evolving into a hotbed of ISIS ideology and a huge breeding ground for terrorists”.
To this must be added the future of some 10,000 ISIS fighters in separate makeshift prisons. Beyond that is the impact on extended families and friends of the deaths of those 60,000 ISIS supporters killed in the coalition’s air war, and the likely legacy of anger and desire for revenge that it leaves across the region and beyond.
More than a year after Trump’s ‘victory’, it is becoming ever clearer that the movement is transforming itself at a much faster rate than expected, even as the US president seeks to bring the troops back from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. In the short term he may win some political advantage, and it might even help his re-election bid, but the reality is that we are actually in a relative lull in a very long conflict, even if western leaders remain convinced that military power has been the right answer, even after 19 years of failure.