Analysis: The Islamic State's push for a new caliphate

New reports suggest the terror group is recovering in Iraq and Syria; Khorasan Province is eyeing a new caliphate in Afghanistan.

A fighter of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) holds an ISIL flag and a weapon on a street in the city of Mosul June 23, 2014. (photo credit: REUTERS/STRINGER)
A fighter of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) holds an ISIL flag and a weapon on a street in the city of Mosul June 23, 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS/STRINGER)
According to findings by the Lead Inspector General of Operation Inherent Resolve, the United States-led military coalition against the Islamic State, the terror group is much larger than previously thought and still poses a significant threat. Citing Defense Department figures, the report pegs the total number of ISIS fighters in Iraq at up to 17,000, and 14,000 in Syria. A soon-to-be-released report by Republican lawmakers, portions of which were leaked to the media, not only corroborates these numbers but also claims that intelligence provided by US Central Command (CENTCOM) overstated the success of the anti-ISIS campaign.
Concurrently, a United Nations committee likewise found that ISIS has some 30,000 members in Iraq and Syria, a substantial base from which to potentially reconstitute a major force.
While ISIS as recently as 2015 held territory roughly the size of the United Kingdom, it now controls only pockets of land in non-contiguous areas primarily along the Iraq-Syria border. Nevertheless, the UN report noted, "despite the damage to [its] bureaucratic structures…the collective discipline of [ISIS] is intact…and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi remains in authority." The Islamic State, the authors continued, is transforming from a "proto-state" to a traditional "terrorist" network, not unlike al-Qaeda's metamorphosis after being decimated during the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan.
"In Iraq, ISIS has gone underground to blend in with the population. It has prepared infrastructure for this purpose and we see today that it is continuing with regular attacks," Dr. Ely Karmon, Senior Research Scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, explained to The Media Line. "In Syria, ISIS was recently ousted from the southwest by regime forces, but it is still active in the southeast along the Iraqi border. ISIS's main stronghold is in the northern Idlib Province, where many of its supporters were transported after surrendering in other places.
"Of crucial importance," he expounded, "is the lack of political solution for the Sunnis in Baghdad and Damascus; so long as this is the case there will be ongoing low-intensity terrorism."
Since the destruction of its Raqqa headquarters in 2014, ISIS has attempted to evade Inherent Resolve by setting up bases in other places, notably the Sinai Peninsula, Yemen and Libya. It officially launched operations in Afghanistan in early 2015, and within months Washington warned that the organization was "very focused on trying to establish [a] caliphate."
This past June, the top US air commander in Afghanistan revealed that ISIS-K—or Khorasan Province, as the South Asia branch is known—on two occasions this year attempted to create a state in the province of Nangarhar, straddling the border with Pakistan. US General Joseph Votel, the head of CENTCOM who is tasked with overseeing the war in Afghanistan, this week warned that the Pentagon is "concerned" that ISIS-K intends to perpetrate attacks in the West.
Notably, the University of Maryland's National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism earlier this month designated ISIS-K—which was listed separately from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—as one of the ten most lethal terrorist groups worldwide, having in 2017 carried out 197 attacks that killed 1,302 people. Overall, ISIS last year perpetrated 1,321 attacks resulting in 7,120 deaths.
That ISIS-K also is active in Pakistan poses a challenge for Washington, which, in order to effectively combat the group, will likely need to convince Islamabad to end its longstanding double-game of simultaneously harboring and fighting terrorists. Additionally, ISIS-K and the Taliban have for the most part stopped fighting each other in Afghanistan, a dynamic that previously weakened both organizations.
At the same time, the Taliban has upped its military operations against the US-supported Afghan army, even while dangling the prospect of direct talks in front of the White House.
In fact, the Taliban may be on the verge of dramatically expanding its territorial control following the launch of a surprise offensive targeting Ghanzi, located 110 kilometers (75 miles) southeast of Kabul. While Gen. Votel has stressed that US efforts towards “reconciliation” between the Afghan government and the Taliban are separate from the fight against Islamic State, there is an obvious connection between the two missions. Should the American military need to redirect resources to fend off a beefed-up Taliban insurgency, this will make it more difficult to simultaneously wage war against ISIS-K.
According to Dr. Aqahi Abdullah Heiwad Hawaid, former governor of Afghanistan's Gohr Province, "over the past three years, the Islamic State has been gaining ground almost everywhere in the country. The central government is busy contending with Taliban attacks," he elaborated to The Media Line, "so Kabul does not have enough time to focus on ISIS, even though it has more advanced weaponry.
"The way things are moving, ISIS will take over from the Taliban and start directing operations. This is the general feeling of the public and mine as a politician."
History appears to be repeating itself, with Afghanistan acting as fertile ground for a burgeoning terrorist organization. And whereas al-Qa'ida was largely foiled by a fresh American military with a clear-cut post-9/11 mission, nearly two decades later US President Donald Trump seems intent on bringing the troops home.
But given that Osama bin Laden's outfit is still kicking, as well as the Taliban, there is little reason to believe that ISIS, including its Afghan affiliate, is on its last legs. Consequently, the Islamic State, along with the rest of the world, is soon liable to find out exactly how much Inherent Resolve the US retains.
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