Is ISIS planning a comeback? Latest fighting shows it may be on the ropes

Pentagon IG: US withdrawal has enabled ISIS to strengthen its ability to plan attacks abroad.

AN ISIS member rides on a rocket launcher in Raqqa in Syria two months ago (photo credit: REUTERS)
AN ISIS member rides on a rocket launcher in Raqqa in Syria two months ago
(photo credit: REUTERS)
“If everyone is thinking alike, then someone isn’t thinking,” is a saying attributed to the US general George Patton. Today there is consensus among many experts and commentators, as well as intelligence officials from Washington to Baghdad, that ISIS continues to pose a threat and wants to rebuild to create a resurgence.
The head of Iraq’s military intelligence spoke to CNN this week asserting that ISIS figures in Turkey were planning that resurgence and that they have access to financial resources.
ISIS wants to break its prisoners out of jail, a replay of al-Qaeda’s 2012-2013 “breaking the walls” campaign that released many extremists. Those prison breaks helped fuel ISIS.
ISIS told its fighters to flee to the desert or surrender in March 2019 during the last battles for land it held in Syria. It was confronted by the 81-member Coalition and couldn’t hold on. So thousands of fighters either melted away or surrendered. Tens of thousands of ISIS-supporting women also surrendered. They pose a threat at the Al-Hol camp in Syria.
Now, the Pentagon’s Inspector-General has also said that the US withdrawal from parts of Syria has enabled ISIS to “reconstitute capabilities and resources within Syria and strengthen its ability to plan attacks abroad.” The Defense Intelligence Agency agrees.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies also put out a video on Tuesday arguing that the conditions in Syria and Iraq, including weak governance, could provide ISIS the ability to launch a new wave of attacks.
Could there be a “jihadist wave,” as CSIS alleges? The overall picture is that ISIS sleeper cells are not able to carry out many attacks over the huge area of land stretching from Syria to Iraq. However, there are daily raids against ISIS by the Iraqi Security Forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces. They sometimes kill ISIS members, but more often they find weapons and munitions.
ISIS is hard to find. It moves in small groups and its members hide in tunnels and caves. The US has carried out more and more rare airstrikes against the group, illustrating that the few members of ISIS that pop their heads out are being shut down. The airstrikes tend to target not even ISIS members but “bed-down” locations, and tunnels. In one case, the US bombed an entire island in Iraq. But the bombing looked more like a show of what the ordnance could do than a reflection of an ISIS resurgence.
ISIS has not been able to carry out large scale attacks around the world, and its attacks in Iraq and Syria have been generally those of sleeper cells or low level insurgency. US drone strikes on ISIS cells in Libya have proven the point. According to The New York Times on November 18, numerous attacks killed 43 ISIS members, around one-third of the group’s strength in the country.
The Pentagon’s Africa Command is confident they’ve got their heads around the enemy. But ISIS and other groups linked to al-Qaeda can still cause damage. In Mali around 53 soldiers were killed two weeks ago in a battle near the border with Niger. Egypt also says it killed 83 ISIS members in Sinai in October.
In Afghanistan, where ISIS seemed to be rising a year ago, its back has been broken, officials say. On Tuesday hundreds of ISIS members reportedly surrendered. These were 243 of the roughly 2,000 fighters. Their families are also coming in from the cold, Nangarhar province leaders say.
In the Philippines, ISIS is still recruiting. In the city of Marawi, which ISIS tried to take over in 2017, more than 100,000 people still have not returned. According to reports ISIS is trying to recruit among the destitute. The army has also upped its game with new drones and other types of surveillance. It remains to be seen if ISIS can recover from its losses in 2017, including around 1,000 fighters. It hasn’t been able to mount serious attacks this year.
Although analysts and intelligence officials fear a resurgence, the reality may be that ISIS is on the back foot in a variety of locations. Lacking its leader, killed by the US raid in October, and lacking some of the other senior commanders, its local affiliates are struggling. Each affiliate needs to fight its own private war relying more on locals than the 50,000 foreign fighters who once flocked to join. Nevertheless people are still swearing allegiance to the group.
Morocco swept up two suspects this week. On November 6 reports indicated ISIS members struck a Tajikistan border post near the Uzbekistan and Afghanistan borders. Two Tajik personnel were killed and fifteen ISIS fighters. However, in the heartland of where the “caliphate” once ruled in Iraq and Syria, the 15,000 ISIS fighters still estimated to be in Iraq and Syria have gone into ground and are wary of sticking their heads up.