It appeared to some to be the end of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) a month ago. That was when its last territorial holding in southeastern Syria, the town of Baghouz, was captured by largely Kurdish units of the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition forces. A network of underground tunnels where ISIS fighters were hiding in that town was cleared March 23. Was this the final phase of a four-year military campaign to defeat ISIS? If so, it might count as one of the greatest military and public diplomacy triumphs of 2019.
As Agence France Press reporter Tony Gamal Gabriel reported: “The ISIS black flag once flew over a chunk of the Middle East (Syria and Iraq) larger than Britain. But today, the Islamic State’s sinister black flag lay crumpled in the dust of its final bastion.”
Coalition forces cleared the last ISIS fighters from a maze of tunnels under Baghouz and transferred them and their families to a makeshift refugee camp in northeastern Syria. Overnight, the population of a displacement camp at Al Hol, northeastern Syria, grew from about 10,000 to 70,000 residents.
But the notion that the struggle was over soon was shattered at Al Hol. As Washington Post reporter Erin Cunningham reported from the scene: “A militant band of women loyal to the Islamic State is terrorizing others who fled the battlefront for this sprawling camp, demanding that they adhere to the strict codes once enforced by ISIS and creating a vexing problem for the Kurdish-led forces controlling the site.”
As a Kurdish official responsible for displaced people in Syria explained: “What we did is we took Baghouz and brought it here.” He added: “When people began to arrive at the camp from Baghouz, the atmosphere changed 180 degrees. Before that,” when the camp housed a few thousand Syrians and Iraqis, “women weren’t covering their faces. Now, you can’t see a girl older than eight without a veil.”
The militant women, according to correspondent Cunningham, have targeted health staff and aid workers, calling them “infidels.” Some women have used the sharp edges of tuna cans to cut into tents and attack others, including those who have expressed regret about joining the caliphate… Camp officials worry that the squalid encampment,” the Post reporter added, “could become a breeding ground for further extremism.” Summing it all up, a Post headline said: “Camp’s ISIS Loyalists Target ‘Impious’ Residents.”
The Odds for the Remnants of ISIS in the Future
Writing for the highly-regarded Gulf 2000 website, analyst Orrin Schwab quoted several ISIS loyalist women as having recently received orders from still-at-large ISIS commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to surrender. Mr. Schwab says ISIS is likely to exploit its displacement “to infiltrate, destabilize and recruit from the camps in order to create opportunities for its resurgence.” He attributes recent attacks and two unsuccessful assassination attempts in northern Syria against Syrian Defense Forces military leaders to ISIS operators.
The Middle East Institute’s Hugo Kaaman in a report this month cautions about the possible use of Suicide Vehicle-Born Improvised Explosive Devices, or SVBIEDs — still languishing in various garages and parking lots in Iraq and Syria — to re-ignite ISIS-designed local conflicts. According to Mr. Kaaman: “Advanced SVBIED designs have been distributed to many provinces in Syria and Iraq once occupied by ISIS, but also globally to cities and towns in Nigeria and the Philippines.” Any kind of vehicle can be used, including a car, truck, and bus laden with a hidden powerful bomb or explosive device. Vehicles can be parked locally in packed urban areas and remotely set off.
Orrin Schwab reports that in Iraq, ISIS continues to expand its nascent networks in Iraqi Kurdistan and may yet connect them to what he calls “its resurgent footprint in Kirkuk and Dyala provinces.” Also troubling: the possibility that ISIS is training or inspiring inactive far-flung terrorist groups as well.
The Easter Sunday attacks on churches in Sri Lanka may be an example. Two days later, ISIS claimed responsibility for an assault on more than a half dozen towns and cities in the Indian Ocean island republic, which had been free of violence since a ceasefire ending its civil war a decade ago. Several of the terrorist attacks occurred within minutes of each other in scattered locations. That was unprecedented in Sri Lanka, and replicated ISIS techniques used earlier in Iraq and Syria. Officials in Colombo said that all seven arrested terrorists were Sri Lanka citizens.
The death toll was horrendous: well more than 200 casualties and hundreds of people wounded. “It doesn’t make sense,” said C. Christine Fair, a George Washington University expert on South Asia terrorism. The government had charged the arrested terrorists, part of two obscure opposition movements, Thowheed Jamaath and Jamiyathul Millathu Ibrahim, for carrying out the bombings. Neither group had previously attacked churches. “It’s far more likely,” Dr. Fair added, “that an outside group such as the Islamic State was involved in some way.”
The issue: how can the West and its allies around the globe, pinpoint remnants of ISIS and like-minded elements, wherever they may exist, and coordinate efforts to try to halt continuing terrorist assaults against innocent civilians? The combined military and public diplomacy challenge is formidable.
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius recently moderated a United States Peace Institute panel week focusing on a USIP study entitled “Preventing Extremism in Fragile States: A New Approach.” The report noted that since 2001, the war on terrorism has cost 10,000 American lives, injured 50,000 others and cost the U.S. an estimated $5.9 trillion. “Hideously,” Ignatius says, “there are signs the Sri Lankan church bombings may have been an act of revenge for a lone terrorist’s bombing last month that killed 50 people in two New
“What’s the alternative?” Ignatius asks in his April 24 Post column. The new approach outlined in the Institute’s study is “about building governance and economic development, rather than night raids by Special Operations forces… Policymakers in the United States and allied countries understand intellectually that a safe and stable world requires reasonable governance, a public belief that some sort of rough justice prevails and enough jobs that adolescent men aren’t tempted to join terrorist groups.
“We’re not talking here about imposing democracy or making the Middle East or Africa look like Switzerland,” Ignatius concludes.“We’re talking (about) the basics — food, water, access to justice, good-enough governance.”
As former Secretary of State Colin Powell once put it: “A dream doesn’t become reality
through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work.”
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More