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US Backed Forces Fight to Seize Remaining IS Enclave in Syria

IS online communication and propaganda over the years has declined as the group lost territory in Iraq and Syria

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US, syria, islamic state
A U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighter stands guard as trucks carrying Islamic State militants and families who surrendered in Baghuz, Syria, move to a camp, March 19, 2019. VOA

As U.S.-backed forces fight to seize the last bit of territory held by the Islamic State (IS) in eastern Syria, the battle against jihadist influence is far from over. Counterterror experts warn that extremist groups may still try to recruit a rising generation of hundreds of millions of millennials to their ranks.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces on Tuesday announced full control over the remaining IS enclave of Baghuz in eastern Syria after hundreds of IS militants surrendered overnight. The capture was a significant step in the fight against IS, but not a complete victory over the terror group as fighting continued with some jihadists along the Euphrates River.

Some experts said the final push in Baghuz was the end of Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate, but IS and other radical Islamist organizations will continue to attract new members because the West has made little progress on the ideological battlefield.

 “In terms of what comes next, I think these movements adapt very quickly operationally,” said Juan Zarate, a senior national security analyst who served as deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism in the George W. Bush administration.
islamic state, US, syria
U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters celebrate their territorial gains over Islamic State militants in Baghuz, Syria, March 19, 2019. VOA

“We will see this with ISIS going underground. We have seen this with al-Qaida adapting and going underground. They will rationalize the loss … in part because they have very long-term visions of their own movements in history. So they will see this as just one chapter, whereas we in Washington who are thinking in two-year cycles, maybe at most in four-year cycles, see this as the end of [IS], or the killing of [Osama] bin Laden as the ending of al-Qaida,” Zarate said, speaking Tuesday at the Washington Institute.

Zarate said the defeat will most likely encourage IS to revisit its actions and implement an al-Qaida-style strategy of insurgency while hiding among more vulnerable Muslim communities.

“Part of the ideological clash between al-Qaida and Islamic State was al-Qaida saying, ‘Look, we’ve learned lessons of how to go about doing these terrorist movements. We’ve learned some very hard lessons that if you pop your head up too much, if you expose yourself too much, you’re going to get whacked by the American and the counterterrorism forces aligned with them,’ ” he said.

Virtual caliphate

Experts say the loss of IS territory or caliphate is likely to prompt the terror group to step up efforts to spread its ideology and recruit followers on the internet. That is because the lost caliphate was an effective tool for inspiring prospective recruits and spreading ideas, and the IS leadership will have to replace that if it is to survive. IS has shown considerable skill in online recruiting, and Western powers have been ineffective in countering IS propaganda, they say.

IS online communication and propaganda over the years has declined as the group lost territory in Iraq and Syria. Nevertheless, the jihadists have continued to recycle old propaganda messages and even create new ones.

IS on Monday released a 44-minute audio recording of its spokesman, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, calling followers to take revenge for the two attacks targeting mosques in New Zealand that left 50 people dead last Friday.

“The scenes of the massacres in the two mosques should wake up those who were fooled, and should incite the supporters of the caliphate to avenge their religion,” he said.

Al-Muhajir mocked the U.S. assertion that IS was defeated, claiming its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was still alive and urging the supporters of the caliphate to retaliate against the U.S.-led campaign in Baghuz.

 

US, syria, islamic state
A U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighter prays after returning from the front line in their fight against Islamic State militants in Baghuz, Syria, March 19, 2019. VOA

New Zealand attack

Matthew Levitt, a counterterrorism expert at the Washington Institute, said al-Muhajir’s audio message after nearly six months of silence shows IS wanted to exploit the New Zealand attacks to incite hate and inflame its anti-Western propaganda.

“They see the opportunity to affect people when they are feeling angry, vulnerable and emotional. And that presence in the virtual world is very, very real,” Levitt said during a discussion on The Battle Against Extremism: Assessment and Prescriptions at the Washington Institute.

Levitt said IS most likely would try to restore its image among the vulnerable Muslim communities.

“As we get farther and farther away from what that [IS] caliphate really was in terms of the barbarism, et cetera, they will continue and will have a greater effect at presenting it as, ‘Maybe we weren’t perfect, but it was a caliphate. Therefore, you need to come and join us again and get back in line to be like the original followers of the Prophet Muhammad,’ ” he said.

According to Farah Pandith, a former U.S. envoy to Muslim communities, the U.S. and other Western powers need to make sure they step up their efforts to fight back against IS and other extremist groups ideologically.

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Pandith said the counterterror strategy after the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida attacks on the U.S. underestimated the importance of battling extremism on the ideological front, leading in part to the emergence of groups like IS.

“We failed in large part because we didn’t imagine what could happen. We thought we understood and we had things in a box. We need to reimagine the worst-case scenario ideologically and apply ourselves for that problem, not the problem that we are dealing with today,” she said. (VOA)

Next Story

Here’s Everything you Need to Know About the Increasing Islamic State Terror Activity in Syria

Surge of IS Violence and Terrorism Seen in Syria

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Smoke Syria
Smoke rises while people gather at a damaged site after two bomb blasts claimed by Islamic State hit the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli near the Turkish border, Syria. VOA

By Sirwan Kajjo

Islamic State militants have increased their terror activity in recent weeks in Syria, carrying out deadly attacks against Syrian regime troops and U.S.-backed forces.

Since early December, the terror group has conducted at least three major attacks on Syrian government forces and their allied militias in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, local sources said.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor that has reporters across the country, recent attacks claimed by IS against Syrian military forces have killed at least 30 soldiers and wounded more than 50 others.

Last week, at least three fighters with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces were killed in what local military officials described as a suicide attack carried out by IS militants in the province of Raqqa, IS’s former de facto capital before it was freed in 2017 by the SDF and its U.S.-led allies.

Islamic State Syria
Islamic State militants clean their weapons in Deir el-Zour city, Syria. VOA

‘Threat to our forces’ 

IS “terrorists still pose a threat to our forces, especially in the eastern part of Syria,” an SDF commander told VOA.

“They have been able to regroup and reorganize in some remote parts of Deir el-Zour, where there is a smaller presence of our forces or any other forces,” said the commander, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to journalists.

He added that despite the declaration of the physical defeat of the terror group in March 2019, IS “still has hundreds of sleeper cells that have the capability to wage deadly attacks on civilians and combatants alike.”

In the town of Tabqa, in western Raqqa, local news reports this week said a suspected IS sleeper cell assaulted a family, killing three of its members, including a child. The reports did not say why the family was attacked, but IS has in the past targeted people whom it suspected of having ties to or working for the government or U.S.-backed local forces.

While most of the recent activity has been in areas IS once controlled as part of its so-called caliphate, the militant group has been particularly active in Syria’s vast desert region.

The Syrian Observatory reported at least 10 IS-claimed attacks in December that originated from the mostly desert eastern part of Homs province in central Syria.

Baghdadi’s death

Islamic State Syria
The Islamic State group’s leader extolled militants in Sri Lanka for “striking the homes of the crusaders in their Easter, in vengeance for their brothers in Baghouz,” a reference to IS’ last bastion in eastern Syria, which was captured by U.S.-backed fighters. VOA

Despite the death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in October in a U.S. operation in northwestern Syria, IS still represents a major threat in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, experts say.

“As ISIS returns to its original decentralized structure, members of the group are trying to show ISIS still poses a threat, even after the defeat of its caliphate and the recent death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” said Kaleigh Thomas, a Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, using another acronym for IS.

Sadradeen Kinno, a Syrian researcher who closely follows Islamist militancy, echoed Thomas’ views.

“IS is now living a period of stability, so to speak. After the death of Baghdadi, their objective is clearer now. They try to stay focused on carrying out assassinations, ambushes and suicide attacks, and they have been successful at that,” he told VOA.

Kinno said IS “really believes in a recurrent cycle of violence, so for them the territorial defeat they experienced this year is just a phase of their ongoing jihad.”

US withdrawal 

U.S. vehicles Syria
A convoy of U.S. vehicles is seen after withdrawing from northern Syria, on the outskirts of Dohuk, Iraq. VOA

U.S. President Donald Trump in October announced a withdrawal of troops from Syria, which was followed by a Turkish military offensive against U.S.-backed SDF fighters in northeast Syria.

Some experts say the U.S. troop pullout allowed IS to regroup, and thus its terror attacks have increased.

“The U.S. decision sent a signal to [IS] that the U.S. is not interested in a long-term presence in Syria,” said Azad Othman, a Syrian affairs analyst based in Irbil, Iraq.

IS “now feels that its low-level insurgency in Syria could be even more effective as long as the Americans don’t have a significant military presence in the country,” he told VOA.

The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency said in a report in November that “ISIS has exploited the Turkish incursion and subsequent drawdown of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria to reconstitute its capabilities and resources both within Syria in the short term and globally in the longer term.”

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“The withdrawal and redeployment of U.S. troops has also affected the fight against ISIS, which remains a threat in the region and globally,” Glenn Fine, the principal deputy inspector general, said in the report.

But the U.S. has decided to keep about 500 troops to secure oil fields in Syria to prevent IS militants and the Syrian regime forces from accessing them. (VOA)