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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

Devastating Islamic State Terror Group Set Conditions for Comeback

ISIS’s Second Comeback: Assessing the Next ISIS Insurgency, by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW)

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Islamic State, Terror, Comeback
FILE - Islamic State members walk in the last besieged neighborhood in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria, March 10, 2019. VOA

The Islamic State terror group has set conditions for a comeback that “could be faster and even more devastating” than when it first burst onto the world stage, according to a new report out Wednesday.

ISIS’s Second Comeback: Assessing the Next ISIS Insurgency, by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW), also warns the terror group, often referred to as IS or ISIS, is likely to reclaim territory both in Syria and in Iraq, where it is already seizing control.

“ISIS has systematically eliminated village leaders and civilians who cooperated with anti-ISIS forces,” the report says. “It has re-imposed taxes on local populations in its historical support zones, displacing civilians and de facto controlling small pockets of terrain in Iraq.”

In Syria, IS faces a more daunting task, where it is still battling the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad, and Hay’at Tharir al-Sham, al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate.

Islamic State, Terror, Comeback
FILE — A member of U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) watches over people who were evacuated out of the last territory held by Islamic State militants, outside Baghouz, Syria, March 5, 2019. VOA

Still, the report’s authors believe IS is well-prepared for the fight, having taken advantage of the slow and methodical U.S.-backed campaign to roll back the terror group’s self-declared caliphate.

“ISIS deliberately withdrew and relocated many of its fighters and their families,” the reports states.

“ISIS’s forces are now dispersed across both countries and are waging a capable insurgency,” it says. “ISIS retained a global finance network that funded its transition back to an insurgency and managed to preserve sufficient weapons and other supplies in tunnel systems and other support zones in order to equip its regenerated insurgent force.”

The concerns about a possible IS resurgence are not new.

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As far back as August 2018, U.S. defense officials were warning IS was “well-positioned to rebuild and work on enabling its physical caliphate to re-emerge.”

More recently, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Stabilization Denise Natali warned, “the threat persists.”

And even this week, a statement by the Global Coalition to Defeat IS, admitted the terror group remains both resilient and undaunted, with cells in Syria and Iraq to conduct an increasing number of attacks against coalition partners and coalition partner forces.

“This is a major concern for the entire Coalition, as it puts at risk key military gains and the stability necessary for recovery,” the statement said.

Islamic State, Terror, Comeback
FILE – A U.S. soldier sits in an armored vehicle on a road leading to the tense front line with Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria, April 4, 2018. Pixabay

Data compiled by the Syrian-based Rojava Information Center and published earlier this month seems to support such concerns.

The center found there were 139 attacks by IS sleeper cells in northeastern Syria alone in May, an increase of 61% over the previous month. The number of deaths also rose, 42% in May to 78, with increases even in previously secure areas.

In addition to the attacks, IS has been blamed for burning hundreds of hectares of farmland in Syria and Iraq.

According to the most recent U.S. estimates, IS still commands at least 10,000 fighters across the two countries.  But despite the threat, U.S. troops involved in supporting the fight against IS have been leaving Syria.

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“The number of U.S. forces that are present now is quite a bit lower than when the drawdown began,” Chris Maier, the director of the Pentagon’s Defeat IS Task Force, told a small group of reporters last month.

“U.S. force numbers will continue to draw down as conditions continue to, we hope, improve,” he added.

Since then, some U.S. forces have been assigned to return to Syria, but according to U.S. defense officials, their primary mission is to protect forces there from growing threats from Iranian proxies in the region.

The overall trendlines, though, concern the authors of the ISW report, calling the lessening U.S. engagement, especially in Syria, “a critical mistake.”

Instead, the report calls on the U.S. to develop a long-term strategy that combines both military and a plan to address ongoing economic and humanitarian problems.

“Another limited intervention will not be sufficient,” concludes study co-author Jennifer Cafarella.

“The ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria has demonstrated to ostensibly liberated communities that they are not safe, perpetuating conditions of fear and distrust that will make it increasingly difficult to establish durable and legitimate security and political structures.” (VOA)