Despite the territorial defeat of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq a few years ago, which was heralded as a major achievement by the large international coalition and the regional militias that had confronted this shared enemy, the organization’s cells remain active in both countries as well as in others, like Egypt. The Biden Administration and its partners are signaling that the coalition should not let down its guard because these cells could grow stronger. However, the unwillingness of most coalition countries to take back and bring to trial those IS prisoners and their families who are their nationals, coupled with the reported squalid conditions and human rights abuses in the prisons in which they are detained, may be contributing to the problem of a possible IS resurgence.
The Biden Administration is likely to keep a small number of US troops in both Syria and Iraq to help local forces combat this threat. Moreover, given the recent and rapid Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the administration wants to avoid another foreign policy disaster. Hence, it is likely that the US military will remain engaged in the anti-IS campaign—albeit in its present advisory, training, and intelligence-sharing role—in both Syria and Iraq for the foreseeable future to forestall an IS comeback.
Losing Territory but Not Ideological Appeal
At its height in 2014, IS was able to occupy large swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq, announce a self-declared caliphate with its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, at its helm, and
acquire large amounts of US military equipment that the Iraqi army had abandoned in the field. To make matters worse, IS was able to take over many banks in Iraq where large US currency deposits were held, operate a sophisticated social media operation that recruited many disaffected young people from the Middle East and Europe, inspire extremist attacks in western countries, and become the leading Islamist extremist organization in the world. Many groups that had been affiliated with al-Qaeda soon switched their allegiance to the Islamic State.
The horrific atrocities committed by IS not only against minority groups like Yezidis but against mainstream Sunni Muslims who did not adhere to its extremist ideology galvanized most of the western and Muslim worlds to form a broad coalition to confront it. Led by the United States, the strategy was to assist local allies, like the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as well as a revamped Iraqi army and Iraqi Kurdish forces, with air power and intelligence, to take the fight to IS in order to win back territory. By 2017, both Raqqa in eastern Syria (seat of the so-called IS caliphate) and Mosul, the most populous city of northern Iraq, were retaken by these forces. The last IS territorial stronghold in eastern Syria was regained by 2019.
Despite this loss of land, thousands of IS fighters were able to escape the coalition’s military campaign and go underground. American intelligence officials have noted publicly that there are some 8,000 IS fighters in Syria and Iraq. While this is a large reduction from 34,000 fighters at the Islamic State’s zenith, the remaining number of militants is not insignificant.
Moreover, even though the so-called IS caliphate ended in defeat, the organization’s ideology is still a draw for some disaffected youth. The former head of US Central Command (CENTCOM), General Joseph Votel, and colleagues at Center for a New American Security (CNAS), wrote presciently in 2017: “Following even a decisive defeat in Iraq and Syria, [IS] will likely retreat to a virtual safe haven—a ‘virtual caliphate’—from which it will continue to coordinate and inspire external attacks as well as build a support base until the group has the capability to reclaim physical territory.”
Islamic State recruiters are still trying to take advantage of the general Sunni Muslim disaffection with the Shia-dominated government of Iraq as well as the resentment of Kurdish dominance by ethnic Arabs in eastern Syria.
Islamic State recruiters are still trying to take advantage of the general Sunni Muslim disaffection with the Shia-dominated government of Iraq as well as the resentment of Kurdish dominance by ethnic Arabs in eastern Syria. In addition, the social problems of high unemployment and the lack of a meaningful and secure future still plague much of the region’s young people, and some find answers to their problems in IS’s extremist and militant ideas. A public US intelligence assessment noted that whatever happens on the ground, “the appeal of [IS’s] ideology almost certainly will endure.”
In Iraq, IS cells have been able to stage a number of terrorist attacks in recent years, the most recent being a July 19 suicide bombing that killed at least 35 people in a market in the large Shia environ of Sadr City in Baghdad. IS cells have reportedly also been responsible for attacks on Iraqi troops involved in counter-terrorist operations as well as on power transmission towers to reduce electricity output to homes in the hot summer months—a strategy aimed at making the public even angrier at Iraqi officials. A UN report released in July based on the input of member states’ intelligence services noted that the Islamic State is “likely to continue attacking civilians and other soft targets in the capital [Baghdad] whenever possible to garner media attention and embarrass the Government of Iraq.”
In Syria, IS cells remain active. On July 21, the SDF conducted a raid in Hasaka, in the northeastern corner of the country, against what appeared to have been an IS safe-house, killing a militant. This operation was supported by coalition air support which encompassed air strikes on the building where the militants were holed up. The Islamic State has also stepped up attacks against forces of the Assad regime in recent weeks, and cells continue to operate in the Syrian Desert. IS strategy in Syria at this point seems to be to try to attack and weaken the SDF in order to garner the favor of some ethnic Arabs in eastern Syria who are resentful of Kurdish rule; at the same time, it can show the general population that it remains an active opponent of the Assad government. In June, the new UN special envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, warned that IS was getting stronger in Syria and called on the international community to counter it.
In other countries like Egypt, the IS affiliate Wilayat Sinai has been able to capitalize on Bedouin grievances against the Egyptian government as well as resentment of heavy-handed Egyptian security responses to maintain its position in the northern Sinai region.
In other countries like Egypt, the IS affiliate Wilayat Sinai has been able to capitalize on Bedouin grievances against the Egyptian government as well as resentment of heavy-handed Egyptian security responses to maintain its position in the northern Sinai region. Although the number of IS attacks in this area has diminished over the past couple of years, in late July of this year IS militants were able to stage an ambush of a checkpoint, killing five security personnel and wounding six. In response, the Egyptian government launched yet another crackdown in the area, claiming it killed 89 militants and captured a cache of weapons. Other IS affiliates have also been active in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa regions.
A Public Relations Win for Iraq’s Prime Minister
While the Kurdish-led SDF has called for the 900 US troops in Syria to stay, the issue of the American troop presence in Iraq is more controversial. In the aftermath of the US strike on Iranian Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Committee Commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in early January 2020, the Iraqi parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling on all foreign forces to leave the country. The controversy regarding US military presence in the country and attacks by pro-Iran Shia militia forces against US targets in Iraq compelled the Trump Administration to reduce the number of US troops there from about 5,000 to 2,500. However, with the continuing threat from IS, it was clear that the Iraqi government and military officials did not want the remaining US troops to leave, as Iraq cannot provide the level of training and intelligence support as the US military.
Hence, to finesse this delicate political problem, US and Iraqi officials went through a sort of political dance. During the visit of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to Washington in July, the Biden Administration announced that “there will be no U.S. military forces in a combat role [in Iraq] by the end of the year.” This statement seems to have boosted Kadhimi’s standing in Iraq and was even supported by oppositionists, such as Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shia cleric with a nationalist political base, who have acknowledged that US forces involved in training and support for the Iraqi military could remain. Only the hard-core, pro-Iran militias of the Iraqi Resistance Coordination Committee are opposed to any US military presence in Iraq.
In reality, the United States ended a direct combat role in Iraq last year. One unnamed US defense official told the press that no American troops have accompanied local forces on combat patrols for over a year in either Syria or Iraq. The same official added: “They are not kicking in doors, apprehending the enemy, etc.”
The Problem of Prisons
While the question of US troop presence in Syria and Iraq seems to have been settled for the time being, the issue of the large number of IS fighters and their families in prisons in both countries remains unresolved. Currently, the SDF controls a sprawling prison system, the most notorious of which is the al-Hol internment camp that houses about 50,000 family members of IS fighters captured during the anti-IS campaign. The conditions of the camp are reportedly very poor. US CENTCOM has assessed that IS retains a strong presence in this camp, which it uses to enforce discipline and even murder its detractors. In addition, IS recruiters have enlisted many teenagers, who have been smuggled out of the camp, to travel to remote IS training camps in the Syrian Desert. The SDF also controls 10,000 captured IS fighters spread among other prison camps in northeastern Syria. In response to increased IS violence in these camps, in March the SDF staged a raid at al-Hol, leading to the arrest of 125 persons including an alleged five-man IS assassination squad.
While the question of US troop presence in Syria and Iraq seems to have been settled for the time being, the issue of the large number of IS fighters and their families in prisons in both countries remains unresolved.
At the recent anti-IS coalition meeting in Rome in late June, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, without naming names, urged many of the countries in the group to take IS prisoners and their family members, who are their nationals, stating that the current situation is “simply untenable.” With the exception of Italy, few countries in Europe want to receive these people and put them on trial, probably fearing retaliation from IS. Although US Lieutenant General Paul Calvert, a leader of US forces in Syria, said his detention capability advisory team is working closely with the SDF to “ensure [IS] detainees are kept safely in these facilities until repatriated or justice is served,” it is clear that more needs to be done. US CENTCOM Commander General Kenneth McKenzie has said the detainee problem is not a military one but warned it “will manifest itself in five to 10 years as a military problem unless we solve it now, because the children are going to grow up radicalized and we’re going to see them on battlefields fighting us.”
In Iraq, the problem is the unfair trials of suspected IS fighters and the human rights abuses of the prisoners. There are currently more than 40,000 inmates in Iraqi prisons, with about half arrested under terrorism charges. A new report from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has detailed a number of abuses of these inmates, including unfairness of trials, widespread use of torture to induce confessions, and the lack of legal services until the inmates appear in court. Although the Iraqi public has little sympathy for actual IS fighters, it is probable that some of the inmates were innocent victims of government security sweeps in areas once controlled by IS. The fact that most of the inmates are Sunni Muslims and that tribal traditions in some areas of Iraq compel relatives to take revenge against those who harm members of their extended families, this ill-treatment of inmates does not portend well for lessening sectarian tensions in the country.
US Policy Options
For both military and political reasons, the Biden Administration perceives it as sensible to keep the present number of US forces in place in both Syria and Iraq. Without these forces, which are operating in an advisory and training mode and without US intelligence and air support, it is likely that IS would be able to improve its diminished position in both countries and try to seize territory once again. From a human rights and strategic standpoint, an IS comeback would be a disaster, similar to what is arguably unfolding now in Afghanistan with the Taliban.
However, the anti-IS campaign cannot simply rely on military means alone. In Iraq, more attention needs to be given to corruption and governance issues because, in addition to sectarian strife, these problems serve as a breeding ground of public discontent. In Syria, while it is understandable that the United States is still supporting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces because of their proven ability to fight IS, more efforts should be made to include more Arab tribesmen not only in SDF ranks but in leadership positions as a way to lessen ethnic tensions. However, the most immediate problem is the one of prisons. If countries remain unwilling to take back their nationals, they should at least provide substantial funds to improve the conditions in the camps and prisons and oversee trials of IS detainees that meet international legal standards. Otherwise, if the detainee problem is not solved, these camps and prisons will be breeding grounds for future IS fighters, as General McKenzie has warned.