If there is one cause common to the governments of the U.S., Turkey, Iraq and Iran, it’s the continued suppression of Islamic State, the most destructive Islamist militant organization the world has seen. Working together and separately, those nations and their allies by early 2019 managed to subdue the group in Iraq and Syria, where it once controlled a chunk of territory as big as Iceland. Now, tensions among the countries that dismantled Islamic State threaten to subvert efforts to combat its resurgence.
What condition is Islamic State in?
Its self-declared caliphate — a state that claims dominion over all Muslims — has been in ruins since March 2019 when U.S.-assisted Syrian Kurdish forces, Russian-backed Syrian government troops and Iranian-supported fighters from Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan took the group’s last remaining strongholds in Syria. It had lost its territorial foothold in neighboring Iraq in 2017 to government forces backed by a U.S.-led multinational coalition. The group’s enigmatic leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed in a U.S. strike in northern Syria in October. His death is widely believed to have been a blow to the group, but not a fatal one. U.S. intelligence concluded that it would have little impact on the group’s ability to rebuild.
What’s the group up to in Iraq and Syria?
Its fighters have turned from open, semi-conventional combat to insurgency tactics such as sniper attacks, kidnappings and targeted killings. These are the same measures the group used, in an earlier incarnation, to undermine faith in government and foment divisions following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. In the third quarter of 2019, it carried out at least 154 mostly small-scale attacks in Iraq, according to a U.S. government report. Fighters are said to have taken refuge in some of Iraq’s harshest terrain, including mountains and desert. In Syria, clandestine cells have been reconstituting networks and attacking forces on both sides of the country’s civil war, particularly in Deir Ezzour province, home to oil fields. The tactics indicate Islamic State has no intention of giving up on either country and sees an opportunity to regain territory.
What’s the opportunity in Iraq?
The U.S. killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in early January outraged many Iraqi leaders with close ties to Iran, prompting the government to push for the removal of 5,000 American troops in the country to combat Islamic State. The U.S. rebuffed the effort, and it’s unclear whether Iraq will insist. A U.S. exit would raise questions about Iraq’s ability to hold the line against Islamic State without American support. The history is worrisome. After their 2003 invasion, U.S. forces left Iraq in 2011 only to return again in 2014, at the invitation of the government, when Iraq’s army collapsed under the advance of the extremist group. Since then, the U.S. has trained Iraqi forces and supported their operations against the militants, notably with air strikes. According to a U.S. government appraisal in October, Iraqi troops still lack “key capabilities required” to fight Islamic State, such as the ability to identify targets of operations. The report said most of Iraq’s military units won’t conduct raids against the jihadists in mountains and deserts where they’ve taken refuge, in the absence of coalition support.
What’s the opportunity in Syria?
A realignment of forces in northeastern Syria has created an opening for Islamic State to make gains. In late 2019, Turkish troops crossed the border into Syria aiming to push back the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces that had helped quash Islamic State there and have been holding some 10,000 captured jihadist fighters in detention facilities. Turkish authorities view the Syrian Kurds as a security threat due to their links to separatist Kurds in Turkey. In the turmoil following Turkey’s incursion, approximately 200 Islamic State prisoners escaped. To avoid Turkish-Kurdish clashes, the U.S. reduced its troops in Syria from 1,000 to about 500 and reassigned them to guard oil and gas fields from plundering by Islamic State. Areas evacuated by the Americans and Kurds were taken over by Turkish forces or Russian-backed Syrian government troops. According to U.S. intelligence, the latter are unlikely to prioritize fighting Islamic State over consolidating their positions.
How many Islamic State fighters are left in Iraq and Syria?
It’s impossible to say. Estimates of the group’s strength have varied widely over the years. One estimate, contained in a 2019 report by the Rand Corporation, is that it had 5,000 combatants on its payroll in March 2019. United Nations officials estimated the group had as many as 30,000 members in Iraq and Syria in July 2018. Islamic State is not thought to be winning new recruits in either country, and replenishing the ranks from outside the region would be difficult. Roughly 40,000 foreigners went to Iraq or Syria to join the caliphate, but an August 2018 report by the United Nations secretary-general concluded that the flow of fighters from overseas had essentially stopped as countries made it harder for would-be sadists to cross borders.
What’s happened to Islamic State’s finances?
The group’s residual wealth is estimated at $300 million. In losing its turf in Iraq and Syria, it lost its major sources of income: oil assets and taxation. At the same time, it no longer faces the financial demands of administering territory. Also, since it shifted from a proto-state to an underground network, the group has been better able to shield its funding flows from detection. Still, authorities monitoring Islamic State say it has infiltrated legitimate businesses such as construction, money exchange and fisheries; that it has invested laundered funds; and that it’s still able to channel money across borders.
What about its capacity for terrorist attacks?
Any disruption in the fight against it presents Islamic State with an opportunity to reconstitute itself and strengthens its ability to plan attacks abroad. Even without holding territory, Islamic State will probably have enough money in its war chest to support an insurgency in Iraq and Syria as well as sporadic terrorist attacks abroad for years, an earlier report by the RAND Corporation concluded. The group also continues to animate strikes by so-called lone-wolf terrorists, who are inspired by but have no formal ties to terrorist groups.
How worrisome are Islamic State’s affiliates and allies?
Groups around the world associated with Islamic State include some that were established directly as franchises, some that existed previously and have rebranded themselves as affiliates, others that operate separately but have sworn allegiance to Islamic State and still others that just share its goals.