Islamic State weaker, but not defeated

American and Iraqi officials estimate that the group still has thousands of fighters and tens of thousands of adherents, dispersed across Iraq and Syria

By Rukmini Callimachi/New York Times News Service in New York
  • Published 24.03.19, 12:32 AM
  • Updated 24.03.19, 2:06 AM
  • 2 mins read
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Fighters of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces stand in formation in Baghouz, at al-Omar Oil Field base, Syria, on Saturday. (AP Photo)

By nearly every metric, the Islamic State, also known as the ISIS, is now a diminished force compared to its height four years ago. It has far fewer fighters and far less land, and the number of attacks it carries out worldwide has nose-dived.

And by all accounts, life in Baghouz — the last village under its control that was besieged these last few weeks and fell on Saturday — was bleak.

“Ask me, when is the last time I had an egg? One year ago,” said Amy, a 34-year-old Canadian woman who fled the Iraqi village recently and gave only her first name. She had left her job as a graphic designer in Alberta with her two toddlers to join her husband inside the caliphate.

“I just want to go home and have the biggest Tim Hortons coffee,” she said, referring to the Canadian coffee shop chain.

But those who have tracked the group since it took root in Iraq in the early 2000s point out that even after losing its land, the group is far stronger today than it was the last time it was considered defeated — in 2011, the year US troops pulled out of Iraq.

The militants were down to their last 700 fighters then. Now, American and Iraqi officials estimate that the group still has thousands of fighters and tens of thousands of adherents, dispersed across Iraq and Syria.

Signs of the group’s resurgence are already visible.

In the first 10 months since Iraq’s Prime Minister at the time, Haider al-Abadi, declared victory over the militants in December 2017, the group carried out 1,271 attacks there, according to Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

In the weeks since US President Donald Trump claimed victory over the Islamic State last December, the militants have claimed at least 182 attacks in Syria, killing and wounding 620 people, according to Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London.

“There is a tendency to rush into declarations of victory too fast and too early with extremist groups,” Winter said. “It may be weaker in the immediate term, but there is not a chance in hell that it has been defeated.”

Even the commanders who helped free Baghouz caution that this is simply the end of one phase of the conflict and the start of another. Liberating the cities and towns held by the Islamic State was the easy part, said Adnan Afrin, a commander with the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

“When we go to the front lines, we face them. We shoot them; they shoot back. We know who is in front of us,” he said. “But behind us are sleeper cells. The fight against the enemy you cannot see is much harder.”

While many may describe the fall of Baghuz as the end of the caliphate, the group’s project was always global, with nearly half of its “provinces” overseas. Although the territory it holds in Iraq and Syria has reached zero, the group’s franchises abroad are growing, experts say.

In January, back-to-back detonations claimed by the Islamic State’s local affiliate killed at least 20 people in the Philippines.

In Afghanistan, the group continues to mount deadly attacks, despite the US dropping, in 2017, what it called the “mother of all bombs” on a cave complex used by the militants.

“Maybe the group will be defeated in Syria, but not elsewhere,” said Salam Abid, who spent four-and-a-half years in the caliphate, speaking through the bandages covering his burned face. Abid had fled only after 20 members of his family were killed in an air strike.

The military operation to dislodge the Islamic State came at a heavy price. The western half of the city of Mosul, most of the city of Raqqa and numerous others liberated along the way are in ruins.