Mission Accomplished? The Perils of Declaring a Premature Victory Over ISIS by Elena Pokalova - Modern War Institute
In July 2019, Abdul-Majeed Marouf Ahmed Alani, a mechanic working for American Airlines, attempted to tamper with a plane’s navigation systems at Miami International Airport. Alani allegedly super glued styrofoam inside the plane, but the pilots detected the malfunction in time before the plane took off. While the offense was serious enough, what is even more worrisome are the links that were discovered between Alani and ISIS. Investigators found that Alani had videos of ISIS murders on his phone and made statements indicating he was hoping Allah would harm non-Muslims. Alani’s act is a harbinger of what might be coming: further ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks in different places across the world. ISIS might have lost most of its territories in Syria and Iraq. However, the group is far from being defeated. Believing otherwise places international security at risk and provides a false sense of protection against future acts similar to those of Alani.
US President Donald Trump has issued multiple declaration of victory over ISIS. Back in December 2018, Mr. Trump stated: “We have won against ISIS.” He subsequently initiated US troop withdrawals from Syria. The administration has equated the loss of physical territory with ISIS defeat. By the summer of 2019, ISIS no longer wielded control over its territorial caliphate in Syria and Iraq, as the last stronghold of Baghouz fell in Syria in March. In July 2019, President Trump reiterated his belief in the triumph over ISIS: “We have 100 percent of the caliphate, and we’re rapidly pulling out of Syria. We’ll be out of there pretty soon. And let them handle their own problems. Syria can handle their own problems—along with Iran, along with Russia, along with Iraq, along with Turkey. We’re 7,000 miles away.”
However, any declarations of victory over ISIS are premature. The group has long been developing its insurgent capabilities and has been preparing to take the fight underground. There are numerous indicators suggesting that ISIS is getting ready for a comeback. According to the recent Pentagon inspector general’s report, ISIS is resurging in areas of Syria and Iraq. The report estimates that the group retains a force of fourteen to eighteen thousand people, including up to three thousand foreigners.
In addition to the forces it retains on the ground in places it was militarily “defeated,” ISIS continues to exert substantial influence on online audiences. In September 2019, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi issued a rare new message to his followers. The message is a call for action that encourages ISIS supporters to redouble efforts on multiple fronts: in religious activism, as well as in the spheres of media, military, and security. Al-Baghdadi indicated that his group is not willing to accept the defeat. “Soldiers of the Khilafah . . . have not weakened from what they have incurred nor have they waivered against their adversaries,” he stated. Al-Baghdadi specifically encouraged his followers to help ISIS members in prison by making an “effort in saving them and destroying the gates that imprison them.” With his call for subversive “deeds,” al-Baghdadi demonstrated a resolve to continue the fight…