“Do not be happy America,” the Islamic State’s audio message warned as it confirmed the death of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his putative successor in back-to-back attacks over the weekend by U.S. forces in northern Syria. Even as the seven-and-a-half minute audio message circulated on the Internet, declarations of “bay’a,” allegiance, to ISIS’s new caliph, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quarayshi, were pouring in. Many more are expected in coming weeks, as the group’s affiliates in some 22 “wilayat,” or provinces across the globe, pledge support for the new leader and the group’s enduring mission—the implementation of its brutal interpretation of Islamic law.
The network of jihadi organizations al-Baghdadi created in less than ten years endures, as does its capacity to inspire likeminded individuals and groups to conduct terror attacks in their own cities and countries. Intelligence analysts and terrorism experts say that they are bracing for such an attack soon—perhaps in Europe or Africa—as a demonstration of the group’s tenacity.
“The territorial or physical caliphate matters less than the group’s ability to stage and inspire attacks,” said Michael Pregent, a former intelligence adviser to General David Petraeus and now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. “Baghdadi built a brand that enables anyone to jump aboard the IS bandwagon, claim allegiance to it and stage an attack, maybe not now, but next year,” he said. “That powerful brand is still alive and well.”
Though reduced from territory once the size of Great Britain to an area roughly that of Central Park, the Islamic State has shown a disturbing ability to continue spreading its interpretation of Islam beyond its native Middle Eastern habitat. “Don’t you see America that the State is now on the threshold of Europe and Central Africa?” the IS message says. Little is yet known about al-Quarayshi, whom the message identified as its new caliph and “emir of the believers.” But as counterterrorism officials and analysts of militant Islam scramble to discover his real name and identity, several cautioned against a premature declaration of victory over the movement. The jihadis, Aaron Y. Zelin told a seminar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Thursday, have survived previous territorial attacks. “Being in the wilderness teaches them,” he said.
Analysts see short-term and long-term dangers. Chief among the immediate concerns is the fate of about 10,000 alleged IS members now imprisoned in camps that have been guarded by fewer than 400 members of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Some of these mostly Kurdish soldiers recently abandoned guard duty to fight the Turks after President Donald Trump greenlighted a Turkish invasion of Syria earlier this month. Some 20 prisons are said to hold these inmates, 2,000 of whom are believed to be hard-core foreign fighters from more than 40 countries; less than half of these countries have tried to repatriate their citizens. Plus, other larger camps now hold some 70,000 women and children from over 60 countries, most said to be family members of IS fighters. Camp inmates are largely left to fend for themselves, short of food, water, and medicine in what human rights groups call horrendous conditions.
Matthew Levitt, a Washington Institute expert who moderated Thursday’s panel discussion, said that his main concern was that the camps would breed “a new generation of violent extremists.” Devorah Margolin, a senior research fellow at George Washington University’s program on extremism, expressed concern about what would become of the estimated 42,000 mostly young men who went to fight for IS in Syria and Iraq, 300 of whom came from the U.S. Only 82 of those from America have been identified, she said. Of these, 17 are believed to have returned home.
Europe has far greater exposure. Some 400 of the 900 people who went to Iraq or Syria from the United Kingdom have returned; but only 40 of them have been prosecuted as of February 2019, Margolin said. Mostly, their citizenship has been revoked. Thousands also went to fight from Russia, which says that it will not repatriate any of them. The IS fighters and supporters must be disaggregated from the refugee populations, she said. Refugees must be protected and returned home. And countries from which the fighters came must decide on coherent procedures for handling their return. “Western countries must have some type of control over these people,” said Zelin. The U.S. and other countries must identify “who they are and what they’re doing” to “make it harder for IS to replenish their forces.”
Former military-intelligence officer Pregent worries about the danger posed by the next generation of jihadists. “The next iteration will definitely be more capable,” he said in an interview. “They will have lessons learned. They will have the ability to shoot down American aircraft from territory they control and operate from areas regardless of territory.” He favors greater focus on identifying and training indigenous Sunni Muslim forces in countries with Sunni majorities to fight the next generation of Islamic insurgents. “White Catholic guys cannot defeat IS,” he said. “We need Sunni Muslims to defeat a Sunni insurgency.”
What many experts fear most is complacency about IS, given the decapitation of its leadership. Zelin writes that al-Baghdadi built his sprawling militant Islamic network despite the killing or capture of 34 of its top 42 leaders. Though he never succeeded in matching al-Qaida’s 9/11 attack, “under Baghdadi’s leadership, the group became the most important jihadi organization in the world, surpassing its former partner.”
Levitt argues that the Middle East is likely to remain a breeding ground for IS and other likeminded groups. The conditions that nurtured the rise of the Islamic State—endemic corruption, poor governance, the absence of law and order or its abuse—not only persist, but are increasing, he says. Violent protests in Lebanon and Iraq have sparked the resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister and now threaten Iraq’s prime minister, amid demands for jobs and better leadership and government services.
Trump is determined to stop “endless” wars and reduce America’s military footprint in the Middle East, Pregent says, “but we must focus on the remaining threat. Two hundred U.S. special forces in the region can help build an indigenous force of 20,000 if we focus on ensuring the territorial defeat of IS. What we shouldn’t do is declare victory and walk away.”
Margolin says that IS and similar groups will be “defeated” only when “people are no longer attracted to their ideology.” That victory will require more than al-Baghdadi’s death, however—it will call for a strategic patience that America may lack.
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