Is ISIS a mere shadow of what it was or is it still a potent force?
This geographic squeeze imposed on the core hierarchy of ISIS was also met with a re-focused and renewed effort by the US on how it intends to conduct its counterterror strategies going forward.The US has also moved away from an over-reliance on drone strikes as a mainstay of its counterterror thinking. Both raids that killed Baghdadi and Hashimi Al-Qurashi were led by special operations troops dropping onto compounds and conducting a conventional raid. Beyond these operations, others have also been conducted over months stretching into eastern Syria where ISIS operatives were picked up instead of being assassinated using drones. This method, while increasing risk of American fatalities on the ground exponentially, decreases the chances of civilian casualties, an issue that has repeatedly plagued and undermined US counter-terror operations in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan alike over the past two decades.
Even as ISIS as a group today is severely depleted, the threat perception remains constant. While tactically and strategically, ISIS is a mere shadow of what it was, ideologically, it remains a potent force.Even as ISIS as a group today is severely depleted, the threat perception remains constant. Hardly anything was known about Abu Hussein al-Qurashi in public, and his successor, whenever the group chooses to announce one, may end up being a mid-level operative forced to take over the ideological reigns of the group. Choosing the caliph entails a long checklist, however, it is doubtful that many remain within the hierarchy that can pull the same weight as, for example, Baghdadi did in the years after announcing the caliphate from the al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul, Iraq, in 2014. While tactically and strategically, ISIS is a mere shadow of what it was, ideologically, it remains a potent force. Pro-ISIS propaganda online remains in wide circulation, and other groups that align with it such as those in parts of Africa and Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) in Afghanistan continue to operate as local insurgencies and terror ecosystems using ISIS for its brand equity in an effort to attract attention, recruitment, and finance. Finally, geopolitical crevasses also remain in the fight against ISIS that goes beyond targeting its hierarchies. The US, with a small military presence in Syria, relies on the SDF for on-ground cooperation and intelligence gathering while Türkiye, which sees pro-Kurd groups as detrimental to its own security and geopolitical aims, has given ultimatums to SDF to withdraw from northern Syria or face military action. There are over 30,000 ISIS leaders and fighters, many of whom are foreigners, in detention centres across both Syria and Iraq. In Syria, most are being held under makeshift prisons manned by the likes of the SDF, which has limited resources. Camps such as al-Hol near the Syria–Iraq border also hold thousands of women and children who were part of the caliphate at one point. Foreign countries have been slow or outright dismissive in allowing these people to return, making them stateless. In January 2022, ISIS fighters launched an expansive attack on a prison in Hasakah, northeast Syria, to free their comrades. Hundreds reportedly escaped, and over 500 died, including SDF forces who eventually regained control of the facility. The SDF once again sounded an alarm over meagre resources on the ground that were keeping thousands of pro-ISIS prisoners, and that many would have to be let go if more permanent solutions were not found. This highlighted one of the many larger crises points with few solutions on offer compared to the headline-attractive operations that kill the group’s leaders.
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Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...Read More +