The Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) remains a top threat against the Middle East, the West, and beyond despite the ongoing demise of its so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria, where experts believe at least 3,000 active terrorists and about 7,000 loyalists are ready to engage in jihad on behalf of the group.
That means ISIS’s strength in Iraq and Syria remains at about 10,000 despite international operations to annihilate the group.
Estimates of ISIS’s manpower and the size of its territory vary.
Hassan Hassan, co-author of the book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, believes about 7,000 ISIS-loyalists remain in Iraq and Syria.
Citing Hisham al-Hashimi, an adviser to Baghdad in its fight against ISIS, NBC reports that “while the number of active fighters on the battlefield is probably in the range of 1,000 to 1,500, the actual number of ISIS-loyalists in Iraq and Syria is closer to 10,000,” including loyalists.
NBC learned from unnamed U.S. officials that ISIS’s non-battlefield strength in Iraq and Syria stands at between 6,000 and 8,000, in line with Hassan’s figure but lower than al-Hashimi’s estimate of 10,000.
At its peak, ISIS had an estimated 45,000 fighters active in and around its caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
While ISIS continues to fall on the battlefield, the United States and the international community are struggling to defang the extremist group’s online recruiting and overall propaganda efforts.
The outcome of the anti-ISIS war may ultimately be determined online given that is where the jihadist group still holds an edge over the United States and its allies.
U.S. military officials have attributed the ongoing demise of the caliphate in part to the over 20,000 U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and regional partners on the ground that killed at least 70,000 jihadists.
“ISIS is now giving up, they are giving up, there are raising their hands, they are walking off. Nobody has ever seen that before,” declared U.S. President Donald Trump in an interview with WMAL’s “The Chris Plante Show” in October.
Citing experts both in and outside the U.S. government, NBC News determined that the Islamic State “remains a lethal force” despite the losses it has incurred, courtesy of the United States military and its allies.
Consistent with recent remarks to Breitbart News by Osama Abu Zayd, a spokesman for the Turkey-allied Free Syrian Army (FSA), Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, noted that many ISIS fighters had fled Iraq into Syria.
“They operate as a terrorist and insurgent organization almost purely now, versus as a conventional fighting unit,” Hassan told NBC News, referring to ISIS. “There are still so many in Syria … A lot of them are Iraqis who fled across the border.”
Zayd noted that the U.S.-led alliance and their allies have not yet defeated ISIS in the Middle East.
“ISIS has not only lost territory, but it is being denied access to revenue sources such as oil and gas and cash reserves that once amounted to more than $1 billion in 2014,” reports NBC News. “ISIS had also generated some $30 million per month in Iraq from taxation and extortion in 2015, according to Iraqi and U.S. government estimates.”
The U.S. National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), a component of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), warned that ISIS’s online global reach remains “intact.”
ISIS has also been able to retain its ability to mobilize jihadists online against the United States and other countries, cautioned a top intelligence official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).