Thousands of Islamic State Jihadis Remained Active Outside Iraq, Syria in 2018

Has IS been beaten on the ground in Syria?

Thousands of terrorists from the Islamic State’s (ISIS/ISIL) international affiliates continued to wreak havoc in various corners of the world in 2018 even as the jihadi group’s so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria collapsed, primarily at the hands of the U.S.-led coalition and local fighters.

The U.S. Department of State’s (DOS) warning in March that ISIS was “adapting” to the fall of their so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria by continuing their terror campaign “in all” other corners of the world – including Africa, Bangladesh, and Southeast Asia became – a reality this past year.

At the time, DOS acknowledged that the group was operating several branches outside Iraq and Syria, identified as ISIS West Africa, ISIS Somalia, ISIS Egypt, ISIS Bangladesh, ISIS Philippines, the Maute Group in the Philippines, and Jund al-Khilafah in Tunisia.

Armed groups that have recognized the ISIS caliphate and pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi are known to use the Arabic word “wilayah” (state/province) to describe themselves as components of a broader caliphate led by the Islamic State.

In September, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) reported that ISIS continues to maintain a presence in Yemen, Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Afghanistan, and Nigeria.

Echoing a recent assessment from the Pentagon’s office of the inspector general (OIG), CRS noted:

While U.S. and allied forces in 2017 and 2018 successfully liberated most of the territory formerly held by the group in Syria and Iraq, IS leadership remains at large and IS fighters appear to be evolving into an insurgent force. The group’s international affiliates continue to operate, and individuals inspired by the group continue to attempt attacks in Europe and elsewhere.

CRS identified the remaining ISIS international wings as the Islamic State in Egypt (IS-SP); the Islamic State in Libya (Wilayah Libya/Tarabalus/Barqa); the Islamic State in Nigeria (West Africa Province, Wilayah Gharb Afriqiyya); the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara; the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP, Wilayah Khorasan); the Islamic State in Yemen (Wilayah Al Bayda/Aden-Abyan); the Islamic State in the Caucasus (Wilayah Kawkaz); the Islamic State in Saudi Arabia (Wilayah Najd/Hijaz/Haramayn); the Islamic State in East Asia (Wilayah Sharq Asia, ISIS- Philippines).

According to CRS, the ISIS affiliates outside Iraq and Syria now boast between 7,500 and 9,200 jihadis. That is in addition to the 20,000 to 30,000 ISIS members that the Pentagon OIG believe are still inside Iraq and Syria. CRS was unable to provide manpower estimates for all the ISIS provinces.

“The Islamic State’s presence in other regions, such as Yemen and the Philippines, shows that it retains global appeal and cannot be defeated,” Michael Munoz, an FBI special agent working on counterterrorism issues, wrote in a November article published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

Citing a report from the United Nations Security Council, the Pentagon OIG predicted in November that, despite the fall of the group’s territorial caliphate, “a ‘reduced, covert version’ of ISIS will survive in Iraq and Syria and will maintain a presence in neighboring countries and affiliates in multiple countries, including Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.”

The number of ISIS provinces across the world to has substantially fallen from 35 at the peak of ISIS’s power (19 inside Syria and Iraq, and 16 elsewhere) in 2014 to less than a dozen now, according to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) and CRS.

After the fall of the group’s territorial caliphate, ISIS terrorists consolidated most of its provinces.

“For example, IS propaganda portrays Syria and Iraq as consisting of just two provinces: a Wilayat al-Sham and Wilayat al-Iraq respectively, with each province consisting of a number of regions. In Libya, three provinces seem to have been similarly condensed: there now appears to be just one province in the country that covers three regions,” Middle East Forum (MEF) explained in September, adding:

These apparent shifts reflect in part the overall collapse of IS as a state project, which was previously its central claim to fame, and the evolution of a global IS insurgency. … The bigger picture is that IS is far from being “defeated” on the global level despite the general collapse of the state project, something that should come as no surprise. Even if IS can never rise again to the level of success it had in 2014-2015, it will be around as a global terrorist threat and insurgency problem for decades to come.

At its peak in 2014, ISIS controlled 41,000 square miles in Iraq and Syria and ruled over an estimated eight million people, the Wilson Center noted in January, adding, “It attracted more than 40,000 foreign fighters from 120 countries; it also mobilized over 25,000 from inside Syria and Iraq. Economically, it was self-sustaining through oil sales, taxes, looting, smuggling, and extortion. It averaged $81 million a month in revenues in spring 2015.”

By the end of this year, the ISIS territorial caliphate had imploded after the loss of 99 percent of its territory. The U.S.-led coalition and local fighters have squeezed ISIS into ever-shrinking pockets of land in Syria, along the country’s border with Iraq.

As of January of this year, “more than 60,000 fighters had been killed, over 130 leaders eliminated. More than 7.7 million people had been liberated. ISIS revenues had also plummeted—to $16 million a month by spring 2017,” the Wilson Center pointed out.

ISIS, nevertheless, remains a threat, according to recent U.S. government and independent analyses.

“ISIS has lost all territory it held in Iraq and remained in control of only one percent of [the] territory it once held in Syria,” the Pentagon IG reported in November. “However, the DoD [U.S. Department of Defense] and a report produced by a United Nations Security Council monitoring committee stated that an effective clandestine ISIS organization has moved underground and is acting as an insurgency in both countries.”

Claiming ISIS has been defeated in Iraq and Syria, the Trump administration has announced plans to pull out the 2,000 U.S. troops deployed to Syria. Nevertheless, there are no plans to withdraw the nearly 5,000 American forces in Iraq who are expected to be able to conduct operations into neighboring Syria if necessary.

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