Pompeo: ‘There Are Places ISIS Is More Powerful Today than Three or Four Years Ago’

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks in a media stakeout during the Security Council meeting on August 20, 2019 in New York City. Prior to the meeting on the Middle East, Pompeo acknowledged that ISIS has gained ground in some areas. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged during an interview with CBS This Morning on Tuesday that the Islamic State has regained strength in the Middle East and elsewhere, even though their “caliphate” of stolen Syrian and Iraqi territory has been destroyed.

CBS News interviewer Gayle King asked Pompeo about a New York Times piece from Monday that reported ISIS is “gathering new strength, conducting guerrilla attacks across Iraq and Syria, retooling its financial networks and targeting new recruits at an allied-run tent camp.”

The NYT argued President Donald Trump was wrong to declare ISIS “defeated” when its occupied territory was reclaimed and worried Trump’s order to reduce the 2,000-strong American force in Syria by half was dangerous because the small U.S. force was supporting Syrian “partner forces” that are fighting Islamic State remnants. According to the NYT:

Although there is little concern that the Islamic State will reclaim its former physical territory, a caliphate that was once the size of Britain and controlled the lives of up to 12 million people, the terrorist group has still mobilized as many as 18,000 remaining fighters in Iraq and Syria. These sleeper cells and strike teams have carried out sniper attacks, ambushes, kidnappings and assassinations against security forces and community leaders.

The Islamic State can still tap a large war chest of as much as $400 million, which has been hidden in either Iraq and Syria or smuggled into neighboring countries for safekeeping. It is also believed to have invested in businesses, including fish farming, car dealing and cannabis growing. And ISIS uses extortion to finance clandestine operations: Farmers in northern Iraq who refuse to pay have had their crops burned to the ground.

Over the past several months, ISIS has made inroads into a sprawling tent camp in northeast Syria, and there is no ready plan to deal with the 70,000 people there, including thousands of family members of ISIS fighters. American intelligence officials say the Al Hol camp, managed by Syrian Kurdish allies with little aid or security, is evolving into a hotbed of ISIS ideology and a huge breeding ground for future terrorists. The American-backed Syrian Kurdish force also holds more than 10,000 ISIS fighters, including 2,000 foreigners, in separate makeshift prisons.

“President Trump has been very focused on this,” Pompeo responded on CBS This Morning. “We executed a plan with 80 other countries to defeat ISIS. We were very successful.”

“What we’ve always said is the caliphate’s been gone and that there’s always risk that there’ll be a resurgence, not just from ISIS,” he continued. “There’s risk from al-Qaeda and other radical Islamic terrorist groups. President Trump is very focused on making sure that we apply the right resources against the problem set everywhere to protect the homeland and keep the American people safe. We’ll do that.”

Pressed by King on whether the Islamic State is “gaining strength,” Pompeo said the issue is “complicated.”

“There are certainly places where ISIS is more powerful today than they were three or four years ago, but the caliphate is gone and their capacity to conduct external attacks has been made much more difficult,” he said.  

“We’ve taken down significant risk – not all of it, but a significant amount. And we’re very pleased with the work that we’ve done,” he said.

Few doubted the Islamic State’s ideology and terrorist organization would survive the collapse of the hideous nation-state it stitched together from conquered Iraqi and Syrian cities. Boasts of controlling such a state were an enormous boon to Islamic State recruiting, attracting both men and women eager to live in the “caliphate” and remote “lone wolf” terrorist operatives in the West, many of whom described themselves as frustrated by their inability to travel to Syria and fight for ISIS on the front lines.

The tremendous amount of money ISIS pillaged from the caliphate – it was collecting taxes and tariffs at the height of its power – posed a formidable threat. As the New York Times indicated, too much of that money was spirited away, laundered, or spent to acquire influence that ISIS leaders still possess. 

As the Atlantic explained in March, the Middle East has a shadowy financial system known as hawala that has been used by Western governments to finance humanitarian operations that might otherwise have been blocked or looted by authoritarian regimes. That network was also used by the Islamic State to create an economic empire that is proving far more difficult to track and destroy than the physical caliphate was. The loss of its captured oil fields was a staggering blow for ISIS, but it still has millions of dollars to play with, and it no longer has to spend any of that money on governing captured cities.

The Islamic State has been shopping for a new headquarters ever since it was knocked out of Raqqa, its Syrian capital. Raqqa has great significance to the terrorist organization’s fundamentalist Islamic ideology, so no other city can ever really replace it, but ISIS is keenly interested in developing new power bases that can serve as temporary headquarters until it can recapture Raqqa and resume its effort to engineer the final apocalyptic confrontation between holy warriors and infidels.

ISIS made a strong push to get established in the Philippines that did not quite succeed, although it cannot be said to have permanently failed yet. Abu Sayyaf, the Islamic State franchise in the Philippines, is still a deadly threat. ISIS was driven out of Marawi, the Philippine city it briefly controlled, but the city was virtually destroyed in the process, and Islamic State affiliates are still gaining strength with new recruits.

Africa is another theater where ISIS has not been able to meet its objectives for establishing a satellite caliphate, but it also has not abandoned its efforts. Voice of America News on Tuesday noted a distinct shift in ISIS propaganda efforts from Somalia, where it has never been able to displace the al-Qaeda-aligned militants of al-Shabaab, to the increasingly attractive terrorist growth market of Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s mixture of ethnic strife and political unrest looks like a perfect breeding ground for the Islamic State virus, although its presence is currently very small.

ISIS has unfortunately become a major player in Afghanistan, possibly with enough strength sabotage negotiations between the United States, the Taliban, and the Afghan government. Taliban insiders and Afghan security officials are both worried ISIS will be able to recruit disaffected extremists from the Taliban if it makes peace with Washington and Kabul, and might be able to present itself to the most nefarious elements in Pakistan as an alternative agent of influence if the Taliban becomes unsuitable. 

In fact, some Afghans charge that the Pakistanis are already financing Islamic State fighters to set them up as a replacement for the Taliban, although American officials believe Pakistan is moving away from its policy of supporting extremists in Afghanistan. Russia and China, which have interests in Afghanistan, have accused the United States of covertly nourishing ISIS as a check against the Taliban.

President Trump on Wednesday called on other countries, such as Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Russia, and Turkey – to step up and do more to combat the Islamic State as it becomes a more diffuse threat. 

“At a certain point, all of these other countries where ISIS is around — they’ve been decimated by the way, badly decimated — but all of these countries are going to have to fight them, because do we want to stay there for another 19 years? I don’t think so. The United States, we’re 7,000 miles away,” said Trump.

Trump also said European nations should take in captured ISIS fighters currently languishing in Syrian detention camps. About 2,000 of those prisoners are believed to hail from Western countries.

“If Europe doesn’t them take, I’ll have no choice but to release them into the countries from which they came, which is Germany and France and other places,” he warned.

“We beat them. You captured them. We’ve got thousands of them, and now, as usual, our allies say, ‘Oh, no, we don’t want them,’ even though they came from France and Germany and other places,” he complained.

“So we’re going to tell them, and we’ve already told them: Take these prisoners that we’ve captured, because the United States is not going to put them in Guantanamo for the next 50 years and pay for it,” Trump said.

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