DoD Report: ISIS still significant threat in Iraq, Syria; growing in Africa

In ISIS’s original territory of Iraq and Syria, some 10,000 fighters remain active, according to the DoD report.
A helicopter lands at a military base in Iraq that houses troops fro the US-led Coalition against ISIS. (Photo: AFP)
A helicopter lands at a military base in Iraq that houses troops fro the US-led Coalition against ISIS. (Photo: AFP)

Last week, the US Defense Department’s Lead Inspector General for US activities in regard to the anti-ISIS Coalition released an important and comprehensive report about developments over the past quarter. Kurdistan 24 covers that report in two parts. This first part deals with the threat from ISIS in Iraq, Syria, and other areas. The second part deals with the impact of the pro-Iranian militias.

WASHINGTON, DC (Kurdistan 24) – ISIS remains a significant danger in both Iraq and Syria, according to a report released last week by the US Department of Defense. In addition, ISIS is a growing threat elsewhere, particularly in Africa.

The most recent Lead Inspector General’s (IG) report on Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-led campaign against ISIS—which is mandated by the US Congress and to which Inspectors General from the Defense Department, State Department, and USAID contribute—covers the period from January 1 to March 31.

ISIS Fighters and their Capabilities—ISIS is Predominantly Local/Regional

Although ISIS was defeated as a territorial entity two years ago, when it was driven out of Baghouz, Syria, in March 2019, by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the terrorist group “remains active” and “continues to pose both a local and a global threat,” according to the IG report.

Indeed, Acting US Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, John Godfrey, told the IG that ISIS has “intensified its focus on its branches and networks,” which include the African country of Mozambique, where on March 24, ISIS-Mozambique launched a major assault.

Such attacks, Godfrey stated, are “clear indicators” that ISIS intends to spread its “malign activity to new fronts.”

The assault on Mozambique’s northeast coastal town of Palma, where the French energy giant, Total, was developing a $20 billion gas liquefaction plant, killed over 80 people, with beheaded bodies left lying on the street, The attack prompted Total to withdraw its staff and suspend its work in Palma.

In ISIS’s original territory of Iraq and Syria, some 10,000 fighters remain active, according to the IG report. Notably, the overwhelming majority of them appear to be Iraqi or Syrian—with foreign combatants comprising less than 20 percent of the total.

Somewhat similarly, experts on Africa, like Emilia Columbo, a former CIA analyst, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, describe ISIS-Mozambique, or Ansar al-Sunna Wa Jamma (ASWJ), as the group calls itself, as primarily local entities, with the number of foreign fighters “in the low hundreds” out of a force of some 2,000.

The Global Jihad: a Simplistic Stereotype

This perspective—fighters are basically local—contravenes a long-standing view of “Islamic” violence. This long-standing view dates back nearly thirty years—to the early 1990s—and is summarized by the term “global jihad.”

Although that view became widely accepted, it is a dubious and problematic concept, first advanced by Israel’s Labor Party, after it was elected in 1992, after many years in the opposition.

The term contains key, unexamined assumptions. Above all, it assumes that the violence Westerners identify as “Islamic” is carried out solely by religious extremists, motivated by an extreme religious belief. It also assumes there is no significant involvement by other parties, with other motives, including terrorist states.

But both assumptions require more serious thought. Why shouldn’t terrorist states support terrorist groups, even if a significant number of the fighters in those groups are motivated by religious extremism? A terrorist state might well consider them “useful idiots,” to borrow Lenin’s phrase. And why can’t those involved in such terrorism come from different segments of society and have different motives for their involvement?

This should have been dismissed as a simplistic stereotype—a caricature. But simplicity can be appealing, and this perspective, which was vigorously promoted by Israel’s supporters in the US, was readily accepted by Washington and other western capitals.

Until that point, major terrorist attacks, particularly those against the US, were generally understood to be state-sponsored—a form of proxy war. When the US was attacked, Washington had a short list of terrorist states, one of which would, invariably, be determined to have carried out the attack.

The prospect of punishment was real—as was the possibility of deterrence. For example, after a lengthy investigation, the US and UK determined that Libya had been behind the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Libya, which became an international pariah.

That approach was largely successful. There were no more major terrorist attacks against US targets for over four years—until the February 1993 bombing of New York’s World Trade Center.

Israel’s view of terrorism contributed to a shift in how the US handled terrorism. Starting with the Clinton administration, Washington dealt with terrorism primarily as a law enforcement issue. The focus shifted to individuals and groups, rather than states, and that was handled by the FBI.

US intelligence did not even receive the results of the FBI investigation into the terrorist attack, until after the trial of the perpetrators had ended, testimony to the weak leadership of then CIA Director, R. James Woolsey, who accepted those conditions, without even noticing that something might be seriously wrong.

Indeed, no intelligence agency—US or foreign, including Israel—received the results of the FBI investigation in a timely fashion. Thus, Israeli intelligence made the same mistake as Woolsey. It reached a conclusion about specific terrorist attacks, without having the most important information: the investigation itself!

Indeed, the Israeli view may even have encouraged terrorism, by offering hostile states the hope that they might get away with attacks, because of the shift in US focus, away from terrorist states.

The perspective of senior Kurdish officials is, however, quite different. The late Najmaldin Karim, governor of Kirkuk Province from 2011 to 2017, described the nature of ISIS in an interview with Kurdistan 24 in November 2018.

As Karim explained, ISIS is dominated by local figures: disaffected Sunnis, unhappy with Baghdad’s sectarian Shi'a government. Because Karim wanted to be precise and accurate, as he disputed the conventional wisdom in Washington, he limited his remarks to what he knew well: ISIS in Kirkuk.

“99 percent [of ISIS in Kirkuk] are local people from Kirkuk,” Karim affirmed.

Read More: Najmaldin Karim: Islamic State is resurgent, dominated by locals

The Kurdish government had proof, Karim explained. “Peshmerga fought [ISIS] bravely, and hundreds of them [ISIS fighters] were killed,” he continued. “We have their pictures, their DNA. They’re all from the area.”

“They’re all local people?,” Kurdistan 24 asked. “They take this al-Qaeda, Jund al Islam or whatever, grow a beard, put on a dishdasha, and present themselves as Islamic, although the threat is local?”

“Exactly!,” Karim responded. “What was called the liberation of Hawija,” he said, “was basically these people shaved, threw the dishdasha, threw their things, went to their homes, and now they’re being reactivated.”

And that appears to be the case of ISIS more broadly. The al-Hol camp in northeast Syria houses some 61,000 people, the families of ISIS fighters. “Most residents of al-Hol are Syrian and Iraqi,” the recent IG report explains, while “approximately 9,000 are from other countries.”

Even those figures—which suggest foreigners constitute some 15 percent of ISIS— probably overstate their involvement. The SDF has difficulty maintaining camp security, given the large number of residents and the proclivity of some to violence. It tries to reduce their numbers. Foreign governments have largely been unwilling to repatriate their citizens, but the SDF has succeeded in releasing some 1,500 Syrian families from the camp.

In Iraq, as the IG report explains, ISIS has “sought to coerce individuals in Sunni-majority, rural areas to join the group through intimidation or financial inducement.”

“For Sunnis unhappy with the status quo, ISIS offers a means of employment, financial security, identity, and an alternative to the Iraqi government or security forces,” the report continues, while ISIS revenues come primarily from “extortion, kidnapping, and smuggling.”

Very little of that relates to an ideology, based on a radical interpretation of Islam. Rather, it is primarily about money, power, and influence.

By characterizing ISIS as a religious movement and discounting its political dimensions, the US, quite arguably, risks enhancing its legitimacy, at least in the eyes of some, while inadvertently supporting the cover that ISIS employs for its abhorrent practices.

ISIS Exploits Lack of Cooperation between Baghdad and Erbil

As the IG report makes clear, reflecting a degree of frustration among Coalition officers, the lack of cooperation in fighting ISIS between Baghdad and Erbil enables the terrorist group to operate in the disputed territories.

“The Coalition and Peshmerga conducted joint operations” amid ongoing Coalition efforts “to increase cooperation between Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi Security Forces [ISF], which operate on their respective sides of an area known as the ‘Kurdish Coordination Line,’” the report explains.

It notes that Joint Coordination Centers between the ISF and Peshmerga have been established in Baghdad and Erbil. The Peshmerga have three officers in Baghdad, while the ISF have six in Erbil.

However, the ISF and Peshmerga “did not conduct joint operations,” and the “lack of cooperation has created a security gap that ISIS has been able to exploit,” the report states.

The KRG has warned repeatedly about this danger, and it has called upon Baghdad to speed the formation of a joint security command to counter the ISIS attacks. Yet, so far, little progress has been made.

Editing by Khrush Najari