While the Islamic State teeters on the brink of military defeat in Iraq and Syria, the terrorist group still poses significant threats around the world, according to former Ambassador Ryan Crocker and other experts who testified before the House Committee on Homeland Security on Thursday.
“ISIS may be on the verge of a military defeat, but that will not eliminate them as a future force,” said Crocker, who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and other posts and is now a diplomat in residence at Princeton University. “We saw the same thing in Iraq a decade ago. In Syria as well as in Iraq, we can expect ISIS to go to ground and wait for more favorable circumstances. And in the chaos that is Syria there will be plenty of places to hide.”
The Islamic State invaded Iraq in 2014 and over three years saw its forces grow to more than 40,000 fighters controlling 7.7 million people over a region spanning 40,000 square miles. The terrorist group has since lost 90 percent of its territorial gains, a result of offensive operations from the Iraqi security forces and Syrian Democratic Forces supported by Operation Inherent Resolve’s 13,331 airstrikes in Iraq and 11,235 airstrikes in Syria since last August.
“Over the coming weeks… Operation Roundup will continue to build momentum against ISIS remnants remaining in the Iraq-Syria border region and the middle Euphrates River valley,” said a May 25 Department of Defense news release.
Retired Gen. Jack Keane, former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, cautioned that there is the potential for an ISIS resurgence in Syria and Iraq if the U.S. pulls out its forces prematurely.
“The lesson learned from the premature withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 before political stability was achieved is we got ISIS,” Keane said. “To wash our hands of this and walk away because, one, we’ve lost thousands of soldiers, two, we’ve spent a lot of money there and, three, there may be a lack of political will in the country would be a huge strategic mistake.
“The Middle East can not explode,” he added. “If we let that explode, it will harm the United States in terms of our own security of our people and also those of our allies and our national interests as well.”
Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) characterized the rising political tensions in Syria and Iraq as complex and challenging, and said a comprehensive strategy to mop up the remnants of ISIS in the Middle East, Africa and Europe is needed.
“This strategy should address the root causes that breed terrorists, including a lack of economic opportunity and good governance structures,” McCaul said. “I do think that the threat does remain as they have retreated into the Euphrates River Valley, they are still in the Middle East and they’re also in Northern Africa, places like Libya, Tunisia, Sinai in Egypt, and the Sahel in the middle of Africa and Southeast Asia.”
Crocker, a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, has earned star status in diplomatic circles for serving as ambassador to Lebanon (1990-93), Kuwait (1994-97), Syria (1998-2001), Pakistan (2004-07), Iraq (2007-09) and Afghanistan (2011-12). He said that ISIS gained traction in Iraq after the U.S. withdrew in 2011, and that then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki lost the ability to broker deals among Iraqis without the backing of an American presence.
“If the Iraqis can get the politics right, with our help, the military-terrorist threat ISIS has posed can be contained. If the politics are not right, we will be facing new security challenges in the region and at home,” the ambassador warned. “Ultimately, it is good governance in the region that will prevent the re-emergence of terrorist organizations that target Americans, whether at home or abroad. In the interim, doing what we can to ensure that the Iraqi government does not take actions that will further alienate its Sunni Arab population and give space to those who wish us harm is an imperative.”
While the ISIS threat has waned in Syria, one expert testified that the terror group stays alive partly because the U.S. has lost the support of Syrian Kurds, who have been forced to turn their attention from battling the terrorist group to defending their brethren from airstrikes launched by the Turkish government.
Joshua A. Geltzer, a former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council and Georgetown Law professor, told lawmakers that the Trump administration’s inability to continue managing the tensions between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds is providing the Islamic State with the time and space to regroup.
“ISIS’s ability to reach across national borders and into our country to attempt to recruit and radicalize followers is simply not going to disappear even as the group’s physical foothold in Iraq and Syria shrinks,” Geltzer said. “If anything, ISIS’s virtual foothold may increase in importance to the group, leading it to devote more energy and effort to sustaining and augmenting the sense of belonging that ISIS has been able to cultivate among supporters worldwide.”
Ranking member Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said that ISIS is at a critical juncture.
“As we have witnessed before, these groups do not disappear, but often morph into a new entity that poses new threats,” Thompson said. “As the so-called caliphate has shrunk, you and I both know ISIS has turned to the virtual space and its affiliates and followers to radicalize new members around the world. Other than planning or directing sophisticated attacks carried out by individuals traveling overseas, ISIS can inspire lone wolves right here at home online with few resources and relatively little effort.”