Grim reality: ISIS defeated but regrouping in Africa, Europe, Afghanistan

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Despite its territorial defeat in Syria and facing setbacks in Iraq and elsewhere throughout the Middle East, the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) is not yet beaten as a terrorist organization.

That’s the grim but realistic assessment of the UN’s Counter-terrorism Chief Vladimir Voronkov who warned the Security Council that the violent group still poses a viable threat in regions raging from West Africa to South East Asia.

Flag of the Islamic State. / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

ISIS’s defeat in Syria was a “watershed” that ended “the dystopia of the so-called caliphate.”

The group continues to evolve into a covert armed network. He underscored this was the same pattern followed in Iraq since 2017 when the ISIL insurgency focused on disrupting “normalization and reconstruction efforts.”

The Counter-terrorism Chief highlighted “a striking increase in ISIS and Al Qaida-linked recruitment and violence” in West Africa noting that the “Islamic State’s West Africa Province is now one of the strongest ISIL affiliates “ with some 4,000 fighters.

Dangerous surges in terrorist attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso and Nigeria underscore his point.

The UN peacekeeping mission in Mali has been particularly targeted.  He equally cited the heinous Easter Day terror attacks on Christian churches in Sri Lanka.

Voronkov acknowledged a troubling surge in Europe where “radicalization in prisons and those released from prison remain major concerns that compounded the risk of homegrown terrorism.”

This comes at a time when ISIL is having trouble sending terrorists to Europe.

Equally the report highlights the threat of the foreign terrorist fighters in various conflicts such as Syria and Iraq.  Voronkov adds that between 24,000 and 30,000 thousand fighters remain from the initial estimate of 40,000.

Norway’s Geir Pedersen, the UN’s Special Envoy for Syria warns “a resurgent ISIL is stepping up its guerrilla attacks.”

Among ways to combat ISIL, the UN’s counterterrorism Chief recommends better border security, enhanced law enforcement procedures, and better security at key target areas, including safeguarding religious sites from terrorist attacks.

Another issue concerning the Islamic State or Da’esh as it is known amongst the Arabs, concerns its funding.

Jonathan Allen, Britain’s Deputy Ambassador advises, “It is also alarming that Da’esh still reportedly has $300 million in reserves. Now we know that terrorist attacks are increasingly low cost and low tech…So that amount of money could cause huge damage.”

Indonesia’s Envoy Dian Djani stated, ‘The fall of the last ISIL held territory in Syria and  decrease in resources were significant, but evidently does not mean the end of ISIL. Therefore, we feel it is only wise not to go overboard and declare victory over terror just yet.”

Furthermore, the Security Council debate did not specifically address the entrenched ISIS and Al Qaida presence in Afghanistan.  Nevertheless there’s a disturbingly dangerous assumption that U.S. peace discussions with the Afghan Taliban forces can somehow magically end the wider terrorist threat from Afghanistan. That’s foolhardy.

While the Trump Administration has pledged to end America’s longest running conflict, the cold calculus remains that militant Taliban forces are only part of the military equation; largely foreign Al-Qaida and Da’esh terrorists actually pose an enduring security risk to the USA and thus the Administration is well warranted to keep a residual force of at least 8,000 Americans in the country.

The current American commitment is 14,000 and will be reduced by 5,400 troops.

Military units from NATO comprise the multinational Resolute Support mission has troops from 39 countries; among the large contributors are Germany deploying 1,300, United Kingdom 1,100 and Italy with 900.

Intelligence estimates put the ISIS strength in the thousands of fighters, some from Central Asia but also from Syria, Chechnya, and Bangladesh.

Though the U.S. military was instrumental in helping defeat the formal Da’esh Caliphate, a dispersed and motivated terrorist movement has regrouped in Afghanistan.  It’s doubtful the Afghan National Army could seriously challenge ISIS which remains tougher and more motivated than the home grown Taliban.

ISIS is responsible for some recent high profile terrorist attacks throughout Afghanistan.

Never forget it was the Al Qaida network, equally active in Afghanistan, which used this South Asian country as a staging ground for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on America.

Should the U.S. reach a long-awaited agreement with the Taliban, Washington would be prudent to retain a residual security footprint in Afghanistan precisely to avoid the inevitable.  The United States should concede with grim realism that it’s safer confronting and eliminating the terrorist threat at a distance, rather than waiting for ISIS to come closer to our shores.  It’s not worth the risk.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]

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