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How to prevent the emergence of ISIS 2.0

It has been five years since videos of executions by ISIS surfaced on the internet, earning the terrorist militant group instant notoriety. Soon after, its members seized large swaths of Iraqi and Syrian territory with little difficulty, spreading in the wide rifts created by civil war.

It was not until last year that a combined force of Iraqi government troops, Kurdish militants and the numerous militias in the 150,000-strong Popular Mobilization Units defeated ISIS forces, with the help of the US, and liberated Iraqi territories under the group’s control. In Syria, anti-ISIS efforts, aided by the United States, United Kingdom, France and Russia, have more or less crumbled this once nascent “caliphate.”

Even though only splinter elements remain in Iraq and Syria, the group has spread to Libya, Yemen, Sinai in Egypt, Afghanistan and the Gaza Strip. Elsewhere, previously unaffiliated groups have pledged allegiance to ISIS in Lebanon, Jordan, India, Brazil and Indonesia — and even in Norway. No one really knows how closely these groups are affiliated with ISIS, but the fact remains that they are enthralled by it and will probably continue to spread its influence long after the eradication of its active fighting forces.

Although anti-ISIS efforts have scored important victories and have left the group reeling, the threat of its resurgence remains. Recently, the Trump administration decided to unilaterally withdraw US forces from the region, beginning with Syria.

Yet the Pentagon estimates that there are between 28,000 and 32,000 ISIS fighters still active in Iraq and Syria. At the height of its power in 2015, ISIS had an estimated 33,000 active fighters in Syria and Iraq. After a war costing $14 billion and nearly 25,000 airstrikes, the group appears to be just as strong as it was four years ago when it held territory equivalent to the size of Great Britain.

Fortunately, ISIS no longer controls these territories, which impedes its ability to conduct operations, such as fundraising and the recruitment of fighters, that are critical to launching large-scale military offensives.

Nonetheless, ISIS remains a lethal force, even with its fighters and offshoot elements scattered across the region and beyond. It is likely that small-scale attacks will be the modus operandi for the group for some time to come. In fact, there have already been dozens of abductions targeting government officials and community leaders, who are either killed or held to ransom.

Suicide attacks will also continue, since such indiscriminate violence helps to perpetuate fear and uncertainty among civilians. In addition, attacks on electricity, oil, water and even election infrastructure have escalated. Combined with indiscriminate attacks, this environment of fear and uncertainty will only further exacerbate a sense of distrust in legitimate governments touting improved security and stability. After all, ISIS has always thrived in areas of conflict, chaos and civil war, which makes any efforts at stability and democratization attractive targets for the group.

Often, ISIS is dismissed as merely a terrorist militant group no different from its parent, Al-Qaeda. However, its relative “success” at capturing, defending and maintaining territories in Iraq and Syria for as long as it did earned the group a veneer of legitimacy. Its methods and world view aside, in the eyes of disgruntled civilians exhausted by civil war and instability, ISIS was viewed more or less as a “stabilizing” force.

Further, its ill-gotten wealth and sanctification of heinous acts made joining the group an attractive prospect for some — disillusioned young people, for example, living in countries where youth unemployment ranges from 17 to 39 percent.

Dismissing these disturbing facts will only make the resurgence of ISIS more inevitable. What is more, it would be an “ISIS 2.0” that has learned from the experience of its defeat and loss of territories in prior years and would, therefore, be much more challenging to eradicate a second time around.

For the rest of this year, the international community can, at the very least, attempt a two-step solution with dual aims: Long-term stability in the Middle East and preventing a resurgence of ISIS.

The first step would be to apply enormous pressure on the forces and influencers active in the Middle East’s conflict zones — Syria, Libya and Yemen — to engineer an enforceable long-term cease-fire. This will be necessary to allow all stakeholders to participate in, or even contribute to, the complex and delicate peace processes designed to achieve an end to hostilities.

In the case of Syria, for example, urging Kurdish forces to retreat would probably go a long way toward discouraging Turkish military engagements in a conflict zone with complex dynamics. In Libya, a more robust effort with greater international backing and urgency could result in the establishment of a united government with at least the minimum required levels of legitimacy, respectability and credibility. In Yemen, the Houthis could be pressured into adhering to a temporary cease-fire — perhaps even by enticing Iran with the prospect of fewer sanctions — so that inroads can be made in the search for a permanent, peaceful solution.

Regardless of location, such cease-fires could be enforced through the establishment of demilitarized zones, occupied by an international peacekeeping force, separating territories controlled by belligerent groups. Such zones would serve the dual purpose of bringing an abrupt end to hostilities and making the next step feasible.

This second step would be to prioritize the distribution of humanitarian aid for vulnerable civilians, along with the initiation of reconstruction projects and reconciliation efforts for the aggrieved. 

Either way, stopping ISIS — and its now numerous offshoots in other parts of the world — will require more engagement rather than less, along with a more holistic approach rather than only military measures.