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ISIS is defeated but its specter haunts us still

On March 23, just two weeks ago, one of the most gripping, harrowing tales of the rise of post-911 terrorism came to an end. The Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led, US-backed group, routed the remnants of ISIS in the small Syrian town of Baghouz, the group’s last territorial possession.

Even though the SDF declared emphatically that the world has seen the last of ISIS, the final battle crawled to a rather tepid conclusion. Even more confusing, and much to the surprise of the US Department of Defense, was an all-too-early declaration from the White House that ISIS had been defeated. Live reports from the scene still showed a battle in full swing, as the SDF had to be cautious given the thousands of civilian hostages that ISIS fighters were using as human shields.

Regardless, ISIS would eventually be reduced to a shadow of its former self, far from the nascent terror organization determined to conquer the world.

Five years ago such an outcome seemed inconceivable. ISIS had managed to form a proto-state the size of Great Britain by driving out Iraqi government forces from parts of Western Iraq. The group also took advantage of the civil war in Syria to seize swaths of territory, which it used to expand its operations, terrorize ethnic minorities and even destroy heritage sites.

ISIS’s “successes” can largely be attributed to its recruitment of experienced fighters, including high-ranking former military and intelligence officials. In addition, civilians reeling from the endless chaos and power vacuums left after the US withdrew troops were also initially enthralled by the group, which channeled some of their same frustrations.

At the height of its power, ISIS was in complete control of Mosul and Raqqa, two of the largest cities in Iraq with combined populations in the millions. This enabled it to become a self-sustaining entity despite expanding its ranks and territorial claims so rapidly. Its financing came from illegal sales of petroleum, taxation in occupied territories, looting of banks, extortion, kidnapping and ransoms, online fundraising and even donations from wealthy Arabs masked as “humanitarian aid.”

This level of sophistication and grandiose ambitions alarmed most but what really caught the world by surprise was how fast the group expanded. This was unlike the small-cell, guerrilla insurgency tactics utilized by Al-Qaeda, for instance. Defeating ISIS was going to take a lot more than just surveillance, drone strikes and cooperation with local military, public-security, intelligence and law-enforcement operations.

These “successes” also earned the group a veneer of legitimacy and increasing confidence in its staying power. Its tactics and creed appealed to thousands of disaffected youths across the region and even in the developed world. Many would eventually board buses, boats and planes to join the group, the origins and meteoric rise of which confounded the world at large, which fumbled initial attempts at mounting an effective opposition.

All the while, ISIS continued to grow. In just a few years, it was well financed, demonstrably capable of waging war and very effective at spreading its poison far beyond its territorial claims. The group was poised to swallow Iraq and parts of the Middle East whole. ISIS seemed unstoppable — but in a rather ironic twist, the Kurds that the group had sworn to eradicate were the ones who proved instrumental in its defeat at Baghouz.

However, ISIS is simply down. It is not yet defeated. Even before the tide began to turn, it had already scored declarations of support and allegiance from far-flung extremist groups around the world. Among the more notable was the pledge of allegiance from West Africa-based Boko Haram, in northern Nigeria. Other groups include the Caucasus Emirate in southwestern Russia, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, the Mujahideen Shoura Council in Gaza, and Jund Al-Khilafah in Algeria. Some other organizations were, or are, at least partially active in parts of Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Brazil, India, Lebanon, Indonesia, Jordan and even Norway. The group also managed to spawn its own active branches in some of the most unstable countries outside of Syria, Libya and Iraq, where the rule of law is largely absent.

Its most active groups were in parts of east, west and southern Libya, which became more potent after the Shoura Council of Islamic Youth pledged allegiance to ISIS. Unfortunately, Libya remains unstable, as shown in the past two days.

In Sinai, remnants of the Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis extremist militant group pledged allegiance to ISIS and quickly rose to prominence by claiming responsibility for downing a Russian passenger airliner, Metrojet flight 9268. Lastly, the ongoing civil war in Yemen led to ISIS building an active presence there, directly competing for influence with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. ISIS joined the civil war, mounting attacks against the Zaidiyyah Houthis, unintentionally joining a US-backed effort to rid Yemen of Ansar Allah, an Islamic religious-political armed movement.

After the main group’s defeat, its influence and the connection it shared with these “cells” or supportive organizations will ensure that parts of its dangerous creed survives. In the worst-case scenario, members of these organizations could end up encouraged or radicalized by the apparent martyrdom of the group.

A disturbing truth about terrorism, whether it is born from white nationalism or religious fundamentalism, is that all it takes is one lone wolf to upend a fragile coexistence. These groups tend to become specters, ghosts or the boogeyman that simply will not go away no matter how many troops, ordnance and billions of dollars are thrown at them.
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