ISIS terror group's self-declared caliphate may be dead, but its leaders are
hanging on in Syria and Iraq, dreaming of the day when they can again direct
attacks on targets around the world.
The conclusion is part of a sobering assessment in a newly released quarterly United Nations report on ISIS which warned that the epicenter for the terror group's budding renaissance is Iraq, "where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and most of the ISIS leadership are now based."
"The leadership aims to adapt, survive and consolidate in the core area and to establish sleeper cells at the local level in preparation for eventual resurgence," the report cautioned. "When it has the time and space to reinvest in an external operations capability, ISIS will direct and facilitate international attacks."
In the meantime, the report warned the terror organization, "has continued its evolution into a mainly covert network" since the fall of Baghouz, the last territory it held in Syria, this past March.
While the assessment that Baghdadi is operating mostly out of Iraq is new, the other warnings are similar to concerns voiced by US officials and others dating back to last year.
ISIS "is well-positioned to rebuild and work on enabling its physical caliphate to re-emerge," Pentagon spokesman Commander Sean Robertson told VOA last August.
"This is not the end of the fight," US Special Representative for Syria, Ambassador James Jeffery, said this past March, following the fall of Baghouz.
More recently, a report by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW), said the terror group is poised for a comeback that "could be faster and even more devastating" than when it first swept across parts of Syria and Iraq.
Intelligence from UN member states anticipates that a "comeback" will take place in the Syrian and Iraqi heartlands, where ISIS has the majority of its estimated 10,000 to 15,000 fighters, many in clandestine cells.
Echoing US intelligence and military assessments, the UN report stated ISIS operations are more advanced in Iraq but that its operatives are still able to move freely across parts of both Iraq and Syria.
The group's attacks, which seem to be coming with increased frequency, appear aimed at frustrating the local populations, for example by burning crops in northern Iraq to prevent any steps toward recovery and stabilization.
"Their hope is that the local populations will become impatient, blame the authorities and grow nostalgic for the time when ISIS was in control," the report said, adding that member states fear it may be working.
At the same time, intelligence officials said ISIS is effectively using its media and propaganda arms to maintain relevance until such time that it is again ready to strike on the global stage.
Adding to the concerns of intelligence officials around the world are the large number of foreign fighters that may still be at large, either in Syria and Iraq or in the surrounding countries.
US counterterrorism officials have estimated that more than 45,000 fighters from 110 countries flocked to Syria and Iraq, almost all to fight for ISIS.
As of earlier this year, as many as 10,000 were thought to be at large, having escaped the fall of the terror group's caliphate. But the new UN assessment warned that number could be higher, and that "up to 30,000 of those who travelled to the so-called 'caliphate' may still be alive."
Despite all this, the UN report found that ISIS still faces some significant challenges, especially when it comes to money.
While ISIS still has an estimated $50 million to $300 million in revenue left over from its self-declared caliphate, the group "is reported to lack liquid funds to run operations," according to the report. As such, member states told the UN that ISIS operatives have become more dependent on crime while also trying to profit from legitimate businesses.
ISIS has also become more dependent on provinces and its more established affiliates, so it runs the risk that its agenda will slowly become less international and more regionalized.
It also continues to face stiff competition from its main rival, al-Qaeda, as the two terror groups battle in Syria and Iraq, and increasingly in parts of West Africa and the Sahel, for followers.
Al-Qaeda, itself, also faces a somewhat uncertain future, at least in the near term, according the UN report, with its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, "reported to be in poor health and doubts as to how the group will manage the succession."