Ten years after ISIS declared its caliphate, it is defeated but still deadly

Ten years after ISIS declared its caliphate, it is defeated but still deadly
Ten years after ISIS declared its caliphate, it is defeated but still deadly

BAGHDAD (AP) — A decade after the Islamic State group declared its caliphate across large parts of Iraq and Syria, the extremists no longer control any territory, have lost many prominent leaders and have largely disappeared from global news headlines.

Still, the group continues to recruit members and claim responsibility for deadly attacks around the world, including deadly operations in Iran and Russia this year that left scores dead. Its sleeper cells in Syria and Iraq still carry out attacks against government forces in both countries and against U.S.-backed Syrian fighters, at a time when Iraq’s government is negotiating with Washington over a possible withdrawal of U.S. forces.

The group that used to attract tens of thousands of fighters and supporters from around the world to Syria and Iraq, and at its height ruled an area half the size of the United Kingdom, was notorious for its brutality. It beheaded civilians, massacred 1,700 captured Iraqi soldiers in a brief period, and enslaved and raped thousands of women from the Yazidi community, one of Iraq’s oldest religious minorities.

“Daesh remains a threat to international security,” U.S. Army Maj. Gen. J.B. Vowell, the commanding general of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, told The Associated Press. Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

“We maintain our intensity and determination to combat and destroy any remnants of groups that share Daesh’s ideology,” Vowell said.

In recent years, the group’s branches have grown stronger in various parts of the world, mainly in Africa and Afghanistan, but its leaders are believed to be in Syria. All four of the group’s leaders who have been killed since 2019 were hunted down and tracked down in Syria.

In 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then the leader of the Islamic State group in Iraq, an offshoot of al-Qaeda, distanced himself from al-Qaeda’s global network and clashed with its branch in Syria, then called the Nusra Front. The group renamed itself the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and launched a military campaign during which it captured large parts of Syria and Iraq.

In June 2014, the group gained control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, the country’s second-largest, as the Iraqi army crumbled. Later that month, it opened the border between areas it controlled in Syria and Iraq.

On June 29, 2014, al-Baghdadi appeared dressed in a black robe to deliver a sermon from the pulpit of the Grand Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, in which he declared the existence of a caliphate and called on Muslims around the world to pledge allegiance to him and obey him as their leader. Since then, the group has called itself the Islamic State.

“Baghdadi’s sermon — an extension of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s extremist ideology — continues to inspire ISIS members around the world,” said Myles B. Caggins III, a retired U.S. Army officer, nonresident senior fellow at the New Lines Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., and former spokesman for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, referring to the Islamic State’s former acronym. He was speaking of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq who was killed in a U.S. strike in 2006.

From its self-declared caliphate, the group has planned deadly attacks around the world and carried out brutal killings, including beheading Western journalists, setting fire to a Jordanian pilot locked in a cage days after his fighter jet was shot down, and drowning opponents in swimming pools after locking them in giant metal cages.

A coalition of more than 80 countries, led by the United States, was formed to fight ISIS. A decade later, the alliance continues to carry out raids on ISIS fighter hideouts in Syria and Iraq.

The war against IS officially ended in March 2019, when militants from the Kurdish-led, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces captured the town of Baghouz in eastern Syria, the last sliver of territory still controlled by the extremists.

Prior to the loss of Baghouz, IS was defeated in Iraq in July 2017 when Iraqi forces captured the northern city of Mosul. Three months later, IS suffered a major blow after the SDF captured the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, which was the group’s de facto capital.

The United Nations says IS still has between 5,000 and 7,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq.

Still, at least in Iraq, government and military officials have said the group is too weakened to stage a comeback.

“It is not possible for (IS) to claim again that they have a caliphate. They do not have the command and control capabilities to do that,” Iraqi army Maj. Gen. Tahsin al-Khafaji told the AP at the Joint Special Operations Command headquarters in Baghdad, where Iraqi officials and U.S.-led coalition officers oversee operations against the extremists.

The command, which was formed to lead operations against the group weeks after the caliphate was declared, remains active.

Al-Khafaji said that IS now consists of sleeper cells in caves and the desert in remote areas, as Iraqi security forces constantly hunt them down. During the first five months of the year, he said, Iraqi forces carried out 35 airstrikes against IS, killing 51 of its members.

At the same headquarters, Sabah al-Noman of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service said that, having lost its control over Iraq, the Islamist group is mainly focused on Africa, especially the Sahel region, to try to establish a presence there.

“It is not possible for them to take control of a village, much less an Iraqi city,” he said. He also said the U.S.-led coalition continues to conduct reconnaissance and surveillance to provide intelligence to Iraqi forces, and the security forces “handle this information directly.”

Although IS appears to be under control in Iraq, it has killed dozens of government forces and SDF fighters in recent months in Syria.

“Daesh terrorist cells continue their terrorist operations,” said Siamand Ali, a spokesman for the SDF. “They are present on the ground and are working at higher levels than in previous years.”

In northeastern Syria, SDF fighters guard some 10,000 captured IS fighters in roughly two dozen detention facilities, including 2,000 foreigners whose home countries have refused to repatriate them.

The SDF also monitors some 33,000 relatives of suspected IS fighters, mostly women and children, in the heavily guarded Al-Hol camp, considered a breeding ground for future extremists.

Their worst attack since the group’s defeat occurred in January 2022, when the militants attacked Gweiran, or Al-Sinaa, prison, a Kurdish-run facility in northeastern Syria that holds thousands of Islamic State fighters. The attack led to 10 days of fighting between SDF militants and IS members that left nearly 500 people dead on both sides, before the SDF brought the situation under control.

Caggins said the “military advice and guidance” provided by the U.S.-led coalition to Iraqi Kurdish militants and the SDF “is essential to maintaining the upper hand against ISIS remnants, as well as preventing the escape of more than 10,000 ISIS detainees in makeshift prisons and camps in Syria.”


Mroue reported from Beirut.

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