This week marked a significant moment in the War on Terror: the destruction of ISIS last remaining foothold in Syria and the decimation of ISIS proclaimed caliphate. It also marks arguably the greatest political win of Donald Trump’s presidency thus far and a testament to his persistence in ensuring the group’s terror network was no longer capable of what it once was.
The truth is that when President Trump took office -- at the height of ISIS's brutal rule -- ISIS fighters controlled more than 20,000 square miles in Iraq and Syria. Now they barely control a small building.
On Wednesday, at a speech in Lima, Ohio, President Trump held up maps for the world to see with red markings detailing just how far our forces have come in the last years and proclaimed that ISIS would be “gone by tonight.“ If you didn’t know any better, looking at those maps you might think the same thing: that ISIS is done.
But the battlefield always tells a different story. For someone who spent nearly a decade hunting ISIS leaders, I can tell you that they are far from done. The ISIS caliphate may be destroyed territorially, but if we are not careful, it might get worse.
It wasn’t too long ago that many of our government officials far from the front lines also believed that the Islamic State was finished. But teams like mine on the ground at the time knew otherwise.
In 2010, we had brought the Islamic State to the brink of extinction. Our special operations task force was picking off senior leaders left and right and our team had just finished killing the number one and number two in charge of the entire terrorist network after nearly five years of searching for them in Iraq, forcing what was left of the terrorist network to scramble.
Daily terrorist attacks on civilians were at an all-time low, U.S. soldier deaths nearly non-existent, and tens of thousands of ISIS fighters were jailed in prisons across Iraq. The new leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had gone underground. He had to, he couldn’t move freely anymore. Our team was busy killing everyone around him.
For someone who spent nearly a decade hunting ISIS leaders, I can tell you that they are far from done. The ISIS caliphate may be destroyed territorially, but if we are not careful, it might get worse.
Meanwhile back in Washington, senior officials were briefed by Beltway intelligence agencies with these same visually-pleasing maps with red markings and eye-catching charts proclaiming that the Islamic State was done. They touted the success of the coalition efforts and declared victory without listening to the soldiers still there on the ground hunting and fighting to keep the group at bay.
Foreign officials were so sure of victory at the time that even Iraq’s Prime Minister, in an effort to return the country to normalcy and as a sign of good faith, released thousands of Islamic State prisoners back into the country. Major U.S. military operations had ceased, and the task to hunt down remnants of the Islamic State was left to just a few elite organizations. Many of us still left in the fight knew what others seemed to want to disregard at the highest levels, that if we didn’t keep up the pressure and continued to be provided the same resources to fight them, they would be back.
But despite our plea, those resources started to dwindle and with the public no longer interested, Washington started to forget why we were still there. Eventually, the State Department wanted us out, thinking they could take it from there, despite our special operations leadership begging them to allow us to stay based on intelligence showing a return to chaos was still possible.
I worry that with all this talk of ISIS defeat in Syria and Iraq, we may fall into the same trap of believing our own hype, and forgetting just how quickly ISIS can re-emerge. In fact, it’s already happening. A recent report at CTC West Point shows that suicide operations, targeted killings, and raids continue to persist in cities once “liberated” from ISIS.
Just like the perceived end of the Islamic state at the beginning of the decade, tens of thousands of ISIS fighters now remain in prisons across the battlefield. These prisons are over capacity and groups like the SDF will eventually have to release many of them. They already have started and over the coming years, we will surely see tens of thousands more released. Do we really think those prisoners will simply return to a normal life?
It's also hard to tell now how many ISIS members still exist. During the battle of Baghouz to liberate the last remaining ISIS territory, SDF fighters estimated that there were only 500 fighters remaining in the city. But while the battle raged, over 3,000 ISIS fighters surrendered -- to the surprise of many analysts.
Our estimates of remaining ISIS fighters globally are likely highly inaccurate. Many have likely slipped through the front lines of war, assimilating back into society, and prepping for a new asymmetric battle in the shadows. This is when it gets more dangerous. When they held terrain it was easier to know exactly where they were, targeting them when they couldn’t blend into the civilian populace made it easier for coalition forces.
With the ISIS caliphate destroyed and a perception that we no longer should be concerned about the group, I was recently asked if this was what winning the War on Terror looked like.
I'm not sure the War on Terror will ever be truly be won. The idea that we will one day wake up and pretend we don’t have to go on the offensive to defend ourselves from what’s out there is an illusion.
There will always be another ISIS or Bin Laden who hates us for whatever reason because they have decided in their head that we have wronged them. Guys in special ops lightheartedly call this "job security." But let’s learn from history and not kid ourselves to think that we can ever let up pressure on a group that has proven it can reemerge if we turn our backs.