ISIS 'caliphate' crumbled in 2019, but terror group remains forceful threat, experts say

After almost five years of bloodletting, the so-called ISIS “caliphate” officially crumbled as the terrorist group was defeated in its final swath of Syrian territory in March. Seven months later, its shadowy leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in an onslaught led by U.S. operatives.

The victories of 2019 were symbolically crucial – but the resilience of the Islamic terrorist outfit means not only has it not dissipated, but it is likely to remain a forceful threat to 2020.

“We should not assume ISIS is defeated and will not have a resurgence in the future,” Anne Bradley, former economic analyst for the CIA’s Office of Terrorism Analysis and current academic director at the Fund for American Studies, told Fox News. “The death of Baghdadi is a cost to ISIS, it will require that they adapt, but the death of Baghdadi is not the same victory as perhaps the death of (Usama) bin Laden was for Al Qaeda. Bin Laden had a cult of personality that Baghdadi did not.”

Bradley also stressed that while ISIS does not control the territory across Iraq and Syria it once did – equivalent size-wise to that of Britain – it “still has sizeable assets estimated earlier this year to be as much as $400 million.”

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In October, President Trump made the controversial and abrupt decision to announce the hasty pullout of U.S. troops from Syria, effectively paving the way for Turkey to move across the border and igniting further conflict between them and the Kurdish allies once armed and backed by the U.S. for the purpose of driving ISIS out.

This file image made from a video posted on a militant website in April 2019 purportedly shows former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

This file image made from a video posted on a militant website in April 2019 purportedly shows former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. (AP/Al-Furgan media)

The decision was seen by many as opening the floodgates to an ISIS resurgence, while other analysts have viewed it as a step on the right track.

“The best way to fight ISIS in Syria is to exit and let other powers, starting with the Syrian government, go after ISIS,” said Defense Priorities Policy Director Benjamin Friedman. “Denying the Syrian government some oil revenue just delays their ability to retake territory, which helps ISIS fighters.”

The White House has instead ordered remaining troops to secure oil fields in Syria, as rashes of conflict and chaos reign between factions and interest groups nearby, creating confusion for those on the ground.

"The international coalition forces abandoned the area, and headed to an area where there is oil," lamented MK, a father-of-three in the city of Kobane, who declined to use his real name out of fear of retaliation from regime forces occupying the region. "We did not know the goal of the U.S. was only oil. We thought it was to defeat terrorism, but unfortunately, we are now more vulnerable. We see ISIS sleeper cells, many of them have escaped ISIS prisons."

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Nonetheless, the U.S-led military coalition, made up of 76 allied nations, remains somewhat engaged in rooting out ISIS remnants – especially in the form of tunnels – across Iraq and Syria, as well as taking out the group’s remaining leaders.

“We coordinate every day with our partners to prevent (ISIS) from regaining lost territory, training, and recruiting operatives, and financing and conducting attacks,” Col. Myles B. Caggins III, the coalition military spokesperson, said. “The Coalition will continue with its partners to strike at the terrorists.”

Iraqi planes still routinely target hideouts tucked inside the arid desert and rugged mountains, often facing deadly retaliation in armed confrontations spurred by ISIS operatives. The presence of ISIS sleeper cells has meant that hospitals and other service centers in areas such as Diyala province have had to undergo significant tightening in recent weeks as the security threat burgeons.

People look at a destroyed van near the village of Barisha, in Idlib province, Syria, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, after an operation by the U.S. military which targeted Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the shadowy leader of the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/ Ghaith Alsayed)

People look at a destroyed van near the village of Barisha, in Idlib province, Syria, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, after an operation by the U.S. military which targeted Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the shadowy leader of the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/ Ghaith Alsayed)

Upwards of 10,000 foreign fighters still languish in northeastern Syrian prisons with dwindling security, their future in limbo as most governments refuse to take them back, an issue that has become a point of contention between Trump and allied nations. Many of their wives and children are wedged inside ailing camps where brainwashing and radicalization remains a fervent problem.

“The lack of consensus over what to do with these individuals will continue to be a security threat and potential source of the group’s resurgence,” said Josh Lipowsky, a senior researcher for the Counter Extremism Project. “ISIS now calls for its followers to support the larger, metaphorical Islamic State by attacking opponents of its ideology. For example, Uslan Khan’s attack at the London Bridge last month specifically targeted a group that works with radicalized prisoners.”

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According to Lipowsky, this strategy allows ISIS to be less centralized and focus its efforts primarily on propaganda.

“ISIS doesn’t have to coordinate – or pay – these lone wolves but can claim these individuals as soldiers of the caliphate while sowing fear that ISIS could strike anywhere," he added.

Moreover, many camps in Syria are stuffed with tethered tents and tens of thousands of victims deep in mourning, and mass graves still lie below the barren landscapes once trampled over with the callous black flag.

A fighter of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) holds an ISIL flag and a weapon on a street in the city of Mosul, June 23, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

A fighter of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) holds an ISIL flag and a weapon on a street in the city of Mosul, June 23, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

For victims of the ISIS scourge, including Yazidi survivor Shatha Salim Bashar, it’s a war that will never really be over. It was a bitter day in the dead of winter, as 2017 was drawing to a close that she was rescued from hell. Bashar made it home after almost three-and-a-half years as an ISIS sex slave in Iraq and Syria.

“I can’t forget the first time I was raped. I was traded 14 times among the jihadists,” Shatha, 28, told Fox News. “Yazidis need not only boxes of food; we need a guarantee that we can survive. We can’t spend our whole lives in camps. We want to go home. But we cannot go home without security.”

Meanwhile, sustained operations between U.S. and Afghan forces – and contention with the Taliban – are reported to have expelled ISIS almost entirely from its stubborn foothold in the eastern plains of Afghanistan. Yet experts also anticipate that the group’s focus and dominance will shift further outside the Middle East in the immediate future.

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Raphael Gluck, the co-founder of Jihadoscope, which monitors online activity by Islamist extremists, underscored that ISIS affiliates are rising across Africa – almost unchecked.

“We saw a terrible ambush of U.S. forces in Niger in 2017, that played into ISIS propaganda for months and really put Africa in focus, it has only grown in strength since,” he said.

Gluck also pointed out that the group’s online strategy – which has been a fervent part of its propaganda and recruitment campaign since the very start – has shifted in recent months as the tech arena and law enforcement have become more adept as shuttering suspect accounts and deleting content.

“We have seen a huge operation targeting ISIS media on Telegram in the past few weeks. It has certainly made it harder for wannabes or followers to get hold of media, but it is still there, and ISIS will find a way to reach supporters and potential recruits,” Gluck continued. “Besides the Dark Web, where ISIS lurks with some presence, one of the big new threat buzzwords is ISIS on the Decentralized Web or Dweb – where terrorists are hidden in plain sight and can bounce around from server to server.”

ISIS camps still overflowing and sources of recruitment

ISIS camps still overflowing and sources of recruitment (Fox News/ Serbest Ali)

In late November, a 40-year-old Brooklyn man was apprehended in New York for allegedly aiding the “terrorist organization bent on killing Americans,” and for encouraging attacks on U.S. soil, federal authorities declared.

And while ISIS has been primarily knocked off its once staple encrypted messaging app Telegram, Gluck said they are not only still attempting to get back, but that they are experimenting with more decentralized and encrypted apps such as the blockchain messaging app, Because Communication Matters (BCM). The app bills itself as a “highly secure communication platform” by which “each message is strictly encrypted, and no third party can decipher the content.” It offers fast account destruction and anonymous use.

“ISIS has also lowered the bar in terms of the connection you need to have with their central recruitment divisions,” he observed. “They are fine with you reading and implementing their tutorials without sending them a pledge video.”

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Much of their attack blueprint now revolves around old tools of the trade from car rammings to knife attacks, experts emphasized, signaling that the U.S. and its partners are entrenched in a fight for the long-haul.

“ISIS will be under pressure to commit a major, high-publicized attack with a very large number of casualties in order to demonstrate to its followers, potential recruits and to its enemies that the group is still relevant and powerful despite its loss of territory and death of its leader,” surmised Jeffrey Simon, a visiting political science lecturer at UCLA and author of “The Alphabet Bomber: A Lone Wolf Terrorist Ahead of His Time.” “And there are still many ISIS fighters at large, and they pose a threat of a resurgence in the coming years.”

For those picking up the pieces, it still feels like a nightmare ready to reignite.

"I expect in 2020 more ISIS attacks. We feel that we are not safe," MK added. "We see different flags in the streets, different patrols, and we just hope that the USA can help us reach a good solution for the people."