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Islamic State Poised for Comeback, US Defense Officials Report

The chief of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, purportedly appears for the first time in five years in a propaganda video in an undisclosed location, in this undated TV grab taken from video released April 29 by Al-Furqan media.
The chief of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, purportedly appears for the first time in five years in a propaganda video in an undisclosed location, in this undated TV grab taken from video released April 29 by Al-Furqan media.

U.S. defense and intelligence officials say the special forces operation that killed former Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria last October has done little to hinder the terror group.

Instead, the Defense Intelligence Agency warns the organization’s command and control structure, as well as many of its clandestine networks remain intact, and recent turmoil in the region due to Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria has played to its advantage.

“ISIS exploited the Turkish incursion and subsequent drawdown of U.S. troops to reconstitute capabilities and resources within Syria and strengthen its ability to plan attacks abroad,” according to Defense Department Principal Inspector General Glenn Fine in a new report, using an acronym for the terror group.

And should the U.S. be forced to pull troops from Iraq following protests there, “ISIS would likely resurge,” Fine added, citing additional DIA analysis.

Rallying around a new IS leader

The findings come less than a week after U.S. defense officials revealed the true identity of Baghdadi’s replacement, cautioning he appears to have IS positioned to eventually make its presence felt in the region, and perhaps on the world stage.

Presented to the world as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, defense officials confirmed to VOA last week he is actually Hajji Abdallah, a religious scholar who helped engineer the campaign to slaughter Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority.

While some global intelligence agencies have doubted whether Qurashi can serve as an effective leader, U.S. officials have seen little evidence of a drop-off.

Under Qurashi’s leadership, IS has retained a "continuity of operations, global cohesion and at least its current trajectory,” the DIA told the inspector general.

Separately, U.S. counterterrorism officials tell VOA they believe Qurashi has done enough to keep IS from splintering.

“ISIS supporters worldwide have rallied around the new caliph,” a senior counterterrorism official said, pointing to the social media campaign of IS fighters and followers pledging allegiance to Qurashi.

A speech issued last week by the new IS spokesman, Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, likewise rallied followers around familiar themes of endurance and survival.

Still, U.S. defense and intelligence officials caution that IS has not been overly ambitious, telling the inspector general the terror group has limited itself to carrying out a series of small-scale attacks, both in Iraq and in Syria, while making no attempts to hold or retake territory.

“ISIS appears to have sufficient weapons, explosives, operatives and funding to carry out its present level of operations, but assessed that it likely faces significant constraints in expanding beyond that for the next 12 to 18 months,” said the inspector general report released Tuesday, citing intelligence from U.S. Central Command.

There are also signs that the collapse of its self-declared caliphate and ongoing pressure from the U.S.-led coalition has taken a toll on IS’s ability to project strength.

In contrast to the assessment by defense intelligence officials, officials with Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) argue it has been unable to take advantage of Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria, protests in Iraq or even hostilities between the U.S. and Iran.

“ISIS really hasn't been able to exploit any gaps or seams," Deputy Commander Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich recently told Pentagon reporters.

“ISIS is a little bit more on the lack of capability and capacity side than strategically patient,” he added.

Another analysis by U.S. Central Command suggested IS propaganda, while serving to rally the most dedicated of the group’s followers, has also been less effective than in the past.

Concerns about an evolving IS

Some analysts are wary of writing off IS so easily, even if just in the near term.

“There aren't attacks in some areas because ISIS doesn't need to attack,” according to Jennifer Cafarella, research director at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW).

“The phrase that has been used is ISIS is owning the night in many villages in the Ninewa Plains and in the disputed internal boundaries (with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq),” she said. “That’s a bad sign.”

Other analysts worry the U.S.-led coalition may be underestimating IS’s ability to innovate.

“I don’t think IS would necessarily emerge in the same way they did before,” said Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Their outbreak from 2012 to 2015 was different than their outbreak from 2003 to 2006. So, I would expect whatever happens going forward will look different again because the context and situation is different.”

And, there is plenty of intelligence to suggest IS remains a threat.

U.S. counterterrorism officials warn the terror group still commands at least 14,000 fighters across Iraq and Syria. State Department officials say the number could be closer to 18,000, up from an estimated more than 10,000 this past May, just months after the caliphate collapsed.

A recent intelligence report from the United Nations likewise warns anywhere from half to two-thirds of the more than 40,000 foreign fighters who flocked to Syria and Iraq to fight for IS “are still alive,” many of them unaccounted for.

FILE - Islamic State display their flag during celebrations in Mosul, Iraq.
FILE - Islamic State display their flag during celebrations in Mosul, Iraq.

The financing of terror

IS financing is also a concern, according to the U.S. inspector general report, as many of the terror group’s revenue streams remain intact.

"ISIS continues to generate revenue by extorting oil smuggling networks in northeastern Syria,” the report said, citing intelligence from the U.S. Treasury Department.

While oil revenue has shrunk considerably since the collapse of the IS caliphate, U.S. officials say IS fighters continue to rake in profits from kidnapping and extortion plots, from looting, and by using front companies to move money around.

U.S. and U.N. officials estimate, even now, IS may have close to $300 million in reserves.

U.S. officials also warn getting visibility into what IS is doing has gotten more difficult now that the U.S. has pulled forces from the area.

"The withdrawal of U.S. forces from areas of northeastern Syria diminished (the Treasury Department’s) insight into ISIS’s fundraising and cash storage activities, as well as its ability to assess trends," the inspector general report found.