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.

Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.

The Islamic State 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 IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which warns the epicenter for the terror group's budding renaissance is Iraq, "where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and most of the ISIL 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, ISIL will direct and facilitate international attacks."

In the meantime, the report warns the terror organization, "has continued its evolution into a mainly covert network," since the fall of Baghuz, 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 U.S. officials and others dating back to last year.

IS "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," U.S. Special Representative for Syria, Ambassador James Jeffery, said this past March, following the fall of Baghuz.

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 U.N. member states anticipates that "comeback" will take place in the Syrian and Iraqi heartlands, where IS has the majority of its estimated 10,000 to 15,000 fighters, many in clandestine cells.

Echoing U.S. intelligence and military assessments, the U.N. report stated IS 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 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 ISIL was in control," the report said, adding member states fear it may be working.

At the same time, intelligence officials said IS 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.

U.S. counterterror officials estimate that more than 45,000 fighters from 110 countries flocked to Syria and Iraq, almost all to fight for IS.

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 U.N. assessment warns that number could be higher, and that "up to 30,000 of those who travelled to the so-called 'caliphate' may still be alive."

A U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter watches illumination rounds light up Baghuz, Syria, as the last pocket of Islamic State militants is attacked on March 12, 2019.
Fears Grow Islamic State's Foreign Fighters Ready to Carry On
This is part one of a four-part series. WASHINGTON — Even as the Islamic State’s caliphate was clinging to life with its last defenders cornered in a small town in northeastern Syria, the terror group managed to shock those who would eventually see it die.   Instead of waiting out about 1,000 civilians and 300 or so hard-core IS fighters who had retreated to Baghuz, the U.S.-led coalition watched for weeks in late February and March, as upwards of 30,000 civilians and 5,000 fighters, slowly…

Despite all this, the U.N. report finds IS still faces some significant challenges, especially when it comes to money.

While IS 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 U.N. that IS operatives have become more dependent on crime while also trying to profit from legitimate businesses.

IS 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. 

And it continues to face stiff competition from its main rival, al-Qaida, as the two terror groups battle in Syria and Iraq, and increasingly in parts of West Africa and the Sahel, for followers.

Al-Qaida, itself, also faces a somewhat uncertain future, at least in the near term, according the U.N. report, with its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, "reported to be in poor health and doubts as to how the group will manage the succession."

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