More than a year after the U.S.-led coalition declared victory over the Islamic State's self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria, a top U.S. official admits the fight against the terror group is not close to over.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered the blunt assessment Thursday to representatives of 31 countries and partners during a virtual meeting of the coalition, urging allies not to be complacent.
“Our fight against ISIS continues, and it will be here for the foreseeable future. We cannot rest,” Pompeo said, using an acronym for the terror group. “We must continue to root out ISIS cells and networks and provide stabilization assistance to liberated areas in Iraq and Syria.”
The latest meeting of coalition partners, being held virtually because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, came at a critical time in the fight against Islamic State, also referred to as IS or by its Arabic acronym, Daesh.
While the U.S.-led coalition and independent monitoring groups point to a decreased number of IS attacks compared with figures from years past, U.S. counterterrorism officials warn the terror group has made significant progress as it tries to rebuild.
“They’ve made incremental, localized improvements to their operating capacity,” a counterterrorism official told VOA last month, adding that IS cells in eastern Syria have become increasingly bold.
Resurgence in Syria, Iraq
Sources close to U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria likewise warn that IS fighters have “spread like cancer,” using increasingly sophisticated tactics to expand their reach.
And last month. Jordan’s King Abdullah II warned that IS activity in Iraq was “threatening to undo years of global efforts.”
There have also been concerns that U.S. President Donald Trump might order a further drawdown of forces in Iraq and Syria, after the U.S. pulled out of a series of bases in Iraq in March, handing them over to the Iraqi military.
NEW: US transfers another key base to #Iraq's military@CJTFOIR confirmed the transfer of #Qayyarah Airfield West, aka #QWest, Thursday— Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) March 26, 2020
Base "served as a strategic launching point for the ISF and Coalition during the Battle of Mosul" per CJTFOIR BrigGen Vincent Barker https://t.co/L5hGt7BJet
Coalition partners have responded with a series of raids and other operations targeting senior IS officials and IS cells across the region. And this week, Iraq announced a new military campaign focusing on IS cells active in Kirkuk and Salah ad Din provinces.
Pompeo on Thursday assured coalition members that the U.S. would remain the “military backbone” of anti-IS efforts in the region.
“Each of us needs to keep fighting, all of us together,” Pompeo said.
But at the same time, the secretary of state called on allies to do more, asking for additional financial contributions, in part to address the 10,000 IS fighters, including 2,000 foreign fighters, still in the custody of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
“We are counting on this coalition to fund the secure and humane detention of the thousands of foreign terrorist fighters in custody in Syria and Iraq,” he said.
IS foreign fighters
For more than a year, both U.S. and SDF officials have raised concerns about the captured IS fighters languishing in hastily constructed prisons, many now over capacity.
It is a situation that officials say has become even more critical in light of the coronavirus pandemic, which has already sparked a number of riots at some larger prisons.
#SDF says prison in #Hasakah #Syria under control following a day-long riot by #ISIS prisoners "which required the intervention of special forces and anti-terrorist forces" and also negotiations w/the ISIS prisoners, per @SdfSpokesperson https://t.co/ZQDRdV4opL— Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) May 4, 2020
The U.S. delivered aid and supplies in April, but SDF officials have said that is not enough and have continued to seek support to put foreign IS fighters before some sort of tribunal, though questions about what to do with convicted IS fighters have yet to be answered.
While some countries, like Italy and Germany, have earned praise from the U.S. for repatriating a greater number of foreign fighters, many countries continue to refuse.
Former U.S. military and counterterrorism officials, as well as humanitarian groups, have also raised concerns about the futures of an estimated 10,000 IS family members, mostly women and children, held in displacement camps, like al-Hol, in Syria.
According to a recent report by the U.S. Defense Department inspector general, two-thirds of the detained IS family members are children under age 12.
Some counterterrorism officials and experts have likened the population to a ticking time bomb, and something that could help IS re-emerge.
“States must get on the front foot and get their nationals back and not leave them in a limbo,” U.N. coordinator Edmund Fitton-Brown, said earlier this year. “They're going to become increasingly desperate and possibly increasingly radicalized.”