Osama Bin Laden has been dead for years and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s “caliphate” in the Middle East has crumbled, but the global jihadist threat continues to boil as extremists retreat underground to plot terror strikes around the world.
Some 20,000 to 30,000 fighters loyal to Baghdadi’s Islamic State movement, also known as ISIS or ISIL, remain active in Syria and Iraq despite no longer holding significant territory there, according to a new U.N. report that also claims affiliates of Bin Laden’s original al Qaeda network are still strong from Africa to Asia.
The report circulated by experts to the U.N. Security Council this week highlighted the staying power of such al Qaeda’s affiliates as al-Shabaab in Somalia, but stressed that extremist followers of the relatively newer ISIS movement pose a rising threat globally.
Fears of so-called loan wolf, ISIS-inspired terrorism soared anew in Europe on Tuesday after a 29-year old man rammed pedestrians and cyclists on the streets surrounding British Parliament in London, before crashing the vehicle into a security barrier.
While authorities had not pinned the incident to ISIS as of Tuesday night, it bore similar characteristics of previous attacks claimed by the terror group where loan wolf assailants used a car or truck to mow down victims in the street.
Private analysts warned Tuesday that the tens of thousands of ISIS followers who’ve melted away from the movement’s former stronghold in Syria and Iraq are morphing into a loosely-knit network of semi-independent terror cells, loyal only to the group’s hyper-radical ideology, with no single leader.
Such a progression would see ISIS, which initially emerged out al Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate in the 2013-timeframe, following a development trajectory similar to that of Bin Laden’s original organization.
“ISIS 2.0 is the al Qaeda model. That’s what we’re seeing now,” says Michael Pregent, a former U.S. intelligence officer specializing in the Middle East and North Africa. “We’re seeing ISIS operate as a traditional terror organization.”
“They don’t plant flags anymore, they don’t claim territory. They’ve learned that unless they can shoot down a U.S. aircraft, don’t plant a flag on a city because you’re going to lose it,” Mr. Pregent, now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute, told The Washington Times.
It’s development that has triggered concern in U.S. counterterrorism circles, where debate is heated over the extent to which an evolved ISIS could prove a more difficult global jihadist foe than even al Qaeda was during the 9/11 era.
U.S. officials say Bin Laden’s al Qaeda pioneered the idea of a decentralized network of terror cells capable of striking anywhere around the world. But even al Qaeda was never able to fully abandon its top down chain of command, giving washington a rich target set to decapitate and ultimately quash the group’s worldwide reach.
That U.S.-led campaign culminated in May 2011 when American forces raided a Pakistani compound and killed Bin Laden, dealing a symbolic blow to al Qaeda and achieving one of the highest profile victories in the ongoing war on terror.
Counterterrorism sources say ISIS present a different challenge. While conflicting reports circulate over whether the group’s founder is dead or alive, it may be irrelevant. Using high tech communications and social media, the terror group has all but abandoned the need for a single jihadist leader to be in control, leaving it to independent cells or individuals themselves to decide how to carry out terror attacks.
“Baghdadi doesn’t matter,” Mr. Pregent said of the new dynamic on Tuesday.
Destroying the caliphate
White House officials and top commanders with the U.S.-backed coalition battling ISIS in Iraq and Syria pushed back against the veracity of figures outlined in this week’s U.N. report — particularly the claim that the group still as many as 30,000 followers roughly equally distributed between Syria and Iraq.
“The numbers are always very difficult, [and] that number seems a little bit high,” British Army Maj. Gen. Felix Gedney, a deputy commander for the U.S.-led coalition, told reporters at the Pentagon. “I think we’d need to look at the methodology and the data on which that estimation is based,” he added in teleconference from coalition headquarters in Baghdad.
The report to the U.N. Security Council by experts monitoring sanctions against ISIS and al-Qaida said the estimate of the current total ISIS membership in Iraq and Syria came from governments it did not identify. The estimate of between 20,000 and 30,000 members includes “a significant component of the many thousands of active foreign terrorist fighters,” it said.
The assessment does correspond with the Pentagon Inspector General’s own findings in May, which estimated that between 15,000 and 17,000 Islamic State fighters were then active in Iraq and 14,000 in Syria.
In Washington, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders emphasized the U.S.-led coalition’s battlefield successes against the group. “Certainly we know the caliphate has been practically destroyed,” she said. “We continue to take all of those threats seriously and look for ways every day to defeat [ISIS] and protect the American people and our allies.”
With American-backed forces in Syria poised to begin a new offensive against a smattering of remaining ISIS strongholds in the country, Gen. Gedney claimed the number of foreign jihadists has fallen to a trickle, compared to the roughly 100,000 foreign and local ISIS fighters the group had at the height of its rule in Syria and Iraq.
“At the moment, we’ve seen the flow of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq reduced hugely, and I guess that’s because they know they’re backing the losing side,” he said, adding the “great concentration” of about 1,000 fighters are based in redoubts in Syria’s Middle Euphrates River Valley.
The British general also said U.S. and coalition commanders remain keenly aware of the threat posed by ISIS fighters who melt from the battlefield back to the civilian population. “ISIS continues to be a threat post-liberation, which is why we need to maintain our focus on ensuring the security within Iraq and Syria,” he said.
Mr. Pregent claimed ISIS has shifted into an “intel gathering period and they’re looking for high value targets.”
The U.N. report echoed the sentiment. “It seems likely that a reduced, covert version of the ISIL core will survive in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic, with a presence also in neighboring countries,” the report said.
It noted “significant ISIL-affiliated numbers also exist in Afghanistan, Libya, South-East Asia and West Africa, and to a lesser extent in Somalia, Yemen, Sinai and the Sahel.”
U.S. and NATO forces have already stepped up pressure he group’s Afghanistan cell, dubbed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria-Khorasan Group or ISIS-K, as it attempts to expand its control in the country’s northern and eastern provinces.
Pentagon officials have reportedly also set aside over $5 million to finance efforts to “advise, plan and execute missions in support of Philippine counterterrorism operations,” focusing on the Maute Group — an ISIS affiliated terror cell that briefly took over the southern Philippine city of Marawi last October.
The $5 million dollar figure, included in the Defense Department’s budget blueprint for the coming fiscal year, represented a three-fold increase in such operations, compared to last year.
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