Critical Threats: ISIS isn't defeated, will continue to plan attacks against Western targets while setting conditions for resurgence in Iraq, Syria
Iraq and Syria. ISIS is not defeated, and it will continue to plan attacks against Western targets while setting conditions for a resurgence in Iraq and Syria.
The US Central Command (CENTCOM) commander highlighted the continued threat of ISIS efforts to break out prisoners from detention facilities in northeast Syria and sympathizers from internally displaced persons (IDP) camps.
A US withdrawal—as suggested by a recent congressional resolution—would inadvertently improve ISIS’s fortunes in Iraq and Syria, where it would focus on freeing veteran cadres and building support in rural areas. A US withdrawal would likely force the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to deprioritize anti-ISIS efforts to counter Syrian regime and Turkish incursions into SDF-controlled areas.
US CENTCOM Commander General Michael Kurilla traveled to northeast Syria and visited key SDF-controlled detention facilities for ISIS fighters on March 11.[1General Kurilla also visited Al Hol, which houses 51,000 IDP. Kurilla and CENTCOM reiterated that ISIS fighters in detention facilities are “unrepentant, subject to further radicalization . . . and a ticking time bomb.” CENTCOM also said the population of al Hol Camp represents a “lingering threat” as ISIS sympathizers within the camp aim to indoctrinate and recruit the camp’s 30,000 children.
ISIS is not defeated, and it will continue to plan external attacks against Western targets. The British defense minister said on March 14 that a December drone strike near Al Bab, Syria, targeted an ISIS leader “involved with chemical and biological weapons.” It is unclear if the strike killed the leader, who was taken into custody by Turkish-backed forces, according to a Syrian journalist. ISIS and its predecessors have attempted to acquire chemical and biological weapons to carry out mass casualty attacks against Western targets, most notably in the ISIS chemical weapons lab in Mosul, Iraq.
ISIS is simultaneously setting conditions for a resurgence in Iraq and Syria. The group continues to use rural sanctuaries for attacks against prison facilities. ISIS seeks to free its cadres and sympathizers from prisons and IDP camps to provide veteran fighters to improve its capabilities and a vanguard of supporters. ISIS has plotted to break fighters out from multiple detention facilities since its last successful prison break in January 2022, when it freed 300 fighters. It also attempted to stage a large-scale breakout from Al Hol IDP camp in September 2022, when the SDF disrupted the attack after a premature explosion of a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) en route to the camp.
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The group may have greater latent attack capabilities in Iraq than its recent attack patterns indicate. The Iraqi deputy joint operations commander said on March 12 that only 500 ISIS fighters remain in Iraq, contradicting a recent UN estimate by several orders of magnitude. Pressure from Iraqi counterterrorism forces helps maintain Iraq’s significant gains against the group, but ISIS’s ability to surge attacks during key periods indicates significant latent capabilities. ISIS takes refuge in rural areas, especially those outside the control of Iraqi and Kurdish security forces. ISIS’s ability to establish a training camp—despite the camp’s destruction—points to a concerning level of organization that will permit the group to regroup in rural areas if those areas are not secured.
A US withdrawal from Syria as proposed in a recent war powers resolution would almost certainly improve ISIS’s fortunes in Iraq and Syria. The SDF relies on the United States to enable counterterrorism operations against ISIS and provide diplomatic protection from the Syrian regime and Turkey. The SDF would almost certainly be unwilling and unable to secure detention facilities in Syria as it faced competing priorities from Turkey, ISIS, and the regime. The SDF’s de-prioritization of prisons and IDP facilities would present ISIS with the opportunity to free its veteran fighters and challenge SDF and regime control of the Middle Euphrates River Valley. This would enable ISIS to gradually generate the capacity to threaten the Iraqi state from a sanctuary in Syria. This is not a new strategy; ISIS used Syria as an incubator for its forces in 2013–15 while gradually undermining the Iraqi state.
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