The forgotten menace — Is ISIS resurging?
Is the extremist group slowly regaining a foothold in the Middle East as the West recalibrates its geostrategic priorities?
Last week, the Pentagon confirmed that Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the leader of extremist group ISIS, was killed after US Special Operations forces under the control of US Central Command conducted a counterterrorism mission in north-west Syria.
No US casualties were reported following the operation, during which al-Qurayshi detonated an explosive device, killing himself and members of his family.
Al-Qurayshi was known to provide operational guidance to ISIS fighters ahead of a number of major attacks, which included the raid of Hasakah prison, controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and operations against Yazidis in Iraq.
“He is now off the battlefield and out of command, and cannot threaten any more lives,” US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin commented.
But Secretary Austin went on to acknowledge the ongoing threat posed by ISIS in the region.
“The fight against ISIS continues. Their leader may be gone, but their twisted ideology and their intent to kill, maim and terrorize still threaten our national security and the lives of countless innocents,” he said.
“We saw that evil determination in full display during the Hasakah prison break and the fighting that ensued.
“And so, we will stay at it … encouraged by the bravery we witnessed last night and emboldened by the knowledge that ISIS, though still very much a viable threat, is now weaker.”
According to Evan Kohlmann, chief innovation officer at risk intelligence firm Flashpoint, the death of al-Qurayshi would not have a “palpable impact” on ISIS operations.
Kohlmann notes that while the death of former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019 left a brief leadership vacuum, it did little to thwart the group’s ambitions in the region.
“Given Abu Bakr served as ISIS leader during a five-year period that were among the most prolific years in the group’s existence, yet his death forced only a reorganisation of leadership, it is unlikely that that al-Qurayshi’s death will have a major impact on ISIS operations,” Kohlmann writes.
“… Despite al-Qurayshi being the leader for less time and with few noteworthy achievements to speak of, there is always the lingering possibility that the vacuum created by his death may lead to more capable, and ruthless, individuals taking the reins of ISIS central command.”
Rodger Shanahan, non-resident fellow, West Asia program at the Lowy Institute, agrees, claiming the ISIS raids on prisons held by the Western-backed SDF are a stark reminder of the ongoing threat it poses to regional stability.
“Exploiting weaknesses in Syrian and Iraqi governance, the group has been quietly and slowly rebuilding itself in the deserts of central Syria and Iraq,” Shanahan writes.
“Small-scale attacks have gone largely unreported in the media. These operations have allowed the group to gain experience, new recruits, resources and to establish a degree of freedom of action.”
Shanahan notes the Jihadist principle of ‘Sabr’ (patience) — channelled by ISIS fighters both spiritually and temporally as they look to regain lost ground.
Attempts to free imprisoned comrades, he adds, are a “show of faith” to members and potential recruits, while also serving to bolster ranks of experienced fighters, planners and logisticians.
Shanahan notes that this same strategy was employed by al-Qaeda in Iraq during the ‘Breaking the Walls’ campaign, which culminated in an attack on Abu Ghraib Prison in July 2014 that freed 500 prisoners.
Shanahan references remarks from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s final audio message, during which he urged members he “do your utmost to rescue your brothers and sisters and break down the walls that imprison them”.
Shanahan observes: “Exactly how many, and the seniority of those prisoners who escaped from the prison in Hasakeh, is not yet known, although we do know that dozens of ISIS members were killed in the attack.
“This is undoubtedly a heavy price to pay for the group for limited practical outcomes. However, as a sign of its commitment to its jailed fighters and as a strong propaganda tool the benefits were undoubtedly judged to be worth the cost.”
According to Shanahan, the prison raids bring to light other serious dilemmas for the West, including their potential impact on Western prisoners held by allied forces like the SDF.
He notes recent reports of a 17-year-old Australian boy held in the children’s section of the prison, who sent voice messages to his extended family in Australia during the attack.
“Most Western countries have been slow to repatriate their citizens, while in several cases individuals have had their citizenship stripped and are no longer the responsibility of those countries, even if their children may still be,” Shanahan continues.
“It is a very complex public policy issue. But in the scheme of things the proportion of Westerners detained by the SDF is a small fraction of the total.
“Although it doesn’t abrogate Australia’s responsibility to repatriate its own citizens from Syria, future security concerns are likely to be more pronounced from the thousands of Syrians and Iraqis being detained than they are from the small number of Westerners.”
Moreover, the prison raids pose new questions for the United States, given its current operational objective in the region.
US forces are supporting the SDF to deliver an “enduring defeat” of ISIS, but are also denying the Assad regime access to oil reserves, providing Washington with leverage in discussions over Syria’s post-war political future.
“The limits on the ability of a small and geographically limited US force to guarantee the enduring defeat of ISIS have been clearly demonstrated this past week, and the inability of the international community to broker any meaningful progress on the drafting of a new constitution after six rounds of talks shows how limited Washington’s political leverage may actually be,” Shanahan writes.
He also questions the long-term viability of the SDF.
“They are responsible for the detention of thousands of ISIS members, and required the support of US air and ground forces to re-take the prison,” Shanahan notes.
“But this support will not be there forever, and the SDF and the Kurds in general will need to reach an understanding with Damascus as to what their relationship with the Syrian national government will be once American forces are withdrawn.
“Hopefully the long-term future of the detainees will have been decided well before this occurs.”
Shanahan concludes: “Whatever happens, this week’s events indicate that the final chapter of the ISIS story is still some way off from being written.”