Pentagon warns of ‘next generation’ of extremist fighters as terror group ISIS plots 2023 comeback

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A long-feared Islamic State resurgence may arrive this year, military officials and national security insiders warn, as conditions are brewing across the Middle East and Africa for the group’s second coming as a major terrorist force and threat to global stability.

It would be a remarkable resurgence for a terrorist group whose “caliphate” once controlled a broad swath of land in Iraq and Syria only to be routed by a U.S.-led counterterrorism campaign.

Specialists say the Islamic State group, better known as ISIS, is almost surely plotting a deadly revenge campaign against the U.S. and its partners after numerous American strikes in Syria last year killed several of the group’s leaders and highest-ranking officials.

ISIS may not be the powerhouse it was nearly a decade ago, but with thousands of fighters in its ranks, the group is still fully capable of carrying out deadly terrorist attacks. Some U.S. analysts warn of “strategic neglect” by the U.S. and its allies to the threat of an Islamic State resurgence.

Over the past week, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack in the Egyptian city of Ismailia that killed four people and a bombing near the Afghan capital of Kabul that killed and wounded several people, local Afghan officials said. The Kabul bombing was the latest in a string of attacks by ISIS and its affiliates in Afghanistan since the Taliban retook control of the country.

The highest-profile attack was the August 2021 suicide bombing at the Kabul airport that killed 13 U.S. Marines at the height of the Biden administration’s chaotic withdrawal from the country.

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That strike, and subsequent attacks across the Middle East and Africa, underscore the immediate dangers from ISIS, but Pentagon officials say the U.S. and its allies must contend with more serious, long-term problems.

Since retaking territory in Iraq and Syrian from ISIS in the latter half of last decade, the U.S. and its regional partners — Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — have captured tens of thousands of ISIS fighters. Those fighters are now in prison camps in both countries, with their long-term fates unclear and growing questions about security at the sites.

Officials say deteriorating conditions at Syria’s al-Hol camp — home to thousands of Syrians displaced from their homes during the country’s decade-long civil war — have turned the facility into a potential breeding ground for terrorists.

“There is a literal ‘ISIS army’ in detention in Iraq and Syria,” Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, head of U.S. Central Command, said in a statement last week, part of a detailed CENTCOM report laying out ongoing American-led operations to defeat ISIS across Iraq and Syria.

“There are, today, more than 10,000 ISIS leaders and fighters in detention facilities throughout Syria and more than 20,000 ISIS leaders and fighters in detention facilities in Iraq,” Gen. Kurilla said.

“Finally, we have the potential next generation of ISIS,” he said. “These are the more than 25,000 children in the al-Hol camp who are in danger. These children in the camp are prime targets for ISIS radicalization. The international community must work together to remove these children from this environment by repatriating them to their countries or communities of origin while improving conditions in the camp.”

The al-Hol camp and the ISIS detention sites in Iraq and Syria pose short- and long-term challenges for the U.S. and its allies. The most pressing concern is the threat of prison uprisings. In a January 2022 breakout at the Al-Hasakah facility in Syria, more than 400 ISIS fighters and more than 100 SDF members were killed.

Large-scale uprisings and prison breakouts across the region would immediately put thousands of trained ISIS fighters back onto the battlefield.

Never-ending fight

After an intense U.S.-led operation to crush the group, ISIS was declared “territorially defeated” by the Trump administration in 2019. The Pentagon conceded that the group still had fighters in its ranks and could carry out small-scale operations, but ISIS had lost virtually all of the territory it controlled across Iraq and Syria.

Although ISIS largely disappeared from the headlines, the U.S. war on the group has never stopped. In 2022 alone, the U.S. and its partners carried out more than 120 operations against ISIS in Syria, the Pentagon said. In Iraq, the number was 191. 

Those missions resulted in the deaths of nearly 700 ISIS fighters and the detentions of another 374, according to CENTCOM figures. The operations included airstrikes and raids by ground forces. U.S. officials say such operations will continue.

Among the ISIS figures killed in 2022 were two of the group’s leaders. Last February, a daring raid by U.S. Special Forces in Syria killed Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. In October, his apparent replacement, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, was killed during a clash with Syrian rebel forces. 

Those high-profile deaths set back ISIS’s reconstitution efforts, but analysts say the organization wants payback. 

“As is typical, a worldwide ISIS revenge campaign is now all but inevitable, and the shape that takes will indicate where the jihadist group is most powerful,” Charles Lister, senior fellow and director of the Countering Terrorism & Extremism Program at the Middle East Institute, wrote in an analysis last month.

“Already, incoming pledges of allegiance from ISIS branches abroad have underlined the potency of the group’s presence in Africa, particularly in the Sahel,” he said.

ISIS’s presence across North Africa’s Sahel — including Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan — is perhaps the most obvious example of the group’s ability to reconstitute in the face of losses.

Still, ISIS’s influence extends beyond the Sahel.

Analysts warn that the Islamic State has gained a firm foothold in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, which could allow ISIS fighters to transport weapons, equipment and other goods by sea along the African coast. Some analysts say the U.S. military must take a more active role in the theater before the ISIS insurgency spreads like wildfire. African governments and security forces are ill-equipped to contain the group’s expansion.

“The Mozambican government has … failed to fill the vacuum militarily or in terms of government services. To be a weak link, however, is better than to be no link at all,” Michael Rubin, a former Defense Department official and now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in a detailed analysis in September. 

“If the United States and the international community do not implement a plan, financial or otherwise, to fill the vacuum, the Islamic State will rebound quickly,” he said in the analysis, originally posted by the military and security website 19FortyFive.

“Time is running out, and strategic neglect seems to be the order of the day. Ultimately, the United States and other countries will need to confront the Islamic State’s resurgence,” Mr. Rubin said. “Proaction is cheaper and more effective than reaction. The question is whether the outside world can organize itself to make the right choice.”

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