Perhaps for the first time since the War of Terror began nearly twenty years ago, American President Donald Trump announced the destruction of ISIS’ last remaining foothold in Syria and the decimation of the ISIS proclaimed caliphate.
As President Barack Obama before him claimed victory for the death of Osama bin Laden, President Trump’s win can be attributed to his persistence in ensuring the group’s terror network was no longer capable of what it once was. President Trump took office at the height of ISIS's brutal rule, when ISIS fighters controlled more than 20,000 square miles in Iraq and Syria, and on Wednesday he held up a map with red marking the definitive collapse of this territory to a speck. He proclaimed that ISIS would be “gone by tonight.”
However, as special operations task force Brett Velicovich wrote for Fox News, as “someone who spent nearly a decade hunting ISIS leaders, I can tell you that they are far from done. The ISIS caliphate may be destroyed territorially, but if we are not careful, it might get worse.” While government officials in D.C. saw the war from a distance, the soldiers on the front line saw a different reality. Mr. Velicovich reminds us that in 2010, ISIS had been brought to the brink of extinction when after nearly five years, the terrorist network’s number one and number two in charge had been killed and the remainder of the network dispersed.
ISIS did then and is re-emerging now. A recent report at CTC West Point shows that suicide operations, targeted killings, and raids continue to persist in cities once “liberated” from ISIS. Mr. Velicovich says tens of thousands of ISIS fighters now remain in prisons across the battlefield, but these prisons are over capacity and groups like the Syrian Defense Forces will eventually have to release many of them. In fact, they have already started and over the coming years tens of thousands more will be released. He asks, “do we really think those prisoners will simply return to a normal life?”
The British government finally released actual numbers of ISIS Jihadists known to be in the United Kingdom, numbering a minimum of 23,000 … a great deal higher than their initial announcement of 3,000. The recent issue of ISIS bridge Shamima Begum wanting to return to England highlighted the fact that ISIS supporters are not returning “home” because they see the error of their ways, but rather due to the present decline of ISIS in the Middle East. Will the attention of Jihadists in Europe now turn to domestic terror?
Mr. Velicovich says it's hard to tell how many ISIS members still exist. During the battle of Baghouz to liberate the last remaining ISIS territory, SDF fighters estimated that there were only 500 fighters remaining in the city, but while the battle raged, over 3,000 ISIS fighters surrendered.
He believes our estimates of the numbers of remaining ISIS fighters globally are likely highly inaccurate., whereas many have likely slipped through the front lines of war, assimilating back into society, and prepping for a new asymmetric battle in the shadows. “This is when it gets more dangerous. When they held terrain, it was easier to know exactly where they were, targeting them when they couldn’t blend into the civilian populace made it easier for coalition forces,” Mr. Velicovich said.
When faced with an enemy that believes in the global domination of Islam, will the War on Terror ever be truly be won?