The Spectre of Terrorist Has Still Exist in Several Countries
In August 22 audio message released by the group’s media outlet, al-Furqan, suggests that Baghdadi is alive and healthy enough to deliver a 54-minute speech. In what has become an almost annual event, Baghdadi called both for patience during a time of continued territorial and military loses, and for supporters to attack the West however possible.
While calling for patience, Baghdadi also specifically called for more attacks by the still-significant supporters of the Islamic State. He praised ‘lone wolves in the lands of crusaders in Canada, Europe and elsewhere for their work in supporting their brothers.’ He added that ‘a bullet or a stab or a bomb would be worth a thousand operations. And don’t forget to drive into crowds in the streets.’ It is likely his call for attacks will be answered. On August 23, the Islamic State claimed credit for two murders in Trappes, France, in which a man already known to French security services used a knife to kill his mother and sister. The man was then killed by French law enforcement.
In December 2017, the spokesman for the U.S.-led Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve—the coalition fighting the so-called Islamic State stated, ‘there’s about 1,000 across Iraq and Syria’ in terms of Islamic State fighters. The previous estimate by the coalition had been 3,000. Now, in August 2018, after years of battlefield success against the terrorist group both in Iraq and Syria, a Defense Department paper estimates there are 15,500 to 17,100 Islamic State fighters in Iraq, and approximately 14,000 in Syria. The wild swings in estimates have been a hallmark of the anti-Islamic State (IS) campaign since its inception in 2014.
The differences have produced bizarre assessments over time, with the U.S. at one time estimating IS had 25,000 members, then stating it had killed approximately 25,000–yet still somehow reporting 25,000 members remained. In February 2017, Gen. Raymond Thomas, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, stated the coalition had killed 60,000 Islamic State fighters in total, an increase of 10,000 from a December 2016 estimate; yet in the summer of 2016, the Pentagon estimated there were 15,000 to 20,000 fighters left. The different numbers came from different sources using different methodologies, as well as the simple fact that it is difficult to accurately assess the numbers of an insurgency across two war zones. Adding to the confusion were unofficial estimates and statements, as well as discrepancies in reporting related to the number of ‘foreign fighters’ versus the overall total numbers of IS members.
A separate recent report by the U.N. Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team shows the persistent strength of the Islamic State. The report estimates there are still between 20,000 and 30,000 Islamic State members in Iraq and Syria. The group also has perhaps 4,000 members in Libya, 3,500 to 4,500 in Afghanistan, and several hundred in Yemen.
In considering the problem of returnees, it is important to note that the sheer scale and scope of the foreign fighter contingent for the Islamic State was huge, estimated at over 40,000 people from more than 110 countries. As reported in a July 18, 2018 article in the New York Times, the primarily Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have over 1,000 Islamic State detainees; 593 of them are foreigners from 47 countries.
The efforts to curb terror groups neither success nor fail
Now the U.S. is the position of trying to keep the Islamic State in Afghanistan/Khorasan(ISIS-K) off balance through periodic ‘decapitation strikes’ at leadership ranks that show no signs of thinning out. On August 25, the U.S. confirmed it had killed Abu Sayeed Orakzai,the head of ISIS-K. The strike was in Nangarhar province, the same province that saw previous strikes at high-level ISIS-K leaders. The latest strike will certainly create some temporary disruption within part of ISIS-K, especially if it creates doubts about a perceived or real intelligence source collaborating with the enemy from within the group. But overall, the trend of killing ISIS-K leaders and top commanders has not significantly degraded the group. Its conflict with the Taliban, and not the joint U.S.-Afghan strikes, is the most significant obstacle to its growth.
In April 2017, nine months after the killing of Hafiz Sayed Khan, a joint U.S.-Afghan raid killed his replacement, Abdul Hasib, again in Nagarhar province. Three months later, Abu Sayed, who replaced Abdul Hasib, was a killed in Kunar province. Pentagon spokesperson Dana White stated that the killing of Abu Sayed ‘will significantly disrupt the terror group’s plans to expand its presence in Afghanistan.’
In April 2018, the U.S. announced the killing of Qari Hekmatullah, described as the ISIS-K leader in northern Afghanistan and an overall key commander for the group. It had been hoped that his death would put ISIS-K back on its heels but any such pressure on the group was, inevitably, short-lived. The tactically important killing of ISIS-K leader Hafiz Sayed Khan in July 2016, again in Nangarhar province, did not result in any strategic diminishment of the group. Pentagon deputy press secretary Gordon Trowbridge said on August 12, 2016 that ’Khan’s death affects ISIL-K recruiting efforts and will disrupt ISIL-K’s operations in Afghanistan and the region,’ which was true in terms of a temporary disruption of a seemingly permanent threat.
In August 06, the Associated Press documented what it said was clear evidence of a systemic de-targeting of AQAP by the coalition, including by the U.S. Saudi Arabia and the U.S. have denied the details in the report. The Pentagon responded to the AP by saying, in part, that the U.S. is continuing its fight against AQAP and has conducted ‘140 strikes [since 2017] to remove key AQAP leaders and disrupt its ability to use ungoverned spaces to recruit, train and plan operations against the U.S. and our partners across the region.’
*) Toni Ervianto, global strategic issues observer. He earned his master degree at the University of Indonesia (UI).