ISIS very much remains a threat and is “well positioned” to rebuild, despite being driven to only a few small towns on the banks of the Euphrates River in Syria, the Pentagon said Wednesday.
The Pentagon was responding to a recently published inspector general report, which said the US military estimates that ISIS still commands up to 30,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq.
“ISIS remains a threat, and even one ISIS fighter is one too many,” Pentagon spokesman Navy Cmdr. Sean Robertson told CNN.
“I will let the report stand on its own,” he said, adding that “manpower is not a good metric to assess the volatility of this terror group.”
“What really matters is the capability and intent of ISIS members worldwide, and that’s why the fight is not done,” Robertson said.
‘Out of Syria’
The inspector general’s assessment was followed by a separate UN report by a division charged with monitoring terrorist groups that also put the number of remaining ISIS fighters in the tens of thousands. At its height, in 2014-2015, the group had declared that it had established a caliphate, or Islamic state, which stretched across large swaths of Syria and Iraq, an area the size of Ohio.
President Donald Trump has trumpeted his administration’s success in ejecting ISIS from most of Syria and Iraq, asserting earlier this year that the US would “be coming out of Syria like very soon.”
But the new estimates suggest that the US military may have to stay in the region for some time to counter the ISIS threat.
“We know that the caliphate has been practically destroyed,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Tuesday, when asked about the new estimates. “Certainly there continue to be ISIS fighters, and that’s why we continue to take all of those threats seriously and look for ways every single day to defeat them and protect American people and our allies.”
Asked about ISIS’ strength, the deputy commander of the military coalition fighting ISIS said Tuesday that while he thought the UN numbers seemed “a little bit high,” he could not speak to their veracity without understanding the methodology.
‘The threat remains’
“We know there are over a thousand, which is our initial problem, in the Middle Euphrates River Valley,” UK Maj. Gen. Felix Gedney told reporters, referring to the last ISIS redoubts in Syria.
“The threat remains throughout Iraq and Syria. And we need to make sure that we do enough to ensure the security and stability post-liberation,” Gedney said.
The US military assesses that ISIS has lost about 98% of the territory it controlled at its peak. Gen. Tony Thomas, commander of US Special Operations Command, estimated last year that some 60,000 to 70,000 ISIS fighters have been killed during the course of the campaign of about four years.
The US-led air campaign has also destroyed most of the terror group’s revenue streams and killed numerous leaders involved in planning terror attacks around the world.
The Pentagon believes that despite those battlefield losses, ISIS is still more capable than its predecessor organization, al Qaeda in Iraq. That group carried out a wave of deadly attacks throughout Iraq and was the primary target of the tens of thousands of US troops who were deployed to Iraq more than a decade ago.
“We have assessed that, even after the liberation of ISIS controlled territory, ISIS probably is still more capable than al Qaeda in Iraq at its peak in 2006-2007,” Robertson said.
Robertson said the Pentagon believes ISIS “is well positioned to rebuild and work on enabling its physical caliphate to re-emerge.”
Officials say the threat still posed by ISIS is greater due to improvements in communications technology, which allow ISIS plotters to connect more easily with sympathizers around the world. They also point to the terror group’s use of foreign fighters and those fighters’ links to their countries of origin.
There are also concerns about ISIS’ affiliates, including the terror group’s Afghanistan branch.
The UN report said that ISIS core “continues to facilitate the relocation of some of its key operatives to Afghanistan,” including foreign fighters from Europe.
The report said that recent terror plots were detected and prevented in Europe had originated from ISIS in Afghanistan.