The ISIS caliphate has ended, but its breeding ground thrives

Updated 3:43 AM EDT, Sat March 23, 2019
TOPSHOT - People are seen fleeing as heavy smoke rises above the Islamic State (IS) group's last remaining position in the village of Baghouz during battles with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in the countryside of the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor on March 18, 2019. - A shroud of black smoke covered the Islamic State group's last Syria redoubt today as US-backed forces battled holdout jihadists after a night of shelling and heavy air strikes. The Kurdish-led SDF have been closing in on IS fighters holed up in a small sliver of territory in the village of Baghouz in eastern Syria since January. (Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE / AFP)        (Photo credit should read GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images)
GIUSEPPE CACACE/Getty Images
TOPSHOT - People are seen fleeing as heavy smoke rises above the Islamic State (IS) group's last remaining position in the village of Baghouz during battles with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in the countryside of the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor on March 18, 2019. - A shroud of black smoke covered the Islamic State group's last Syria redoubt today as US-backed forces battled holdout jihadists after a night of shelling and heavy air strikes. The Kurdish-led SDF have been closing in on IS fighters holed up in a small sliver of territory in the village of Baghouz in eastern Syria since January. (Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE / AFP) (Photo credit should read GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images)
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(CNN) —  

“You will conquer Rome and own the world,” ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi told his followers in July 2014.

In the previous month, a few hundred ISIS fighters had seized Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in a matter of hours. They drove thousands of Iraqi troops from the city, in the process getting their hands on a huge arsenal of US-supplied weaponry Iraqi forces had left behind. They went on to conquer a string of towns and cities, reaching the outskirts of Baghdad.

At its height, Baghdadi’s so-called caliphate reigned over a realm the size of Britain, with 10 million people under its sway. Its sudden catapult to world attention, combined with an uncanny mastery at social media and slick video production, attracted thousands of people from around the globe eager to take part in the new utopian experiment.

Now, four and a half years later, that realm has all but disappeared, after Kurdish forces said Saturday that they captured the eastern Syrian pocket of Baghouz, the last populated area under ISIS rule.

Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have launched multiple operations since early February to bring the caliphate to an end. Night and day, artillery and mortar barrages and warplanes from the US-led foreign coalition pounded ISIS’ final encampment: a sprawling junkyard of wrecked cars and tattered tents.

Tens of thousands of people have left ISIS’ last stronghold since the barrage began, including ISIS jihadis who have surrendered.

In an ISIS video, people could be seen running for cover while others fired from the barricades. In its final week, the shell-cratered pocket held as many as 5,000 people and defied all predictions of a swift and final defeat.

The group still has some fighters in central Syria and has gone underground in Iraq, where it continues to stage surprise attacks.

An image grab taken from a video released on July 5, 2014 by Al-Furqan Media shows alleged ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi preaching during Friday prayer at a mosque in Mosul.
Al-Furqan Media/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
An image grab taken from a video released on July 5, 2014 by Al-Furqan Media shows alleged ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi preaching during Friday prayer at a mosque in Mosul.

ISIS as a territorial entity, a quasi-state, is history. The scars left by ISIS, and the long war against it, will take decades to heal. 

In June 2015, I visited a school in Baghdad that had been turned into a temporary home for people who had experienced life in Mosul under ISIS and had fled the madness. 

One of them, Louay Shawkat, was an Iraqi army veteran, now confined to a wheelchair.

He told me he had fought the Iranians in Iraq’s eight-year war with that country, fought the Americans in 1991. ISIS, he said, is different. 

“It’s an illness,” he said. “It’s impossible to cure. Cancer can be cured. Tuberculosis can be cured. Almost every illness can be cured, but not this one.” 

Indeed, we’ve seen the cancer manifest. In the perverse, lurid video beheadings of American journalist James Foley and other journalists; in the burning, alive in a cage, of Jordanian air force pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh. The Jordanian’s murder was shot from multiple angles, the entire production edited together by someone who was clearly a professional. Countless murders captured on camera in the most gruesome detail were spread across the globe by social media.

Photo of Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh in uniform. Video and still images surfaced on Feb. 3, 2015, showing the pilot being burned alive while confined in a cage.
Courtesy al-Kassasbeh Family
Photo of Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh in uniform. Video and still images surfaced on Feb. 3, 2015, showing the pilot being burned alive while confined in a cage.

We saw it in the mass murder and enslavement of Yazidis in Iraq and Syria, where ISIS killed the old and infirm and the able-bodied men, and sold the women and children into slavery. ISIS didn’t conceal, didn’t deny and didn’t cover up any of it.

While many of the regimes in the Middle East try to hide their barbarity, will go to great lengths to conceal their violations of human rights, will spend tens of millions of dollars on lobbying and public relations firms to conceal the true nature of their rule, ISIS boasted of its brutality, took pride in its savagery.

In 2015, I went to Baharka refugee camp outside Erbil, in northern Iraq. There I met Ibrahim, a Palestinian born in Haifa. He fled his home in 1948 at the age of 11, eventually ending up in Mosul, where he experienced life under ISIS first hand.

“The things we’ve seen were enough to drive you mad,” he recounted, sitting cross-legged on a blanket in his family’s tent.

“We ran away,” his son, Tamer, interjected. “I didn’t want my children to see any more horrible things. In Mosul, we’d drive down the street and see dogs eating dead bodies in the road.”

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Like the Yazidis, Christians who found themselves in the path of ISIS’s onslaught knew that as non-Muslims their fate was bleak at best.

Father Gabriel Touma was born in the northern Iraqi Christian town of Al-Qosh and lived there all his life. When I met him in early 2015, he recalled that, just months before, ISIS forces were just six kilometers, less than four miles, from the town.

“I stood before the statue of the Virgin Mary and wept with a broken heart,” he told me. “I prayed to her to protect us from evil.”

He had seen what ISIS had done in nearby Mosul, where they toppled crosses off church roofs, vandalizing their contents, sequestered property owned by Christians and imposed taxes on those who refused to convert.

“It’s like knife stabbing us in the heart, when we see our heritage, our history, the work of our forefathers, being destroyed before our eyes and we’re helpless to do anything to stop it,” he said. “It’s a slow death.”