Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday acknowledged that there are “places where ISIS is more powerful today than they were three or four years ago,” but sought to downplay the risk posed by the terrorist organization in the wake of a report warning of its resurgence in Syria.
“What we’ve always said is the caliphate’s been gone and there’s always risks that there’ll be a resurgence, not just from ISIS,” Pompeo said on “CBS This Morning.”
“It’s complicated,” Pompeo said when asked if ISIS is gaining strength.
“There’s certainly places where ISIS is more powerful today than they were three or four years ago. But the caliphate is gone and their capacity to conduct external attacks has been made much more difficult,” he added. “We’ve taken down significant risk – not all of it, but a significant amount.”
Pompeo’s continued de-emphasis of the threat capacity posed by ISIS comes despite the findings of a recent Pentagon inspector general report – that “despite losing its territorial ‘caliphate,’ the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq and was re-surging in Syria.”
The Pentagon made its assessment mere months after President Donald Trump declared the total defeat of the ISIS caliphate. Moreover, the US assessed that the developments have occurred since Trump ordered the withdrawal of about half of the US troops in Syria.
“The reduction of US forces has decreased the support available for Syrian partner forces at a time when their forces need more training and equipping to respond to the ISIS resurgence,” Glenn Fine, the principal deputy inspector general, wrote in a message accompanying the IG report, which was released earlier this month.
The IG report said that the reduction in US personnel has made it more difficult to monitor the al Hol internally displaced persons camp, where “according to the United Nations, humanitarian relief needs are particularly acute at al Hol, a camp with approximately 70,000 IDPs including nearly 50,000 under age 18.”
A lack of close monitoring has permitted “ISIS ideology to spread ‘uncontested’ in the camp,” potentially allowing ISIS to replenish its ranks among the tens of thousands of inhabitants, the report said.
At the height of the campaign in Syria, the US had just shy of 3,000 troops helping to advise the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces as they drove ISIS from towns all across northeast Syria.
The US military has stopped providing estimates of the number of remaining ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria. However, at a State Department briefing earlier this month, Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Ambassador Jim Jeffrey said that “In terms of the ISIS numbers, between Iraq and Syria – and this is only a guesstimate – it would be, say, 15,000 with a standard deviation of significant thousands in either direction.”
Jeffrey said that the defeat of the physical caliphate “removed one important element of ISIS’s threat to the international community, but not the only one. It is still a threat in this core area of Iraq and Syria.”
At that same briefing, which was conducted prior to the release of the IG report, State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator Ambassador Nathan Sales noted that said the US sees continued threats from ISIS affiliates worldwide.
“In Africa, ISIS-linked groups are on the rise. ISIS branches and networks now span the African continent from east to west and north to south. They’ve increased the lethality of their attacks, they’ve expanded into new areas, and they’ve repeatedly targeted US interests,” he said. “In South Asia, ISIS networks and ISIS-inspired terrorists are increasingly active.”
“Meanwhile in Afghanistan, ISIS-Khorasan has become one of the deadliest ISIS affiliates in the world. In the past year, they’ve carried out dozens of attacks, killing close to 800 people and injuring over 1,400 more,” Sales continued.
Asked whether ISIS-Khorasan poses a threat to the United States, Sales said, “Any ISIS affiliate around the world … that has the capability and intent to conduct external operations is a threat to the United States and our partners and our interests.”
This story has been updated.