Why an ISIS Comeback May Look Unlike Anything Seen Before | WSJ
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Why an ISIS Comeback May Look Unlike Anything Seen Before | WSJ

(quietly tense electronic music) – [Narrator] This video
released by the Pentagon shows a raid on the compound of the Islamic State’s
ideological leader and founder, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It resulted in his death and marked one of the biggest defeats for the militant group known as ISIS. – He died after running
into a dead end tunnel, whimpering and crying and
screaming all the way. – [Narrator] His successor
was announced just days later. (explosions rumbling) That was not the first major
loss ISIS had suffered. – This is all ISIS. Now, on the bottom, that’s
as of today, this is ISIS. There’s none, the caliphate
is gone as of tonight. (crowd cheering) – That was a massive setback
(gunfire rattling) for the physical caliphate
that had for years spread its brutal regime of
terror across large areas of Iraq and Syria.
(group shouting) But as officials at the time warned, that wasn’t the end of the militant group. – This is not the end of
the fight against ISIS. ISIS still lives on in various cells and in the minds of many of the people in the areas that we’ve liberated. (women shouting) – What that victory did not do was destroy ISIS as a military force. – [Narrator] Jennifer Cafarella is a Syria and ISIS specialist and one of the author’s of
“ISIS’s Second Comeback.” It’s an assessment that uses
declassified information and research to develop a picture of the next ISIS resurgence. – ISIS had already dispersed
into populated areas as well as ungoverned spaces
like the Syrian desert in central Syria to regroup and return to an offensive campaign as an insurgency. (explosion rumbling)
(muffled group chattering) – [Narrator] Following the
defeat of the physical caliphate was a string of attacks,
(muffled group chattering) several in Afghanistan, including one on a government
building that killed seven, but the biggest of the attacks was the so-called Easter
Bombings in Sri Lanka, where a series of blasts
killed more than 300 people. Just a few days after that, there was a call from
its now-deceased leader to redouble efforts and further the extremist group’s
cause around the world. – So we saw several messages
from Baghdadi and others really urging people to continue, promising the return of some
form of the Islamic State. We started hearing about
attacks being inspired. We heard about funding going
to places like Afghanistan to sort of expand the
caliphate in that way. (tense orchestral music) (man shouting in foreign language) – [Narrator] But as the group continued to spread its ideology globally, a decision by President
Trump to pull U.S. forces out of Syria shocked the region, intensifying the fear of a
physical ISIS resurgence. – The worst thing any commander in chief could do to the soldiers is
to give back to the enemy land taken through blood sacrifice. – [Narrator] As the U.S. left, Turkey and Turkish-backed
forces advanced into Syria, seizing territory held by Kurdish forces, those same Kurdish forces
guarding some prison camps and detention centers
holding ISIS prisoners and family members
linked to Islamic State. According to the Syrian
Democratic Forces or SDF, there are just over 12,000
ISIS fighters in detention, including more than 2000 foreign fighters, and estimates from U.S.
forces on the ground say there are tens of thousands
of ISIS family members scattered across internally
displaced people camps or IDPs. – What you can see here in red are facilities from
which ISIS has succeeded or attempted to break out family members and fighters from prisons. Now, those breakouts thus far
are not highly coordinated, so we’re talking about riots and small levels of ISIS members
paying bribes, essentially, to guards so that they can escape or be smuggled out of these facilities. – [Narrator] While Turkish
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan assured Trump he would secure the prisons inside the proposed safe zone, some of the most important ones
are located outside of that, and it’s not just the
prisons under threat. The instability in
Syria is a major concern for neighboring Iraq. – [Jennifer] On both sides, in Syria here and on the Iraqi side, this is ungoverned desert. Now, there are small pockets
of the border, essentially, that the Iraqis are securing, but the rest of this is essentially desert and, therefore, ISIS can traverse it. – [Narrator] There are also
concerns that the other players in the region involved
don’t have any interest in keeping ISIS at bay. – The U.S. withdrawal from northeast Syria creates a security vacuum, and multiple actors are
now going to compete with military force to fill that vacuum. All of the other actors in this region are fighting in Syria for different goals that they prioritize far and above beyond the threat from ISIS, and frankly, that includes the Kurds. We’ve accelerated,
basically, the disintegration of the unity of effort against ISIS that only the United
States was able to create. (pensive mallet percussion music) – [Narrator] But how concerned should we be with these threats, and what might an ISIS
resurgence look like? – What one has to watch
for is how they sort of try to reconstitute or rebuild
or rebrand themselves in a way such that they have
learned from those lessons and are able to endure
longer as a caliphate than they were the first time. I don’t have the imagination to tell you how that’s gonna go, but
their ideology remains a powerful one and one that
inspires a lot of people and one that is expansive and worldwide. (group chattering) – The global ISIS expansion has included adding new formal provinces to the ISIS structure. We’ve seen a redoubling
of that ISIS effort to expand in Northern Africa and now an expansion
farther south to the DRC and other Central African states. We’ve simultaneously seen an expansion in the East Asia regions. ISIS has had a province in Afghanistan since early in the caliphate but has now expanded to
include a separate province in Pakistan and a separate
province in India. These ISIS provinces are in addition to what ISIS calls the East Asia Province based in the Philippines where ISIS had achieved
a major success in 2017, seizing the provincial capital of Marawi and defending it against the
Philippine Security Forces for a number of weeks. – We’ve never had a terror
group resurrect itself in the same form. These groups have a way of metastasizing and reconstituting themselves in ways that perhaps we don’t always have the imagination to foresee. They still have millions
of dollars in revenue, not nearly to the levels
that they did at their peak. When we think about the future of ISIS, I think it’s really
important to not be confined to that box of thinking of
what it was in 2014, 2015, 2016 or to think of collapse
strictly in the form of the physical caliphate,
because that virtual caliphate it is as important and
arguably will be key to however it reconstitutes
itself if it’s able to. (pensive orchestral music)


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