President Joe Biden’s announcement Thursday that a U.S. special forces operation in Idlib province in northern Syria killed Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the leader of the Islamic State militant group, was welcome news in a new year that’s had very little so far. But while the operation itself was a success, it highlighted a worrisome fact: The Islamic State is very much alive. And, if anything, it is growing stronger.
But while the operation itself was a success, it highlighted a worrisome fact: The Islamic State is very much alive. And, if anything, it is growing stronger.
Just a few years ago, the Islamic State, often referred to as ISIS, controlled territory in a “caliphate” from northern and central Syria in the west nearly all the way to the capital of Iraq, Baghdad, in the east. At the height of its power, in 2015, the terrorist group’s self-proclaimed “caliphate” extended across 38,000 square miles that included critical economic assets, transportation corridors and valuable agricultural lands, while ruling nearly 12 million people with an iron fist.
During that period, ISIS enriched itself through illegal oil sales and gangland-style robbery, kidnapping and extortion operations, amassing a treasure chest of billions of dollars along the way. At the same time, ISIS was extending its global reach, undertaking mass-casualty terrorist attacks in France, Belgium, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and other places around the world. The U.S. State Department said then that ISIS was emerging as a more significant international threat than Al-Qaeda.
It took three years and substantial intelligence, logistics and occasional firepower support from the U.S., but Iraq’s security forces and a coalition of rebel groups — the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, who also oppose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — gradually dismantled the Islamic State’s territorial gains. ISIS lost its “capital" in Raqqa, Syria, to SDF fighters in October 2017, followed a few months later by then-Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s announcement that ISIS had been defeated in that country. The ISIS caliphate was finally declared finished when the SDF seized its last stronghold in Syria in March 2019.
But the loss of the Islamic State’s empire did not mean the end of the Islamic State.
Long before its final defeat as a territorial entity, ISIS had been planning for the day when it was forced underground. The group began stockpiling weapons and ammunition in safe houses throughout remote areas in Iraq and Syria, regrouping in covert networks and melting into the population. In 2019, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres reported that ISIS had “substantially evolved into a covert network,” with 14,000 to 18,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq.
The group has also maintained a significant operational tempo since its supposed demise nearly three years ago. In Iraq, despite recent setbacks, it has mounted a steady campaign of targeted killings, ambushes, suicide bombings and sabotage, mostly aimed at Iraqi security forces, suspected “collaborators” and, of course, its age-old sectarian enemies, Iraqi Shiites.
In Syria the group faces a much more difficult operating environment, given the Assad regime’s own resurgence, as well as the presence of Russian and U.S. forces and numerous other antagonistic militias. Even so, ISIS recently mounted a major assault on a prison in northeastern Syria that held captured ISIS fighters. After blowing open a prison wall with a car bomb, ISIS fighters mounted a 10-day battle that left at least 500 people dead. The prison was finally retaken by the SDF with the help of U.S. and U.K. troops, but not before hundreds more ISIS militants had escaped, handing the group a major propaganda victory, to boot.
ISIS’s affiliates remain active elsewhere, too. The State Department has designated nine such groups, from the Middle East and Africa to South and East Asia, as foreign terrorist organizations. Among the most active and dangerous are Islamic State Sinai Province, which has killed hundreds of Egyptian troops and civilians in the Sinai Peninsula, and Islamic State Khorasan in Afghanistan, which claimed responsibility for the Kabul airport attack in August that killed 13 U.S. service members and nearly 200 Afghan civilians.
The killing of al-Qurayshi demonstrates a high degree of sophistication in U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism operations. Indeed, the U.S. and its coalition partners have had numerous successes over the years in hounding and destroying ISIS’s leadership, devastating its rank and file and reducing its operational capabilities.
But al-Qurayshi’s demise is unlikely to substantially change the Islamic State’s current trajectory. Al-Qurayshi was jeered as an “unknown nobody” by fellow jihadis when he succeeded Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi following al-Baghdadi’s suicide during another U.S. raid two years ago. So al-Qurayshi’s death Thursday is not expected to make much of a difference; another leader will no doubt be selected in the coming weeks (although perhaps one with better personal security practices).
The real energy of the movement, however, lies in its grassroots. The U.S. operation is more likely to serve as a rallying cry for them — especially given reports that 13 civilians were killed in Thursday’s raid.
To diminish the resurgence of ISIS, the U.S. and its partners must continue their concerted multilateral counterterrorism effort while providing increased funding for reconstruction and the economy in areas freed from ISIS. In addition, greater efforts must be made to secure ISIS detainees under humane conditions and eventually rehabilitate and return them to their home countries, taking them out of the population of potential fighters.
All of this is a tall order and a stern test for a Biden administration that seeks to pay less attention to the Middle East, not more.