The Islamic State is likely to remain a major threat operating out of Iraq and Syria for the foreseeable future, despite defeat in its capital of Raqqa Tuesday.
The group still has 6,500 militants in Iraq and Syria that are actively engaged in operations, Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Army Col. Ryan Dillon confirmed to Pentagon reporters. Many of the fighters are operating in thousands of square miles of territory controlled in the middle Euphrates River valley where ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Bagdadi is thought to be hiding.
ISIS no longer controls any major city in Iraq, but experts fear that a robust insurgency is on the horizon for the already rattled country. “This is a very strong group which has a lot of sympathizers, its ideas are embedded and it has networks. It has a lot to draw on even as it loses its physical territory,” Brookings Institution scholar Daniel Byman told The New York Times.
Outside of Iraq and Syria, the group maintains active affiliates in Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, the Philippines, and tribal alliances elsewhere. The group’s deadly global reach was on full display in an early October ISIS ambush of four U.S. green berets deep in Niger near the African country’s border with Mali.
The group also poses a terror threat in the West, where both homegrown terrorists and returned foreign fighters remain a major concern. The U.S. Department of State revealed in late July that nearly 30 percent of European foreign fighters for the Islamic State have returned to the continent. The number of European fighters that traveled to align with ISIS is unknown, but estimates range in the thousands. U.S.-based security intelligence advisory firm The Soufan Group (TSG) estimated that approximately 5,000 Western European fighters traveled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS in 2015 alone. TSG also noted that an estimated 4,700 fighters came from the former Soviet republics.
This reality was reflected starkly in Wednesday comments by U.K. MI5 director general Andrew Parker’s declaration that the terrorism threat to the country “is more diverse than I have ever known: Plots developed here in the UK, but plots directed from overseas as well, plots online, complex scheming and also crude stabbings, lengthy planning but also spontaneous attacks.”
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