A covert version of ISIS sustained by tens of thousands of members will survive in Iraq and Syria even after the militant group loses the last of its territory, UN experts have warned.
At the height of its power, ISIS controlled the major cities of Mosul and Raqqa and ruled over millions of people. Today, it is consigned to a small patch of desert in Iraq’s Anbar Province, some settlements along the Euphrates River and a barren volcanic field in southern Syria.
But the report by UN sanctions monitors circulated on Monday said the group still has between 20,000 and 30,000 members spread across the two countries, most of whom are not currently engaged in fighting, but could be called upon at a later date. Its ranks include “a significant component of the many thousands of active foreign terrorist fighters,” it said.
Faced with the loss of nearly all of its territory, the group is “reverting from a proto-State structure to a covert network” in Syria and Iraq, with a presence in neighbouring countries.
The report paints a bleak outlook for security forces, even as their respective militaries continue to chalk up victories on the battlefield. It also suggests that the underlying grievances that allowed to maintain a support network among local populations still linger.
Estimates of the number of active ISIS fighters have fluctuated over time. The US-led coalition said in December last year that fewer than 3,000 were actively fighting in Iraq and Syria. But that number belies the challenge ahead, as sleeper cells which have been dormant are likely to become active again.
The UN experts said many ISIS members are “hiding out in sympathetic communities and urban areas”. A large number of Iraqi and Syrian nationals who successfully left the conflict zone after fighting for ISIS had simply returned home, and “despite the casualties that they have suffered, many intend to continue to fight”.
The report cited unidentified Security Council member states for the estimate of the number of ISIS members, but they appear to match an assessment from the US Department of Defense from June, which estimated between 15,500 to 17,100 ISIS fighters remained in Iraq, and between 13,100 and 14,500 in Syria.
The predictions it makes regarding the future strategy of ISIS are already coming true in Iraq, where the group has lost virtually all of its territory, but is making a comeback.
“This is called the stealth-fighter strategy,” Hisham Al-Hashimi, a counter-terrorism writer and former security advisor to the Iraqi government, told The National. “In Iraq, ISIS is already expanding its influence in remote villages through attacks, assassinations and kidnappings of village elders and tribal leaders loyal to the government”.
Mr Hashimi said a nuanced, hybrid approach was needed to combat ISIS in the future, including a special forces unit to hunt fighters down and an effort to encourage citizens in vulnerable areas to report suspected members.
The new, covert ISIS will be forced to operate on what is a shoestring budget compared to the billions of dollars it once made through taxation and oil sales. One member state told the UN experts that the group’s cash reserves had dropped to the “low hundreds of millions of dollars.” It will also no longer be able to rely on foreign fighters because the flow “has essentially come to a halt”, the report said.
As the last pockets of ISIS territory shrink ever smaller, the debate over what constitutes a victory against the group is likely to turn increasingly to ideology. In that regard, ISIS has not yet been defeated, according to analysts.
“The true strength of ISIS lies in the generation of young Syrians and Iraqis that the group has chosen to preserve for a future date,”said Nicholas Heras, Middle East Security Fellow at the Centre for a New American Security.
“These young people are the future of ISIS, and in a very real sense they have come of age in a time when ISIS was both the authority figure and the most effective champion for the Sunni community that they have known.”
Mr Heras added that this “brand loyalty” among these young supporters is preventing a lasting defeat of ISIS.
The US has echoed that concern. Speaking in January this year, Lieutenant General Paul Funk, of the US-led coalition, said the group’s “repressive ideology continues”.
He said “the conditions remain present for Daesh to return,” and only through “coalition and international efforts” can the defeat of the group become permanent”.
It is unclear how long US forces will stay in Syria. US President Donald Trump has spoken repeatedly of his desire to remove US forces from the country, but military leaders insist the US is not going anywhere soon.
Colonel Sean Ryan, a spokesman for the coalition, told The National that the US would remain in Syria until the ISIS is “completely defeated”.
“As far as we are concerned, ISIS remains a threat as long as they have the capability to launch terror attacks anywhere,” he said.
Outside of Iraq and Syria, the report said a significant number of ISIS fighters had made their way to Afghanistan, where an estimated 3,500-4,5000 fighters are present.
It said that between 3,000 and 4,000 ISIS fighters were dispersed across Libya. And around to 1,000 had pledged allegiance in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.