“After five years of fighting, we stand here to declare the physical defeat of ISIS.” So reads the latest press release from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on March 23. This victory comes after months of drawn-out fighting in Syrian territory straddling the Euphrates River and the Iraqi border. At its peak in October 2014, the so-called ISIS caliphate, a bizarre pseudo state, extended from Aleppo to Baghdad, putting it in control of more than 11 million people. By March 2019, the terror group controlled just one square mile of territory.
President Donald Trump declared the group dead in December 2018 when he announced America’s withdrawal from Syria. But the president was wrong to assume that ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, was totally defeated, and others would be wrong to say the same now.
Administration outsiders have already begun to push back against this anticipated narrative. Trump’s former Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk, who resigned after the Syria troop pullout declaration, tweeted the pivotal nuance that all should take into consideration: the “defeat of the physical ‘caliphate’ does not mean the end of ISIS.”
The Islamic State cannot be eradicated through military means alone. Its reach extends far beyond Iraq and Syria. It has radicalized militants all across the globe, and there’s a larger battlefield online, where the group continues to push its brand of extremism and seek new recruits.
ISIS is still “very much still pumping out propaganda,” says Lina Rafaat, the deputy research director with the Chicago Project on Security and Threats at the University of Chicago. In her work analyzing ISIS videos, she has observed a narrative shift over the past year: it has increasingly focused on its international branches, especially in Somalia, Nigeria, and Afghanistan. Its propaganda now emphasizes a narrative of resilience, encouraging its adherents to migrate to Somalia to join the fight, insisting that the “caliphate” is everywhere.
For now, captured ISIS fighters will be held in SDF-controlled displacement camps, where their futures remain uncertain. Many are foreign recruits seeking to return to their home countries, whose governments will now have to decide how to respond. The SDF has already indicated that it cannot maintain these camps in the long-term.
Despite its loss of territory, ISIS will still relentlessly work to maintain its presence internationally and spread its hateful ideology. Its militants will continue to agitate in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State has failed to achieve its delusory goal of establishing of a physical caliphate. That is a sure sign of progress. But let there be no mistake, it still exists as one of the most dangerous terror groups in the world.