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The Pentagon says ISIS is “well-positioned” to make a comeback

New reports show ISIS may still have as many fighters as it did at its peak.

A member of Hashwd Al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization units) removes a sign on a lamp post bearing the ISIS logo in the town of Tal Afar, Iraq, on August 26, 2017.
A member of Hashwd Al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization units) removes a sign on a lamp post bearing the ISIS logo in the town of Tal Afar, Iraq, on August 26, 2017.

It looks like ISIS isn’t quite as defeated as President Donald Trump claims.

Over the past eight months, Trump has repeatedly touted his administration’s success in defeating the terrorist organization and destroying its so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria. In April, for example, he tweeted that “the United States, under my Administration, has done a great job of ridding the region of ISIS. Where is our ‘Thank you America?’”

Yet Trump’s own military now says ISIS is still worryingly strong.

On Thursday, a Pentagon spokesperson said that the terrorist group “is well-positioned to rebuild and work on enabling its physical caliphate to re-emerge.”

“ISIS probably is still more capable than al-Qaida in Iraq at its peak in 2006-2007, when the group had declared an Islamic State and operated under the name Islamic State of Iraq,” Pentagon spokesperson Cmdr. Sean Robertson told the news outlet VOA in an emailed statement.

“ISIS remains a threat, and even one ISIS fighter is one too many,” he added.

Robertson’s comments aren’t an anomaly. Everyone from senior Defense Department officials to the United Nations has been sounding the alarm lately that ISIS is a whole lot stronger than we’d previously thought.

That’s not just bad news for Trump — it’s bad news for everyone.

Multiple reports show ISIS’s numbers are way higher than we thought

Robertson’s comments were in response to a recent report by the Defense Department’s Inspector General, which said the US military estimates that ISIS still has between 28,600 and 31,600 active fighters in Syria and Iraq.

Those numbers support the findings of a July UN report that said several current estimates from UN member states put the number of active ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria at “between 20,000 and 30,000 individuals, roughly equally distributed between the two countries.”

If correct, those numbers are staggering.

At the group’s peak in 2015, US intelligence officials estimated the group had around 33,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria.

Which means that despite the US-led coalition having spent four years and $14.3 billion fighting ISIS — including a whopping 24,566 airstrikes — the group is nearly as strong in terms of numbers of fighters as it was at its peak.

However, as Robertson, the Pentagon spokesperson, told VOA, “Yes, there are still residual numbers of ISIS members. But manpower is not a good metric to assess the volatility of this terror group.”

The raw numbers don’t tell the whole story

ISIS’s so-called “caliphate” has been destroyed, and it no longer holds even a fraction of the territory it once did.

Just a few years ago, ISIS controlled a swath of territory roughly the size of Great Britain. It also controlled several major cities in Iraq and Syria, including Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and Raqqa, the capital of ISIS’s caliphate.

As my colleague Zack Beauchamp has written, “This territory gave ISIS tremendous resources. It recruited both volunteers and conscripts, extorted ordinary citizens, and plundered oil reserves and ancient artifacts to fill its coffers.” He continued:

Perhaps most notably, it gave ISIS a powerful veneer of legitimacy in the eyes of radicals. The goal of all jihadist groups, including both ISIS and al-Qaeda, is to establish a caliphate governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic law. ISIS claimed to have actually done so. The caliphate became its calling card, the single best resource for growing its power.

”When they declared the caliphate, their legitimacy came to rest on the continuing viability of their state,” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told me in an interview.

Today, nearly all of that territory has been retaken. Which means that while it may have tens of thousands of fighters, those fighters — and more importantly, the group’s leaders — are scattered throughout the two countries, rather than concentrated in a unified territory they control.

That matters a lot: Without a safe haven in which you can plan, train your forces, and build up your military, it’s a lot harder to launch a major military offensive like the kind we saw when ISIS first swept into Iraq in 2014.

If you’re constantly on the run, moving from safe house to safe house while being hunted by US-led forces, it’s also difficult to communicate with the more far-flung members of your organization — something al-Qaeda also discovered the hard way.

ISIS also just looks a lot less powerful than it did when it controlled a major chunk of territory. If, as Gartenstein-Ross explained, ISIS’s “legitimacy came to rest on the continuing viability of their state,” then the collapse of that state is a major blow to its legitimacy. And that means it’s not quite the shining beacon of jihadist recruitment it once was.

ISIS is a much weaker terrorist organization. But the group is still deadly.

ISIS has launched numerous deadly attacks in Iraq and Syria in recent months. As the Washington Post reported in July, small-scale attacks in more remote areas of Iraq have escalated:

Over the past two months, dozens of people, including local government officials, tribal elders and village chiefs, have been abducted and killed or ransomed by fighters claiming affiliation with the Islamic State. Electricity infrastructure and oil pipelines have been blown up. Armed men dressed as security forces and manning fake checkpoints have hijacked trucks and robbed travelers, rendering the main Baghdad-Kirkuk highway unsafe for a period of weeks.

And it’s not just Iraq.

In Syria last month, ISIS orchestrated a coordinated suicide bombing campaign in Sweida Province, an area in southern Syria close to the border with Jordan that is primarily home to members of the Druze minority. The attacks killed more than 200 people.

So although it may not have its caliphate anymore, ISIS is still a potent terrorist organization capable of wreaking havoc and bloodshed.

“ISIS will take full advantage of any opportunity, including any abatement of pressure, to regain its momentum,” Robertson told VOA.