National Security & Defense

Don’t Take the Boot off ISIS’s Neck

President Donald Trump talks to reporters in Morristown, N.J., July 7, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
A new report raises the frightening possibility that the terror group could make a comeback.

Let’s begin with a quick trivia question: Can you remember, off the top of your head, when the most recent significant jihadist terror attack in the United States occurred? It came almost two years ago, when an ISIS-inspired terrorist truck attack in Manhattan killed eight innocent people and wounded twelve. Since then, there have been plots and plans, but no significant attacks.

This is a remarkable achievement, especially considering the scale of the challenge the United States and our allies faced at ISIS’s height in 2014 and 2015. A jihadist army had seized territory the size of a nation-state, it was recruiting new followers from Europe and the United States, and it was executing and inspiring attacks and plots, at scale, in cities across the globe.

Here at home, look at the dramatic increase in cases related to jihadist terrorism after ISIS burst onto the scene:

Source: New America

This rise reflects a core truth about combating ISIS and groups like it: The existence of jihadist safe havens amplifies the jihadist threat. Granting jihadists the time, space, and resources to plan, recruit, and inspire yields more attacks and more plots.

The steady decrease in arrests after the Obama administration launched its war against ISIS, which continued as President Trump took office and continued the fight, is telling, too. In October 2017, the caliphate’s “capital” fell to allied forces, and the territory it once controlled lay in ruins. While the fight against ISIS continued, the group was no longer the triumphant, terrifying force that it had been when it seemed poise to sweep through Iraq, before Obama’s intervention. In the interim, it had lost fighters by the tens of thousands, land, and resources. Today, it remains a shell of its former self.

So it’s entirely understandable that Americans might believe ISIS has been defeated. It’s entirely understandable that many Americans sympathized with Donald Trump’s desire to remove all American troops from Syria, and are just fine with his ultimate decision to reduce American forces in Syria by more than half, to roughly 1,000 troops.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink that withdrawal.

While America’s eyes were understandably focused on domestic terror in El Paso and another mass shooting in Dayton, the Defense Department’s inspector general released a comprehensive report that reached an alarming conclusion: U.S. and allied forces are struggling to contain the ISIS insurgency, and there are warning signs that the challenge could grow worse.

According to best estimates, ISIS still commands between 14,000 and 18,000 fighters, and there are thousands more imprisoned in “pop up” detention facilities in Syria that are ill-equipped to hold them in the long term. To put those numbers in perspective, there were (entirely proper) concerns about leaving Iraq in 2011 when there were only 800 to 1,000 al-Qaeda fighters left in the country.  A mere three years later, Mosul fell to jihadists.

Moreover, ISIS has successfully established “safe havens” in rural Sunni regions in Iraq, is active in recruiting new members from internally-displaced-person (IDP) camps in Syria, and has “activated resurgent cells” even in areas ostensibly controlled by U.S. allies. Our partial drawdown has decreased our ability to assist our allies and to monitor conditions at a key IDP camp, creating conditions that “allow ISIS ideology to spread ‘uncontested’ in the camp,” according to the IG’s report.

“ISIS has been able to regroup and sustain operations in Iraq and Syria in part because the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) remain unable to sustain long-term operations, conduct multiple operations simultaneously, or hold territory that they have cleared of ISIS militants,” the report explains. Lest you think that’s “just” a problem for Iraq and Syria, I refer you back to the graphic above: ISIS is our enemy as well, and its successes abroad increase its threat to our homeland.

In January 2017, Trump inherited Obama’s counterattack against ISIS, and it is to his credit that he continued that effort until the U.S. and its allies had crushed ISIS’s physical caliphate and temporarily ended its dream of establishing a jihadist state in the heart of the Middle East. But let’s not forget a key reason why war raged when Trump entered office: America’s misguided withdrawal from Iraq had rendered the region unacceptably vulnerable to ISIS’s horrifying advance in the first place.

The inspector general’s report should serve as a reminder that America can’t afford to allow its enemies the space and time to regroup. Some Americans may scorn the idea of “forever war,” but the obligations of national defense are perpetual. We cannot relax our vigilance because we are weary, and we cannot take our recent successes as a sign that the war is won. We cannot let the political pressures of the present lead us to repeat the deadly mistakes of the recent past.

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David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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