Declarations that Islamic State is on the verge of defeat keep piling up. During his State of the Union address, President Donald Trump said he was proud to report that “the coalition to defeat ISIS has liberated almost 100 percent of the territory once held by these killers in Iraq and Syria.” In Iraq, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told his country in December that “we can announce the end of the war against (Islamic State).”
Territorially, Islamic State has been squashed. But the threat it poses remains all too real — and ominous.
The New York Times reports that thousands of Islamic State foreign fighters have been slipping out of the eastern Syrian battlefield and hiding in Damascus and other parts of northwest Syria. Many with European roots are paying smugglers to get them over the Syrian border into Turkey, which they hope to use as a conduit to return to their homelands in Western Europe. Some have training in chemical weapons and are staying in Syria to join al-Qaida’s branch in Syria.
Routed from its prized strongholds of Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, Islamic State is now becoming what many militant groups morph into after their defeat on the battlefield — a guerrilla movement that emphasizes soft target attacks, using suicide bombings and ambushes to prey on places where civilians congregate.
Baghdad has been a prime target for those attacks. But few places in the world are immune. The wars in Syria and Iraq drew fighters from more than 120 countries. Thousands died in battle, but Western officials say it’s likely that thousands more escaped to their home countries. EU officials think as many as 1,500 militants have returned to their homes in Europe. There were also Americans fighting in Iraq and Syria, though how many were directly affiliated with Islamic State isn’t known.
Will some postwar militants give up the cause? Perhaps. But it would be foolish to think that many others wouldn’t bide their time, and wait for the right moment to inflict terror. Whether carried out by sleeper cells or lone wolves inspired by Islamic State propaganda, we’ve seen what that carnage looks like in London and Manchester, Paris and Nice and, in the U.S., Orlando and New York.
Turkey is a front line for preventing postwar militants from heading westward. Right now, however, Turkish forces are attacking Syrian Kurdish fighters that the U.S. wants at the Syrian-Turkish border as a firewall to Islamic State migration. The Trump administration so far has failed to get Ankara to stand down. Failure’s not an option, however. Islamic State militants slipping over the Syrian-Turkish border isn’t just a Turkish problem — it’s a threat to many Western nations.
For their part, European governments have improved cooperation between their intelligence and law enforcement agencies, following criticism in the wake of terror attacks in Paris and Brussels that such cooperation was lacking.
As more Islamic State militants seep out of Syria and Iraq and head westward, Europe, along with the U.S., will need to intensify that cooperation. There’s nothing wrong with feeling good about regaining the territory Islamic State had seized across Syria and Iraq. But it’s far too early to cast the militant group as defanged and defeated.