Here’s a familiar bit of fakery: the perpetual “going out of business sale.” Both the sale and the business often keep going for years.
Here’s a contemporary turn on that meme: the perpetual “they’re going out of business tale” the Trump administration keeps peddling about the Islamic State.
The self-proclaimed IS caliphate may have lost its last storefront in a village called Baghuz close to the Syria-Iraq border, but the IS ideology still counts tens of thousands of buyers including sleeper cells and armed guerilla groups in both those countries, not to mention growing contingents of both fighters and believers in Libya and Tunisia, Afghanistan and the Philippines, and in Africa from Somalia in the East to Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria in the West.
Over the course of the Islamic State’s rise and fall in Iraq and Syria, credible estimates are that the jihad drew as many as 40,000 foreign fighters, accessories and wives to the battle zone. Conventional guesstimates are that between one-third and half of them have been killed. But that still leaves 20,000 or more unaccounted for. And that leaves out the domestic fighters the foreigners joined, who are both harder to count and harder to distinguish from ordinary Syrian or Iraqi citizens in the post-war.
Add to the dead the disillusioned, and you still have a large group of people still deeply committed to the IS cause. And by the way, most experts believe the Islamic State still retains tens of millions of dollars, not to mention formidable outreach skills focused on social media.
Containing, much less defeating, the Islamic State movement is likely to be a thriving business for decades to come.
Compared to that problem, the issue of what to do about roughly 1,000 former IS fighters now being held prisoner by U.S. allies in northeast Syria should be easier to solve. The solution also needs to be done quickly.
The Kurdish and Arab forces of the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) who run the prisons for captured fighters, and the more rundown camps where prisoners’ wives and children are being detained, say they have neither the money nor the desire to bear these burdens much longer.
President Trump’s declarations that U.S. ground forces are getting out of Syria have only made the situation worse, and his recommendation that countries of origin reclaim their prisoners, try and punish them is undermined by his refusal to do any of that for American jihadists.
The all-too-predictable nightmare scenario is that more and more of the unwanted – by their home countries or by their SDF jailers – will escape, and live again to fight another day.
Brian Michael Jenkins is a senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation and author of numerous books, reports, and articles on terrorism-related topics, including Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? (2008, Prometheus Books). He formerly served as chair of the Political Science Department at RAND. On the occasion of the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, Jenkins initiated a RAND effort to take stock of America’s policy reactions and give thoughtful consideration to future strategy. That effort is presented in The Long Shadow of 9/11: America’s Response to Terrorism (Brian Michael Jenkins and John Paul Godges, eds., 2011).
Commissioned in the infantry, Jenkins became a paratrooper and a captain in the Green Berets. He is a decorated combat veteran, having served in the Seventh Special Forces Group in the Dominican Republic and with the Fifth Special Forces Group in Vietnam. He returned to Vietnam as a member of the Long Range Planning Task Group and received the Department of the Army’s highest award for his service.
In 1996, President Clinton appointed Jenkins to the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security. From 1999 to 2000, he served as adviser to the National Commission on Terrorism and in 2000 was appointed to the U.S. Comptroller General’s Advisory Board. He is a research associate at the Mineta Transportation Institute, where he directs the continuing research on protecting surface transportation against terrorist attacks.