The US has declared the powerful terror group defeated, but its sleeper cells and shadowy networks are set for an even more devastating return.
The Islamic State has officially been defeated in the Middle East, but the powerful terror organisation is already regrouping for its next strike.
The ruthlessly efficient extremists still have secret stashes of millions of dollars, a widespread network of supporters and sophisticated methods of communication and attack.
IS may have been forced underground, but its sleeper cells across the region are assassinating targets, shoring up ideological sympathy from disillusioned citizens and plotting a devastating revenge.
‘THE THREAT REMAINS AND THE FIGHT CONTINUES’
On Saturday, the United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces announced the end of the so-called caliphate after it lost its last bastion in Baghouz, a remote village near the border with Iraq.
As dozens of diehard jihadists emerged from tunnels to surrender, world leaders hailed the achievement but sounded a note of caution over the dire threat that remained.
“They have lost all prestige and power,” said US President Donald Trump. “We will remain vigilant ... until it is finally defeated wherever it operates ... We will continue to work with our partners and allies to totally crush radical Islamic terrorists.”
UK Prime Minister Theresa May welcomed the “historic milestone” in the fight against the extremists and said she was “committed to eradicating their poisonous ideology”.
French President Emmanuel Macron said “the threat remains and the fight against terrorist groups must continue”.
The SDF is still working to remove any remaining jihadists or weapons caches in the area, as the Kurdish administration in northeastern Syria warned that thousands of arrested militants were a “serious burden and danger for us and for the international community”.
Mr Trump in December declared “mission accomplished” in Syria and vowed to dramatically scale back the 2000 US troops in the country, prompting then-secretary of defence Jim Mattis’s resignation. Such a move risks leaving the Kurds exposed, and any violence in the region could provide an opportunity for mass breakouts by bloodthirsty IS fighters.
‘POTENTIAL FUTURE TERRORISTS’
With its territory lost and members languishing in detention, IS is returning to a more traditional, grassroots structure, just as al-Qaeda did when it lost its power.
Without great military might, IS is instead eliminating key leaders in Iraq to spread fear and mistrust throughout that nation, appealing to Sunni Muslims who feel ignored by Shiite, US-allied leaders.
In Syria, sleeper cells are targeting SDF fighters and waiting for a US withdrawal or a Turkish assault to provide another opening. The cells have assassinated at least 139 SDF members since August, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The SDF’s top commander Mazloum Kobane warned the cells were “a great threat to our region and the whole world”.
As many as 72,000 IS relatives are now detained in a northeastern Syrian camp built for 20,000. The Kurdish administration does not have capacity to put them on trial, but many are likely to be nursing radical ideas. “There are thousands of children who have been raised according to IS ideology,” said the region’s top foreign affairs official Abdel Karim Omar.
“If these children are not re-educated and reintegrated in their societies of origin, they are potential future terrorists.”
Top US commander in the Middle East, General Joseph Votel, told a Senate panel in February that although IS was dispersed, it still had leaders, fighters and allies working hard to spread their beliefs.
The extemists’ mysterious leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still thought to be at large, and is the world’s most wanted man, with a $US25 million ($A35 million) bounty on his head.
SECRET STASH OF WORLD’S RICHEST JIHADISTS
IS was known for stockpiling great riches by seizing assets, including oilfields, and taxing ordinary citizens, and it is not clear where that wealth has gone.
The terror group is still believed to have a stash of hundreds of millions of dollars, which it hides using secretive money services, legitimate businesses and transfers across borders using the clandestine hawala system.
Now it is no longer focused on building its so-called “caliphate”, IS can focus its finances on insurgent terror activities, a US Treasury official told The Atlantic. While it no longercontrols individual oilfields, IS continued to extort oil-supply lines across the region, the official said.
IS has also invested in the real estate and car industries, financing firms run by corrupt owners who will hand over cash as required by the jihadists.
Much of IS’s assets are believed to be held in Turkey as cash or gold, although the Turkish government denies providing a safe haven for the profits of terror.
And there will be more opportunities for extortion as Iraq and Syria rebuild, with the terrorists drawing on their former slick operation and resources to exploit weaknesses in the unstable region.
If Western forces are too relaxed, the world’s richest terror organisation will easily rebuild and return as an even more dangerous force.
The next phase in the war on terror looks set to be more challenging, complicated and expensive than anything the world has seen before.
Governments need to move beyond counter-terrorism to long-term “economic, political and ideological strategy” to have any hope of permanently defeating IS and al-Qaeda, expert Fawaz Gerges wrote in the New York Times last weekend.
Already, they are spreading their message and preparing for a violent return.
Captured IS members come from 54 countries, which are reluctant to take them back, but this is far from simply a problem for the Middle East. It is up to the West to help Islamic and Arabic countries to rebuild and to diffuse tensions that threaten terrible destruction that could devastate the planet.
IS grew out of fury at poverty, poor governance and lawlessness in Iraq, and insiders say Syria, Iran, Russia and Turkey may struggle to impose stability when US troops pull out.
Many Syrians reject both violent extremism and Bashir al-Assad’s government, whose brutal crackdown has alienated many citizens. Russia is similarly compromised after its bomb strikes on IS destroyed entire communities.
And it’s not just IS. Tens of thousands of fighters affiliated to al-Qaeda and related groups are waiting for their moment in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
A ceasefire in the Syrian province of Idlib left Turkey unwilling to confront a remaining extremist stronghold, allowing the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front to flourish.
With so many players and so much nuance to the problem, the chances of finding a satisfactory and sustainable solution look perilously difficult.