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IS still has 'thousands' of fighters, seeking comeback: US intel chief

IS overran large parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014 [Getty]

Date of publication: 30 January, 2019

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A top US intelligence official said the Islamic State group maintains a force of thousands of fighters who pose a potent threat in the Middle East.
The Islamic State group maintains a force of thousands of fighters who pose a potent threat in the Middle East as its leaders continue to encourage attacks on the West, a top US intelligence official said on Tuesday.

"ISIS still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, and it maintains eight branches, more than a dozen networks, and thousands of dispersed supporters around the world, despite significant leadership and territorial losses," Coats said in a new report to Congress, using an alternate name for the group.

He added that the jihadists, who once held vast swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq but are now reduced to a shrinking enclave of around four square kilometres, would exploit any reduction in counter-terror operations to stage a comeback.

"The group will exploit any reduction in CT pressure to strengthen its clandestine presence and accelerate rebuilding key capabilities, such as media production and external operations. 

"ISIS very likely will continue to pursue external attacks from Iraq and Syria against regional and Western adversaries, including the United States."

The stark warning by Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats came even as acting Pentagon chief, Patrick Shanahan announced that IS was poised to lose all its remaining holdout areas in Syria "within a couple of weeks" and the risk of terrorism had been "significantly mitigated."

Speaking to Pentagon reporters a short while later, Shanahan said more than 99.5 percent of the territory the jihadists once held has been recaptured and "within a couple of weeks it will be a hundred percent."

"The way I would probably characterise the military operations that we've conducted in Syria is that the risk of terrorism and mass migration has been significantly mitigated," he added - offering what appeared to be a more optimistic assessment than Coats' report.

US withdrawal

The remarks came after President Donald Trump last month said the US and its allies had "beaten" IS, as he ordered an immediate troop withdrawal from the war-torn country.

But observers say the pronouncement was premature, as evidenced by a suicide attack this month in the northern city of Manbij, where four Americans, including two troops, were among those killed.

Shanahan, who was previously deputy defence secretary, succeeded Jim Mattis at the start of the year after he quit in the aftermath of Trump's declaration of victory over IS and the withdrawal of forces from Syria.

Coats' report said IS was focusing on exploiting sectarian tensions in Iraq and Syria, adding it "probably realises that controlling new territory is not sustainable in the near term."

"We assess that ISIS will seek to exploit Sunni grievances, societal instability, and stretched security forces to regain territory in Iraq and Syria in the long term," he added.

Earlier this week, an Iraqi military official revealed to The New Arab that US Special Forces, accompanied by SDF soldiers, are searching for the chief of the Islamic State militant group within an area of 10km in the Deir az-Zour province.

"The information we have is that the US military wants al-Baghdadi alive, which may explain the entry of US special forces into Syrian areas that can be considered military zones, as well as the delay in resolving the entry of Kurdish militias to the remaining villages and small Syrian towns,” Iraqi security expert, Ahmad al-Hamdani, said.

Commenting on Washington's eagerness to arrest al-Baghdadi alive, the official said, "It may have something to do with the current situation of US President Donald Trump and his need for a positive event in his favour in the US,” he suggested, noting it may also be linked to the need to question and interrogate the militant leader.

IS fighters first swept into Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014, taking control of nearly a third of the country. At the height of the group's power its self-proclaimed caliphate stretched from the edges of Aleppo in Syria to just north of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

With its physical caliphate largely destroyed, IS is transforming from a "proto-state" to a covert "terrorist" network, "a process that is most advanced in Iraq" because it still controls pockets in Syria, according to a UN report.

Meanwhile on the subject of al-Qaeda, the once mighty terror outfit responsible for the 9/11 attacks, the report said that while the group's leaders were encouraging attacks against the West including the US, most of its affiliates' "attacks to date have been small scale and limited to their regional areas."

It added al-Qaeda's affiliates in East and North Africa, the Sahel, and Yemen "remain the largest and most capable terrorist groups in their regions.

"All have maintained a high pace of operations during the past year, despite setbacks in Yemen, and some have expanded their areas of influence."

Al-Qaeda elements in Syria were continuing to undermine efforts to resolve that conflict, while its South Asia branch was providing support to the Taliban.

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