ISIS. Diminished, but still dangerous

A woman picks up debris from the ruin of a mosque destroyed by the Islamic State on April 24, 2018 in Mosul, Iraq. (TNS)

By The Chicago Tribune Editorial Board

Silence is golden, particularly when it involves the ISIS. But silence can also be deceptive. It's true, the militant group that once threatened to establish a caliphate across Syria and Iraq has lost almost all of its territory. Thousands of IS fighters have been killed, as have many of its leaders.

But the Islamist militancy is a cancer that's hard to stop.

The New York Times recently reported that French and German authorities thwarted terrorist plots to carry out attacks using ricin, the poison made from castor beans. ISIS militants are also relying on encrypted communications and bitcoin to evade intelligence agencies. And, the Times reported, Islamic extremists are appearing in places that up until now were not known as terrorist havens, like Mozambique and Congo.

ISIS is also trying to make a comeback in Iraq, where it once controlled the northern city of Mosul. The Washington Post reported that ISIS militants are responsible for a recent wave of bombings, kidnappings and assassinations in a remote section of central Iraq that have killed dozens of people, sparking fears of a new insurgency.

Early on in the rise of ISIS, it became clear that the group's use of social media to inspire lone wolf attacks was just as much of a potent threat as were the chunks of territory it lay claim to throughout the Middle East. The group's footprint has been radically cut down, but its role as inspiration for mayhem and bloodshed hasn't.

"If you look across the globe, the cohesive nature of the enterprise for ISIS has been maintained," Russell Travers, acting head of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the Times. "The message continues to resonate with way too many people."

That's an observation that the Trump administration shouldn't ignore. And yet, Pentagon leaders have begun talking about cutting in half the number of American counterterrorism forces in Africa over the next three years. That could prove unwise. Africa remains a seedbed for Islamic extremism. Boko Haram in Nigeria. Al Shabab in Somalia. In Libya, ISIS fighters who fled Syria and Iraq have sought refuge.

As it stands now, the Trump administration is neck-deep in foreign policy quandaries. President Donald Trump is licking his wounds from backlash to his disastrous summit with Vladimir Putin. The potential for denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula remains anyone's guess. The trade war with China continues its slow boil. And NATO continues to worry about relations with a president who questions the alliance's usefulness.

Each remains a top priority for American interests _ and Islamist militancy belongs on the same shelf. It's too early to file ISIS in the "mission accomplished" drawer. Too many times the world has seen months go by without a word from terrorists _ only to be broadsided by a sudden episode of carnage in Brussels, London, Manchester, Nice, Orlando or a host of other cities victimized by ISIS-inspired attacks.

The best strategy against ISIS is one that is pre-emptive rather than reactive. Remember where ISIS came from. It rose up in 2013 from the remnants of al-Qaida in Iraq, a terrorist group whose defeat was roundly hailed by the West as a crushing blow to Islamist militancy. Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, initially underestimated ISIS's potential; the current administration shouldn't underestimate the group's resiliency and adaptability now.

This was originally published by The Chicago Tribune.


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