Even as the epitaph of ISIS was being written, the terror group made a comeback to global headlines in the most gruesome way possible. A string of suicide blasts and murderous raids by ISIS killed more than 250 people in Syria on July 25. They left one survivor per family to witness their brutality as suicide bombers did what they came for. This brutal massacre of the defenseless is the final reminder that ISIS must be annihilated.

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What was the surprise?

Karam Monther’s mother placed the ammunition box in her youngest son’s car, holding back her tears as he drove off in the dawn light to the frontline. News had come that Islamic State (ISIS) militants were storming homes on the eastern edges of his home province, Sweida, in southern Syria. But it was too late by the time he reached Sweida.

  • Monther joined two dozen other young men who had picked up arms and together they battled through to the edge of the nearby town of Rami. Fallen fighters lay strewn in the streets – the remains of the ISIS militants in pieces after they detonated suicide vests.
  • He still had no idea how much damage had been done. Then a woman stumbled out of one of the houses, repeating: “They slaughtered them.” Inside, she pointed to the bathroom. “I felt in my heart that a crime had happened there,” Monther said. “I opened the door slowly, and I saw a mother holding her children, but it appeared she hadn’t been able to protect them from Daesh’s [ISIS] gunshots.” “I will never forget this scene all my life. No words can describe it. I knelt and wept in grief,” he said. He will live with the regret of not having been able to protect his fellows in time.

But he could have nothing to prevent this surprise, well-planned 12-hour attack that seemed designed to send out a message.

  • Residents of Sweida began burying their dead on July 26, a day after the worst ISIS atrocity in recent months claimed the lives of nearly 250 people – a toll that may yet rise. The attack involved multiple suicide bombings and simultaneous raids in which militants stormed villages and slaughtered civilians.
  • The attacks targeted the city of Sweida and nearby towns and villages in south-western Syria – areas that before the war were populated mostly by members of the Druze minority sect, and that are nominally under government control but have largely stayed out of the fighting that devastated much of the country over the last seven years. Simply put, they were easy targets.
  • The militants are also believed to have kidnapped dozens of people and taken them back to their hideouts. Local sources said the attacks began almost simultaneously in the early hours of Wednesday, between 3.50am and 4.30am“They attacked homes in a coordinated attack. They knocked on doors, and then entered the homes and killed people in there,” said Ahed Mrad, a journalist from Sweida. “A lot of victims fell before any bullet was fired because they were going into the homes and slaughtering people silently, at dawn, without anyone being aware.” ISIS claimed responsibility for the offensive, which developed into armed clashes with local militiamen. The terror group also launched two suicide attacks on the provincial capital, also called Sweida.
  • Syrian state media said government forces killed two suicide bombers before they were able to detonate their vests. The offensive was one of the deadliest in Sweida and government-controlled areas in recent months. It occurred as the government of Bashar al-Assad continued to wage a campaign in the neighboring province of Daraa to reclaim control over all of southern Syria.
  • ISIS still controls some territory in Daraa in the Yarmouk river valley, near the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The area has been the target of unrelenting airstrikes over the past few days to force the militants’ surrender. The fighters who carried out the attacks may have emerged from ISIS-controlled territory in Syria’s eastern desert, where more fighters arrived in May from the southern suburbs of Damascus after a government offensive that forced their surrender.

The militants, who once controlled nearly half of Syria’s landmass in 2015, have seen the territory under their command shrink under concerted campaigns by the US-led coalition and Syrian government forces over the last year. But they still pose a potent danger through isolated attacks and occasional coordinated raids as they continue to conduct an insurgency from their remaining hideouts.

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Why is this development of concern?

Anger over President Bashar al Assad’s perceived failure to avert the dawn attacks pushed residents to prevent the governor of the province, Amer al Ashi, and representatives of the government from attending the funerals. Many residents blamed the authorities of negligence while others questioned how dozens of militants could descend from areas declared free of militants and storm seven villages northeast of Sweida city and create mayhem in the city.

  • They are not the only ones asking this. Analysts say the attacks are the latest reminder of ISIS’s enduring threat despite the loss of its sprawling caliphate — and its reemergence as a growing insurgent guerrilla force, particularly in neighboring Iraq.
  • At its height, the Sunni extremist group commanded a huge swathe of contiguous territory across Syria and Iraq, accounting for about a third of both countries’ land. The so-called caliphate ruled over about 10 million residents, and attracted more than 40,000 extremists from other countries who wanted to live in their vision of an Islamic fundamentalist paradise.
  • Years of concerted military efforts against the militants including by a U.S.-led international coalition have decimated the group, and reduced its holdings to small pockets either side of the Syria-Iraq border. President Donald Trump claimed the credit for routing out ISIS last year. It now appears ISIS is either not dead yet or not dead enough.
  • “Their big narrative can’t be we control a state because they obviously don’t any more,” Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, told VICE News. Instead, as the group had lost territory it had reverted to being a guerrilla organization“launching attacks in the countryside, hiding in the hills, a hit and run approach.” “That’s what they have the capability to do — in many ways this is a reversion to form.”
  • Columb Strack, principal analyst for Middle East and North Africa at IHS Markit, told that he expected to see similar attacks in Sweida and Damascus in the coming months, until the Syrian regime could divert resources from an ongoing offensive to expel the ISIS presence from the area. He said ISIS’s presence in neighboring Iraq was even stronger, and the group was experiencing resurgence “facilitated by implicit support of the local population.”
  • “They have regrouped and are building up their capability to conduct attacks against the Iraqi government and in particular Shia forces operating there,” he said. “They do not seek to re-establish a caliphate though. They’ve learned the valuable lesson that any territory they control just becomes a target for U.S. Coalition airstrikes.”

Reuters reported that Iraq had experienced a surge in kidnappings and killings, mainly in the provinces of Kirkuk, Diyala, and Salahuddin, since May, due to an increasingly aggressive ISIS guerrilla campaign.Strack said most of ISIS’s offensive activities were now focused in Iraq, where the group had its beginnings as an Al Qaeda offshoot. He expected their ranks to be swelled by ISIS militants coming across the border from Syria where they are being eroded by U.S.-backed forces, and the Syrian regime and its allies.

When did Sweida seem unlike Syria?

At first glance, the city of Sweida – before this attack – looked untouched by the civil war that has decimated Syria. The streets bustled with people, infrastructure and buildings remained intact and the economy was buoyant. There was even a night-life.

  • Until the ISIS attack, Sweida was not the Syria we have heard about in the news. Traditionally seen as a “safe haven” for religious minorities, many residents of Sweida continued to describe it as such, even as the Syrian Civil War entered its eighth year.
  • Located in the south-west of Syria, approximately 115 kilometres from the besieged capital of Damascus, Sweida has long been perceived as a “neutral” city due to the city’s dominant religion: Druze.
  • The Druze, a religious minority that made up just three-per cent of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million people, follows the teachings of the Quran but don’t identify as Muslim, something which has long been the subject of heavy debate. Their religious doctrine has also been heavily influenced by the teachings of Greek philosophy, including the ideas and beliefs of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates – a clear relic of Sweida’s ancient past and when the city was named Dionysia after the Greek god of wine.
  • Between 2013 and 2014 Sweida’s demographic underwent drastic and sudden change when the city’s Druze populous and Christian minority met a huge influx of Sunni Muslim refugees escaping Syrian cities razed by government airstrikes and gutted by bombs.
  • The 400,000 Sunni Muslim refugees had a big impact on a community that in 2011 registered 360,000 habitants. 120,000 of which still live in Sweida today, thousands of them have found a safe haven on Sweida’s farms. Sixty-three per cent of Sweida’s households are now run by women due to many of the city’s young fleeing to avoid being forcibly drafted by the government or the rebels.
  • By strange irony, also to establish themselves in the city during this time were the Assad regime’s most powerful players. Similarly fleeing the conflict-zones of Syria’s major cities as the Sunni civilians, Assad’s high-ranking officials and government supporters made Sweida their new home.
  • Since the Syrian Civil War began to rage outside Sweida’s city boundaries, bringing about a slump in traditional industries, sinister trades have flourished. Many media reports link Sweida’s growth with drug smuggling. In 2016 some 1.5 million tablets of “Captagon”, known as the “preferred drug in war”, were seized in Sweida.
  • Captagon is an amphetamine-based drug that has been dubbed the “Jihadi’s Drug” due to its popularity with ISIS fighters. The drug keeps users awake for long periods of time, dulls pains and creates a sense of euphoria. In 2014 a former- fighter told CNN that ISIS gave militants a drug “that would make you go to battle not caring if you live or die.”

The Druze enclave of Sweida was known since Ottoman rule as a politically “neutral” zone, but since the key players in Assad’s regime moved in, fence-sitting was no longer an option. And now, violence has followed Assad’s men. Sweida feels like Syria since July 25.

Where is the resilience of ISIS coming from?

Shortly after the fall of the Syrian city of Raqqa in October 2017 – the centre of the ISIS caliphate – US President Donald Trump announced that ISIS had been defeated and the war was won. Nine months later it is far from clear that ISIS is finished and extreme paramilitary Islamist movements are increasingly active in several regions.

  • ISIS had taken over much of northern Syria and Iraq, including Mosul, by mid-2014 leading President Barack Obama to order intensive air strikes to limit its spread and aid the Iraqis and others to push it on to the defensive. For close to four years an extraordinarily intensive air war was fought, principally by the US but aided by France, the UK and some other European and Middle Eastern powers.
  • According to the latest data from the Airwars monitoring group, over 1,424 days of air strikes, 107,814 bombs and missiles have been used against 29,741 targets in Iraq and Syria by the US-led forces. Pentagon sources speak of at least 60,000 ISIS paramilitaries killed but Airwars also reported 6,321 civilians killed. The figures do not include the impact of hundreds of Russian air strikes in Syria and information from the heavily bombed cities of Raqqa, and Mosul in Iraq, suggest that many thousands of bodies of civilians are still buried under the rubble.
  • The war did have the desired effect and Iraqi, US, French and other ground forces, greatly assisted by Iran-linked militias, have successfully taken back most of the territory formerly controlled be ISIS. The caliphate is certainly gone – at least for now – but many other developments suggest that this is little more than a pause in a very long irregular war.
  • We have been here before. President George W Bush declared the Taliban regime in Afghanistan terminated and al-Qaida dispersed within four months of the 9/11 attacks and promptly broadened the “war on terror” to include an axis of evil of rogue states with Iran the first target.The war against the Taliban in Afghanistan is approaching its 18th year, with the new US Commander in the country, General Austin Scott Miller, recently telling the Senate Armed Service Committee that there had been some progress but that: “I can’t guarantee you a timeline or an end date”. Miller is the 17th commander of US forces in the country since 9/11.
  • Bush also led the US and its coalition partners into the Iraq War in March 2003. Baghdad fell to coalition troops within three weeks and Bush gave his “mission accomplished” speech three weeks later. Instead, the war went on for seven years. Osama bin Laden was killed by US Special Forces in 2011 but al-Qaida continues in several countries. Obama thought the Iraq War had died down sufficiently for the US to withdraw troops by the end of 2011 but within two years ISIS had come from nowhere to pose a new regional threat, with the UK’s head of MI5 saying earlier this year that the risk of attacks in Britain remained as high as ever.
  • The current situation is that ISIS continues to exist in spite of its huge losses. It controls sufficient territory in eastern Syria for the Iraqi government to see it as a threat requiring the construction of security fence on the border between the two countries. ISIS also continues to put out intensive social media propaganda encouraging attacks on Western states and it is actively linked with groups in Egypt, Somalia, Yemen and the Philippines.

In Syria and Iraq it appears now to have reverted to guerrilla warfare.

  • The line to its supporters is now that the four-year “caliphate” was primarily a symbol of what could be achieved against the overwhelming forces of the Crusaders and their Zionist supporters – a symbol for the future. Perhaps most indicative of that future is the current level of western military operations across the Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa. Britain and France are the main European states involved, not least in Mali, Niger and Nigeria. But US Special Forces are at the forefront of a bitter, yet almost entirely unreported, series of wars, which also include Somalia, Kenya and Tunisia.
  • A brief report by Politico published some details that US Special Forces had been involved in direct military action. The report states that despite military spokespeople claiming the American role in Africa is limited to “advising and assisting” other militaries, the truth is that for at least five years, Green Berets, Navy SEALs and other commandos “operating under a little-understood authority” have planned and controlled missions – putting them in charge of their African partner forces. One Green Beret officer told Politico“It’s less, ‘We’re helping you,’ and more, ‘You’re doing our bidding.’”
  • Where ISIS and other extreme movements now seem to see their future is wherever there are large numbers of people on the margins – especially bitter and resentful young men – who have enough education to know that their life chances are scarcely better than zero and are all-too-ready converts to an attractive even if extreme cause.

What the wars against ISIS, al-Qaida and the other movements show is that military responses may seem to work in the short term but don’t change the long-term situation much. That will only come by addressing the underlying socio-economic and environmental factors that are so helpful to these movements. That is not a message that western elites want to hear and so the wars will go on.

Who must finish what they started?

The last time Syria figured prominently in U.S. media coverage was in April, when President Trump publicly and repeatedly stated that he strongly favored pulling U.S. forces out of that war-ravaged nation “very soon.”

  • That sentiment is understandable, and it recognizes the political realities of a war-weary America. But withdrawing U.S. forces now could be a strategic mistake that would put at risk our string of victories against ISIS in the short term and cede the regional advantage to other actors — including Russia — in the long term.
  • The United States has many important interests in Syria that the administration must take into account when thinking through future American posture in the region. First, it must convincingly defeat ISIS and prevent Syria from becoming a safe haven for future terrorist operations. Second, the United States, along with the United Kingdom and France, needs to deter all future chemical weapons attacks and reinforce the global taboo against the proliferation and use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
  • Third, it must prioritize access of humanitarian aid and economic reconstruction to those suffering in the Syrian civil war. Fourth, and finally, it must prevent outside forces that are not friendly to the United States from dominating Syria and, thus, the region or thereby threatening Israel.

These are interests the US shares with European and Arab allies who can and should be expected to share the burden necessary to achieve these goals.

  • Achieving these objectives will require a comprehensive military and diplomatic strategy backed up by U.S. forces on the ground and inclusive leadership that leverages the weight of US allies in the region and around the world.
  • To defeat ISIS and ensure that it does not reemerge, the US forces must be able to clear and hold territory. Allies and regional partners must take part, and play a central role in ensuring that newly liberated areas receive sufficient humanitarian and economic assistance, and in facilitating reconstruction of a post-Assad Syria.
  • The Trump administration has made great progress in degrading ISIS and must prosecute the fight until the end, but U.S. and allied interests in Syria extend beyond the defeat of ISIS. The United States must be an active leader toward a sustainable diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war and the re-establishment of a viable state capable of exercising control within its borders.

These goals can only be achieved through an ongoing presence of U.S. ground forces and continued U.S. leadership.

  • The good news is that the number of U.S. troops required to achieve these goals is fairly modest. Today, an estimated 2,000 American troops remain in a large, strategically important part of Northeast Syria; they are supplemented by other forces from allies and partners in the region. Together, these forces can liberate and secure territory taken from ISIS.
  • It has been reported that national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are looking to build a coalition of Arab armies to replace U.S. forces.
  • To be sure, regional states have a great stake in the outcome in Syria and they must do more to contribute to this fight. The United States is the only country that can bring together diverse regional nations with conflicting goals and organize them around a common strategy and vision.U.S. involvement also will be necessary for the provision of higher-end military capabilities, including special operations, logistics, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — all necessary ingredients for coalition operations.

Together, the United States and its allies and partners can work together to crush ISIS and secure a future Syria consistent with American and regional interests. Once these goals are achieved, the United States can safely bring its forces home.

How vulnerable is India?

The National Investigation Agency (NIA) and state police have so far arrested 75 individuals with alleged ISIS links. The highest number is from Kerala (21), followed by Telangana (16), Karnataka (9), Maharashtra (8), MP (6), Uttarakhand (4), Tamil Nadu (4), UP (3), Rajasthan (2), Jammu & Kashmir (1) and West Bengal (1). As many as 53 were arrested in 2016.

  • One of the first hints of Indian individuals being influenced by the ISIS came in 2014, when Maharashtra youths Areeb Majeed, Fahad Shaikh, Saheem Tankhi and Amaan Tandeel traveled to Syria, reportedly to join up. Majeed was deported to India and is facing trial; the other three are reported to have been killed.
  • Investigators say ISIS recruiters and trainers use the Internet, the phone and one-on-one meetings for indoctrinating Indian youth and getting them to travel to Syria, Libya or Iraq. A number of Indian recruits have traveled from home, or places where they are staying abroad. ISIS propaganda and recruitment depends largely on social media apps such as WhatsApp and Nimbus. Of late, recruiters have been using the “dark web”, a class of Internet content that is not visible to general browsing and is not indexed by search engines.
  • So far, it has not directly claimed responsibility for any attack in India. However, the 2014 blast on Church Street, Bengaluru, where one person was killed, was allegedly triggered by an individual linked to the ISIS. Alam Zeb Afridi, alias Mohd Rafiq, hails from Ahmedabad and was earlier with SIMI and then Indian Mujahideen. In its charge sheet, the NIA said Afridi acted on directions from handlers in Syria associated with the ISIS, and that their target was Israeli tourists in Bengaluru.
  • Investigating agencies claim to have busted another ISIS-linked module, allegedly behind low-intensity blasts on a Bhopal-Ujjain passenger train in 2017. Eight members of this alleged module were arrested while a ninth, Saifulla, was killed in an encounter in Lucknow. Bhatkal resident Shafi Armar alias Anajan Bhai, designated a global militant by the United States, is said to be highest-ranking ISIS operative in India. During his chats with recruits, he has reportedly claimed to have been tasked by ISIS chief al-Baghdadi to set up a Caliphate in India. However, intelligence agencies doubt if he has a direct association with al-Baghdadi.
  • Many officials suspect that Armar, who was earlier with the Indian Mujahideen, uses the name of ISIS on directions of Pakistan. According to Areeb, the Maharashtra youth who was deported in 2016, the ISIS prefers Arab fighters for jihad and engages Indians mostly in administrative work; Areeb claimed he was part of a team assigned to build Raqqa as a WiFi city. ISIS apparently does not believe Indian fighters can kill with the brutality they need. India must take this as a compliment.
  • With its territory shrinking in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is looking for new bases and Afghanistan is one of the targeted countries. It is said to be especially interested in Afghanistan’s Khorasan province, where scores have migrated from Kerala. In 2016, 22 residents of Kerala, including six women and three children, reached an ISIS bastion in Afghanistan. Intelligence reports claimed that four of them, including a child, were killed in bombings by the United States. Intelligence agencies have long suspected that militant groups backed by Pakistan might try to use Afghanistan nationals to carry out attacks in India in the name of the ISIS. In 2015, such groups had allegedly tried to make use of medical visas granted to Afghan nationals, before their alleged terror plot was thwarted on an alert from Afghan intelligence.
  • State DGP S P Vaid said recently that four militants killed in South Kashmir belonged to Islamic State of Jammu and Kashmir (ISJK). This outfit, however, is believed to have no organisational chord with ISIS. ISJK recruits are mostly former operatives of other groups such as Hizb-ul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Toiba. The security establishment believes that the ISIS does not have any defined organisational structure in the Valley or a chain of command transcending borders.

In 2015, the Home Ministry notified the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a banned terrorist organisation under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, stating that it is involved in radicalisation and recruitment of vulnerable youths. Recently, the government also included in the list ISIS-K, also known as Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) or ISIS Wilayat Khorasan.

Evidently, the government needs to do more. Much more.

References

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