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ISIS 2.0  Where did all the Fighters go?

“We have repeatedly said in this room, the war is not over,” Defense Secretary James Mattis, 2018

“It is far easier to kill a terrorist than to slay an ideology.” Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

“Yes, they have lost much of their leadership. They have lost many of their capable men. But they’ve also managed to gain more experience and to recruit more people around them. So they should not be taken lightly.” Masrour Barzani, PM of Iraqi Kurdistan

“We must work together to ensure that the population of detained foreign terrorist fighters as well as their family members displaced in Syria and Iraq do not become the nucleus of an ISIS 2.0.” U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft

It was not so long ago, four or five years at most, that a looming specter of the world was being taken over by an emerging terrorist organization called, The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, otherwise known as, ISIS. At their zenith, they boasted about 35,000 fighters, roughly the size of two or three U.S. Infantry divisions. Some estimates by independent observers, project the number of fighters as being closer to 100,000. By comparison, the United States fields ten Active Duty divisions, and upwards of eight Reserve and National Guard divisions.

At one point in 2015, ISIS controlled about 38,000 square miles of land, which is about the same size as Pennsylvania. It governed approximately eight million inhabitants.  During their five year reign of terror in the Middle East, ISIS killed approximately 40,000 people, not including the 11,000 Iraqi soldiers who lost their lives fighting against them. “Body counts” is never a good way to weigh the success of military campaigns, but I want you to understand that the presence of ISIS fighters was pervasive during the 2014 to 2019 time period. Here we are in 2020, and there is nary a word spoken about this nefarious foe in the mainstream media.

This week and next, I’d like to discuss the most viable disposition of ISIS fighters, in order to unravel any notion we might entertain that the problem could be gone. Yes, coalition forces in Iraq and Syria dealt a serious blow to the ISIS leadership, including the material presence of many ISIS fighters, but there has been little done to eradicate the way of thinking that has driven the hearts and minds of many disillusioned young men and women, who have given themselves to an Islamist Jihadist ideology. This is an ideology that perpetuates like a thriving cancer, deceiving even the most devoted, to the point of massive self-destructive behavior.

There is more than meets the eye concerning the proliferation of the ISIS ideology and the pursuit of an Islamist caliphate across the entire world. You have heard me speak before about the Islamist meta-narrative. This meta-narrative is not dead. It is alive and well, and it is one that we would do well to pay attention to, even at the risk of our own pain. 

This will be a two-part series, perhaps three. In part one, we will address how ISIS 2.0 is reconstituting itself in Iraq and Syria, with undaunted resolve to reconstitute their singular caliphate. In part two, we will examine the incredibly rapid growth of ISIS 2.0 in Africa, and we will discover that this may be the most serious development, currently in the world today. If there is a part three, I will most likely deal with the expansion of ISIS 2.0, not only in South East Asia but also in South America and the Caribbean basin.

The review.

ISIS 2.0…2020 

While US-allied forces, in 2019, deprived ISIS of the vast territory it once controlled, the group still has as many as 14,000 to 18,000 fighters quietly stationed across Iraq and Syria, according to The New York Times.

Additionally, Kurdish-led fighters, known as The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had maintained control of tens of thousands of former ISIS members and their families, including about 70,000 women and children in a compound in the Syrian city of al-Hol, according to the Atlantic. Of those detainees, 11,000 of them are foreign nationals, according to the BBC.

The SDF has said it is holding more than 12,000 men suspected of being ISIS fighters, across seven prisons it operates, estimating that more than 4,000 of those prisoners are foreign nationals, (according to BBC). The fate of these prisoners remains uncertain, particularly in the wake of the U.S. pullout. ISIS may have been defeated, but they have not been decimated.

Though ISIS may be currently unable to mount sophisticated attacks or operations outside of Iraq and Syria, data shows that it is expanding its presence and increasing attacks in both countries. ISIS continues to press forward with online recruitment and remains well-funded, with reserves estimated at, between $50 million and $300 million. A recent U.N. assessment estimates ISIS manpower to be more than 10,000 fighters, while the Pentagon Inspector General estimates that number to be anywhere from 14,000-18,000.

The Islamic State has lost all its territory; tens of thousands of its fighters have been killed or are imprisoned, and its former leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is dead. But the Kurdish leader, Masrour Barzani who witnessed the militant group’s rise and fall is warning that ISIS is putting itself back together, and stressing an uncomfortable fact: that ISIS is bigger now than it was nearly six years ago when it founded its self-styled caliphate.

ISIS in Iraq

While U.S. policy in Iraq has been singularly focused on Iran and winding down its military presence, ISIS has quietly reconstituted. In the first quarter of 2020 alone, 566 ISIS attacks were reported in Iraq.  A recent Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (TRAC) assessment found that ISIS claimed 100 attacks across Iraq in August 2020, a 25 percent increase from July. There is also mounting evidence that the attacks are becoming more sophisticated, targeting military checkpoints and Iraqi military housing. The pandemic and U.S. drawdown have exacerbated these concerns, allowing ISIS fighters to fill the vacuum that troop movements leave behind. Already there have been almost 140 ISIS attacks in Iraq alone.

These statistics paint a grim picture of what the reconstitution of ISIS might begin to look like in Iraq over the coming months without a redirection of U.S. or coalition policy. If the U.S. continues to disengage while Iraq is distracted by the economic crisis, COVID-19, and other competing concerns, ISIS will seize on the opportunity to conduct prison breaks, rebuild its ranks, and retake territory in areas the military or coalition forces have abandoned.

ISIS In Syria

The Islamic State could regenerate in areas controlled by the Assad regime, General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr, the head of U.S. Central Command, warned at an event at the U.S. Institute of Peace on August 12. “The conditions are as bad as or worse than those that spawned the original rise of ISIS,” he said. He warned that ISIS has operated with “more freedom” west of the Euphrates River and in the central Badia desert – territory not controlled by the United States or its local partner forces. McKenzie said that “without sustained pressure” ISIS could regain control of physical territory in Syria and neighboring Iraq “in a relatively short period of time.”

Apart from a Turkish incursion in 2019 and the regime retaking territory from opposition groups, usually after a deal between Russia, Turkey, and Iran, the territorial lines have remained largely the same over 2020. The Syrian regime has shifted its focus north to Idlib Province, the last remaining stronghold of opposition forces, and has ignored the vast areas east of Homs and Damascus. In those regions, an ISIS presence is growing, and there are rumblings of an opposition insurgency in the south.

Regarding Syria, General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr noted in his interview with U.S. Peace Institute, “I really would like to see us move to solutions where we’re not applying the military element of power as the first choice. We’re a very blunt instrument. We’re a very effective instrument, but it’s an arithmetic approach to an exponential problem. 

There are always downstream effects when you lead with a military. We can do a lot of great things–we can go in there and fix a lot of problems initially. But we’re never going to be as effective as the other tools of power working because you’ve got to get to the root causes of those problems. We are not ever going to be good at getting to the root of problems. We can, however, address the symptoms and manifestations of problems, but the root causes require a far more delicate nuanced approach.”

The why.

While the world is focused on the Coronavirus, nefarious entities such as ISIS continue to move forward with their venomous plans. This is not to imply that the Coronavirus is not a vitally strategic concern. What I am saying is, that the comfort of a myopic focus is a luxury that no nation can afford during these perilous days. ISIS has not gone away, it has simply morphed into an ISIS 2.0. Its reach is further than ever. Even though it has lost its geographic center of gravity, its central message and desire for a globally dominant caliphate remains.

There will be fallout from the ISIS re-birth. If counter-intelligence agencies and national intelligence professionals do not keep at least one eye on this ball, ISIS will run rampant across nations again. They will seek to re-take their lost gains in Iraq, Syria, Libya, North Africa, Central Asia, and South East Asia, the four countries of the Maghreb, Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia, which constitute a microcosm of ISIS’ identity, trajectory and shifting fortunes to date. One must ask, how is it that they can keep on coming after they have been resolutely beaten on the battlefield time and time again?  It is because to this point, national leaders are only dealing with the symptoms of the problem. They are handling them in such a heavy-handed way that it simply breeds more radicalization. There must be a concerted effort to deal with the ideology of the ISIS organization and all the splinter groups who currently find their message compelling.

The action.

The longer I have looked at this problem, the more clear it has become to me that simply addressing the symptoms of radical Islamist jihadism will only leave us with an enemy that becomes stronger and stronger, as they learn to adapt to every solution for the symptoms of their violent ideology. A kinetic approach cannot be dispensed, but it must be tempered with a mentality towards addressing the primary problems as well. The only problem is: nobody is quite sure yet, what the real problems are. I address this in a research study I did in 2016. It is a good read.  Click here. 

A piece of the solution is for the Intelligence Community (IC) to re-look at the whole matter of de-radicalization. There remains much to do concerning the evaluation of how to defeat the ideology and to not just be idealistic. The de-radicalization process needs to be embedded in the culture. It needs to be a Middle East solution. It must come from the region and will be even better if it is derived from within the specific area where the people, the ones who have been radicalized, are from. There is so much that needs to be done to ameliorate this metastasizing problem.

The follow-up.

What ISIS really wants…

Strategic Inferences from Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict 2020, post-ceasefire…

The feed-back.

For your comments or questions about any of our digests, please feel free to write to me at:


Where Did The Islamic State Fighters Go? : Parallels: NPR

US Policy and the Resurgence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria | Middle East Institute

Over 10,000 Islamic State fighters active in Iraq, Syria as attacks ‘significantly’ increase: UN

The Atlantic, The inconvenient truth about ISIS, [access: 19.04.2020].

Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre, Spotlight on Global Jihad, [access: 26.04.2020].

© 2019 • More Than Meets