The end of ISIS? Not by a longshot, alas

We constantly hear or read that this or that terrorist group has been “defeated”: how much stock should we place in such reports (hint: very little)

We tend to like our stories to have an end, don’t we? Things arise, they are dealt with, and Bob’s your uncle we move on. Tie a bow on it and that’s that!

Life is rarely like that, unfortunately. Rare is the phenomenon that ever really comes to a close. Thought the dinosaurs all bit the dust (literally: the asteroid/comet that hit the Earth 65 million years ago would have thrown enough material into the atmosphere to make the skies dark and lower global temperatures)? Nope, they just morphed into birds.

Thought measles was gone? Wrong the second time: although it was believed to have disappeared in the US thanks to vaccination programmes it has been making a worrisome return in recent years.

Feared you would never see a Canada-based Stanley Cup winner again? Well…that one is still true, alas, the resurgence of the Toronto Maple Leafs notwithstanding (they will likely lose in the first round of the playoffs anyway).

Which brings me to terrorism.

We are growing accustomed to pronouncements from world leaders that terrorist group ___ (fill in the blank) is on the verge of defeat. So many organisations have been described as such that I have lost count: Al Shabaab (recent Somali government successes against these jihadis are to be celebrated but the group is still very capable), Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al Qaeda – AQ- (which seems to have survived the deaths of its original leader, Usama bin Laden, and his successor Ayman al Zawahiri – or is the latter really gone?), the list goes on and on.

And then there is Islamic State (ISIS). Former US President Donald Trump assured the world in 2019 that the group was “totally defeated”. As with just about everything stated by Trump this too was inaccurate. Yes, the territorial integrity of the terrorist bunch was no more – their self-styled ‘caliphate’ had been dismembered. But there were still tens of thousands of ISIS adherents ready and willing to create havoc (I am referring here solely to the main core and not the plethora of provinces it has spawned around the world).

Iraqi, Syrian, Kurdish and US forces are all too busy monitoring, locating, and killing ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq. On December 29 US CENTCOM announced that 466 ISIS operatives had been killed in Syria, and another 220 in Iraq in 2022. A total of 374 militants were captured in both countries during that same time period.  Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, who took the reins from former head Abu Bakr al Baghdadi when he was killed in a US raid in 2019, detonated a bomb in his apartment as US forces closed last February. As I have stated on many occasions, a dead terrorist – especially a leader – is a good terrorist.

That is a lot of dead terrorists for a group that was supposed to be “totally defeated”!

So why do we maintain that ISIS is yesterday’s threat? Is it boredom? A need to be right? Frustration over the seemingly never-ending war on terrorism? A wish that the depravity we saw in ISIS acts (rapes, beheadings, drownings, etc.) will never come back? All of these may in fact be contributing factors but they make for lousy analysis – and headlines.

We seem to have a need to announce final victory against our foes. Nigeria regularly claims Boko Haram is dead (NB it is not). Somalia says its ongoing campaign against Al Shabaab (AS) will put the last nails in that terrorist group’s coffin (NB it probably won’t). AQ has survived the death of two of its head honchos – if Al Zawahiri is really pushing up the daisies – and seems to be carrying on. Even ISIS in the Sinai, a group which was very active in the 2010s but seemed to have gone quiet of late, was probably responsible for a recent attack on a police checkpoint in Ismailiya in which four were killed and a dozen wounded. Heck, even the Irish Republican Army, or rather the latest model of the IRA, ain’t quite dead yet.

The lesson here? Claims of finality are rarely true, whether we are talking about terrorism or any other phenomenon for that matter. Get used to it: terrorism will never truly disappear, although it will seldom if ever constitute an “existential threat” to us. That’s life – and death – folks. Reality is more like The Hobbit: There and back again.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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