It has been awhile since ISIS was thrust from Syria, so where is the group now?

Jack Thompson

In 2003, the U.S. and several other western nations invaded Iraq. During the occupation of Iraq, many Iraqis who waged counter-campaigns were sent to Camp Bucca. Among these prisoners was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Al-Baghdadi used this time to radicalize his fellow inmates, priming them for the formation of ISIS. Due to his time at Camp Bucca, al-Baghdadi was able to network with leaders from the terror group Al-Qaeda. In fact, more than a dozen of ISIS’ highest commanders did time in camp Bucca with al-Baghdadi. As ISIS grew, they drifted further away from Al-Qaeda, eventually drawing away entirely. In 2014 the group shot to prominence by forcing Iraqi forces out of major cities in the North, and declaring a caliphate (the rule or reign of a Muslim ruler), which had its capital in Raqqa, Syria. The use of social media by ISIS alarmed the world as the scenes of men clad in all black executing journalists, civilians and even members of other Jihadist groups were posted all over the internet. Soon after, a campaign led by the U.S., was able to root out the caliphate and in March of 2019 Raqqa fell, ending the geographical caliphate. As the U.S.-led coalition assessed the damage, they landed on the solution of prison camps. Almost anyone in former ISIS territory was detained, though it was not limited to fighters. The wives, children and extended families of fighters were also detained, in camps that store up to five thousand people. 


On February 3rd of 2022, U.S. special forces killed the second caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi. Weeks earlier, his forces had launched an attack on al-Sina prison in northern Syria. The ensuing siege lasted over a week and in all was able to free all of the detained fighters, as well as children of fighters to be used as soldiers later on. This is not an isolated incident, prisons housing former ISIS fighters have been attacked across Syria as ISIS gained strength. As Afghanistan fell, prisons housing ISIS militants were destroyed, allowing them to roam free. As civilians fled the airport in Kabul, ISIS bombers detonated suicide vests in the crowd, killing at least 100 people. Prison breaks have occured from northern Africa to southeastern Asia. Governments responsible for housing the prisoners have pleaded with western nations to take their citizens back. However, they have all turned a blind eye, with the U.S. and to a lesser extent the U.K. being the only nations to take prisoners out. On April 14th, a member of the ¨Beatles¨, a group of four British citizens who went to Syria to join ISIS, was convicted in U.S. federal court. The trial, which took place in Virginia, found El Shafee Elsheikh guilty of kidnapping and murdering four American citizens. While this may be a win, it is by no means a defeat for ISIS. In the coming months it cannot be certain what the plans will be for the jihadist group, but recent statements can give us a clue.


    In Iraq, the city of Mosul remains under siege and constant threat of attack by ISIS militants. However, the group is most focused on the rural areas of Afghanistan. Villages housing religious extremists who supported the Taliban are now being courted by ISIS, who hold even more radical beliefs. The caliphate holds no central force and is limited to small cells conducting their own campaigns, occasionally under the direction of the caliph. On March 10th of 2022, Abu al-Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi was crowned the new caliph in an audio statement released through the Islamic States media channels. Under a new leader, it is unclear what the strategy will be going forward. However, it is unlikely that we will see an end to the caliphate any time soon, says Dr. David Kilcullen. Since the conflict began, eight thousand American soldiers have been killed by the Islamic State and nearly half a million civilians have died in the fighting. All the while, ISIS has remained ideologically strong and kept a high number of people engaged with them. The children who have been in prison camps alongside adult militants are not going to be rehabilitated, meaning ISIS is now going to be a generational issue if not dealt with correctly. And as more of these militants are released from captivity, there is no telling what will happen from here.