Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
President Donald Trump made a number of eyebrow-raising claims during Wednesday’s address to the nation on the latest tensions in the Middle East — but perhaps none more so than his assertion that the U.S. had destroyed “100 percent of ISIS.”
Near the end of his 10-minute address from the White House, responding to Iran’s missile strikes on U.S. bases in Iraq, Trump claimed the U.S. had destroyed “100 percent of ISIS and its territorial caliphate” in Iraq and Syria.
But experts say that’s a misrepresentation of the situation. While the last pocket of the Sunni terror group’s so-called caliphate — which once stretched across wide swathes of Syria and Iraq, ruling as many as 12 million people — was finally retaken by U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led forces last March, that only spelled the end of the group’s existence as a territorial entity.
The group continues to operate as an underground insurgent movement, commanding the loyalty of perhaps as many as 10,000 fighters across both countries, according to Matthew Henman, the head of Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center at IHS Markit, a nonpartisan defense information provider headquartered in London.
“The territorial caliphate has been defeated, but the group is still very much active,” Henman told VICE News.
“From [ISIS’s] perspective, it’s clear that the caliphate wasn’t just a territorial entity. It was a governance system that would live on beyond any territorial defeat.”
As it regroups following the loss of its physical caliphate — and the death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in a raid by U.S. forces in October — ISIS continues to carry out attacks and targeted assassinations of local leaders, seeking to foment chaos and create the conditions necessary for its re-emergence as a territorial entity.
“It hasn’t given up the idea of a territorial caliphate,” said Henman. “The group is in a mindset that ‘we’ve suffered one defeat, but it’s just one battle in the timeless war that will continue’.”
He said the group had also been successful in establishing a decentralized network of affiliates globally — from West Africa to Afghanistan to the Philippines — which had continued to carry out attacks around the world, independently of the central leadership.
While Trump’s comments gave the impression the fight against the group has ended with a U.S. victory, the U.S.’s mission against the group is ongoing. In fact, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said as recently as Monday, in response to the Iraqi parliament’s resolution for U.S. forces to leave, that Washington was committed to its mission in Iraq to bring about “the enduring defeat of ISIS.”
In his remarks on Wednesday, Trump indicated that NATO and Iran could play a greater role in the fight against ISIS, and announced that the U.S.’s “strategic priorities” have changed. This has fuelled speculation the U.S. could look to scale down its presence in Iraq, where the outgoing prime minister, backed by the parliament, has called on U.S. forces to leave.
Any such withdrawal would only be a boon for ISIS, said Henman, who said the group exploited the security vacuum left by the departure of U.S. forces in 2011, in the years leading to the establishment of the so-called caliphate in 2014.
Already, the pullout of U.S. forces from northern Syria late last year, ahead of a Turkish offensive against the Kurds, has sparked concerns of an ISIS resurgence in the region, amid reports that ISIS-affiliated detainees have escaped from Kurdish-run camps.
“Whether the U.S. will make the same mistake of taking its foot off the group’s neck again remains to be seen,” said Henman.
Cover: President Donald Trump addresses the nation from the White House on the ballistic missile strike that Iran launched against Iraqi air bases housing U.S. troops, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Washington, as Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and military leaders, looks on. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)