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Does Islamic State Still Pose a Threat?


A truck carries men identified as Islamic State group fighters who surrendered to Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as they are transported out of IS's last holdout of Baghuz, Syria, Feb. 20, 2019.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Due to technical problems, the audio for this story is not currently available.

The Islamic State (IS) appears close to losing the last area under its control along the Euphrates River in Syria.

Although IS forces may soon be defeated, however, many people agree that the militant group remains a threat. Why?

What will result from the defeat of Islamic State?

Islamic State’s possession of land in Iraq and Syria made it different from other militant groups. Occupation of the land became central to the IS leadership when it declared a caliphate in 2014. It claimed power over all Muslim lands and peoples.

Destroying the “state” it set up in the Middle East denies Islamic State its strongest propaganda tool and a lure for new members. The group’s base of operations is also destroyed. IS no longer has a secure place to train fighters and plan attacks.

It also freed those who fell under IS control from executions and punishment for breaking its laws or, for some minorities, sexual slavery and death.

Warfare killed thousands of Islamic State fighters. And, financially, the defeat also stops the group from using the money it received from taxes on local people and profits from sales of oil.

What influence does IS still have in Iraq and Syria?

When Islamic State was related to the group al Qaeda in Iraq 10 years ago, its members hid when under attack, quietly waiting for a chance to rise again.

Since suffering huge territorial losses in 2017, IS has again turned to hiding and carrying out attacks. There are estimates that at least 5,000 to 7,000 IS fighters are now in Iraq, where they have been blamed for countless kidnappings and killings. Their campaign of violence is aimed at destroying the Iraqi government.

The group has also carried out many bomb attacks in northeast Syria, which is controlled by Kurdish forces allied with the United States.

In one bombing in January, four Americans were killed. Kurdish and U.S. officials have warned that the threat from IS continues.

In Syria, the group’s fighters still hold out in the desert area near the road from Damascus to Deir al-Zor.

What has happened to IS leaders, fighters and followers?

What has happened to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS, is not known. The U.S. government’s experts strongly believe he is alive and possibly hiding in Iraq, U.S. sources said. Other high level leaders have been killed in air strikes.

Thousands of its fighters and civilian followers have also been killed. Thousands more were captured. It is not known how many fighters are still operating freely in both Syria and Iraq.

Iraq is putting on trial, jailing and often executing Islamic State prisoners. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has detained around 800 foreign fighters. More than 2,000 Islamic State wives and children are also being held. Many low-level local operatives have been released in Syria.

The SDF says that Western governments are slow to take back the foreign fighters. At home, they are seen as a security threat, but they also may be difficult to put on trial.

Can it still organize attacks overseas?

As Islamic State begins to lose its last piece of territory, the head of Britain’s spy agency, MI6, thinks the group will return to its old ways -- what he calls “asymmetric” attacks.

Even after it began losing territory, the group still claimed responsibility for attacks made in different countries. But most of the attacks have been blamed on sympathetic individuals and not IS.

The group started a few years ago to call on followers around the world to plan their own attacks.

In early 2018, the head of U.S. military central command noted that Islamic State was strong. He said it still had the ability to inspire “attacks throughout the region and outside of the Middle East”.

What does its fall mean for the future of other Islamists?

Although most of Islamic State’s territory was in Iraq and Syria, Islamist fighters in other countries became their allies. Examples include Nigeria, Yemen and Afghanistan.

Whether those groups will continue the fight for IS is an open question, especially if Baghdadi is killed. But they do not appear to want to end their fight.

Al-Qaeda also still has several allies around the world, and other Islamist groups operate in countries where normal governance has broken down.

The ideology of Islamic State has shown it can change as its situation changes, which means it can always find places where there is war, poverty, injustice and religious hatred to regrow.

I’m Susan Shand.

The Reuters news agency reported this story. Susan Shand adapted the report for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

caliphate – n. a state or country under the leadership of an Islamic clergyman

lure – v. to cause or persuade a person to do something or go somewhere

sources – n. someone who provides something that is needed

asymmetric – adj. uneven, or unusual

inspire – v. to give someone an idea to do something

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