The leader is dead, but the ISIS threat is growing
The U.S. raid in Syria that resulted in the death of ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi is welcome news, but it is important to keep it in context. ISIS not only survived the death of its previous leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, in October 2019, but it continued to regroup and become more of a threat.
The threat was demonstrated last month when ISIS assaulted a detention facility in eastern Syria. It took 10 days for Kurdish forces, bolstered by U.S. and British air and ground forces, to retake the facility in the most intense battle since ISIS lost its last stronghold in Baghouz, Syria, in March 2019. Hundreds of ISIS members died in the battle, but it is believed that hundreds may have escaped the prison.
That the terrorist group in January attacked a facility holding thousands of suspected ISIS fighters and supporters comes as no surprise. Lead Inspector General reports have warned for years that the ad hoc detention facilities, housing as many as 10,000 suspected ISIS fighters and members, were vulnerable. In the most recent report, released in November 2021, the Defense Intelligence Agency stated that ISIS “appeared poised to increase activity in Syria.” ISIS has long viewed prison breaks as a means to quickly refill its ranks.
In addition to the population in detention facilities such as the one that ISIS attacked last month, there are tens of thousands of women and children — mostly families of suspected ISIS members — living in the al Hol camp in eastern Syria. Defense Department and intelligence officials have been sounding alarms that the next generation of terrorists is being radicalized in the camp.
Therefore, it is critical for the international community to move the estimated 40,000 foreign nationals out of the detention centers and camps in Syria. Repatriation has been ongoing, but at a trickle. Countries are understandably reluctant to bring home citizens who traveled to Syria to join ISIS. However, it is no longer excusable to say that it is too complicated. The longer those people wallow in prisons and camps, the greater the risk of further radicalization and escape.
When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, the international community mobilized to move tens of thousands of Afghans out of the country. While they did not pose the same security risk as the suspected ISIS members and families in Syria, the effort demonstrated that countries can move quickly when necessary. That level of urgency and response is needed in Syria.
Getting the population of foreign fighters and families out of Syria could pay numerous dividends. Reducing the detainee population would allow the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces to redeploy resources from securing detention facilities to chasing down ISIS sleeper cells. Moving people out of al Hol and downsizing the camp would free up humanitarian workers and supplies to address the staggering needs in other parts of the country.
Syria has been a conundrum since the Arab Spring kicked off in 2011. President Bashar al-Assad watched other Arab rulers fall and unleashed a vicious campaign that included chemical attacks and other war crimes against his people to maintain his grip on power. Russia and Iran came to his support.
Assad and his inner circle are among the most craven human rights abusers and war criminals on earth. They should be held accountable. However, in the past 11 years, Assad’s willingness to commit atrocities to stay in power is greater than the willingness of the international community to go to war to remove him. That calculus is not likely to change.
United Nations efforts to broker a political resolution have gone nowhere. Arab countries have begun to normalize relations with Assad. The Biden administration has rightly dialed back ambitions in Syria to focus on core U.S. interests — contain the ISIS threat and minimize human suffering. The death of another ISIS leader is a symbolic victory, but there are many more actions needed to stabilize Syria over the long run. Getting the population of foreign fighters, supporters and families out of eastern Syria is an achievable step that goes a long way to further U.S. interests. Start there.
Sean D. Carberry is the founder of Taimani One. He most recently served at the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General as managing editor of the Lead Inspector General reports to Congress on overseas contingency operations. Previously, he was a foreign correspondent for NPR, based in Kabul, and has reported from more than two dozen counties including Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. Follow him on Twitter @sdcarberry17.