Experts warn of persistent ISIS threat after suicide bombing

Experts warn of persistent ISIS threat after suicide bombing

The suicide bombing in Syria this past week at a restaurant said to be popular among U.S. service members put into focus the persistent threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), experts said.

The town in northern Syria where the bombing took place was considered a success story for stabilization after it was retaken from ISIS in 2016. As recently as July, U.S. senators toured the area without body armor.

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But Wednesday's blast in Manbij’s bustling city center shattered that perception at a time when President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew EPA rule would expand Trump officials' powers to reject FOIA requests Democratic senator introduces bill to ban gun silencers Democrats: Ex-Commerce aide said Ross asked him to examine adding census citizenship question MORE has been touting the decimation of ISIS and plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

“I don’t think anybody who knows anything about Syria thinks that ISIS is annihilated,” said Stephen Biddle, an adjunct senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And if they’re not annihilated, then they’re going to be able to pull off occasional attacks and kill people, including Americans.”

Four Americans — two U.S. service members, a civilian employee of the Defense Intelligence Agency and an American military contractor — were killed in the suicide bombing. ISIS took credit for the attack, which was the single-deadliest for Americans in Syria since U.S. troops were deployed in 2015.

The attack came roughly a month after Trump announced he would withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. At the time of the announcement, Trump said ISIS had been “defeated.”

Lawmakers who oppose withdrawal have seized on the recent attack to renew their calls for Trump to reverse course, while Trump’s supporters on the Syria decision have said it shows why U.S. forces must leave.

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Hours after the attack, Vice President Pence said “ISIS has been defeated,” though in a statement later that day he said, “We have crushed the ISIS caliphate and devastated its capabilities.”

Biddle criticized the use of words like defeat and victory, saying they are designed to “conceal.” That’s because while military doctrine defines defeat as rendering the enemy incapable of reaching its objective, that’s not the colloquial definition.

“Right now, Trump is using this language in a way that’s deliberately designed to suggest that he has annihilated them,” Biddle said. “If the military is agreeing to this, it’s because they know what the doctrinal definition is. Nobody thinks ISIS has been annihilated. Or even will be in any plausible time period.”

A Pentagon statement Friday acknowledged that “ISIS remains a threat.”

"As Wednesday's attack demonstrates, ISIS remains a threat,” acting chief Pentagon spokesman Charles Summers Jr. said. “We will continue to hit the remnants of ISIS hard to destroy any residual networks and ensure its enduring defeat."

Administration and military officials say about 99 percent of the physical territory ISIS once held has been taken back by U.S. and U.S.-backed forces.

American forces and their local partners continue to battle ISIS in its remaining pockets of territory along the Middle Euphrates River Valley. Between Dec. 30 and Jan. 12, U.S. forces conducted 575 strikes in Syria, according to a biweekly summary of strikes.

The latest Pentagon estimate for the number of ISIS fighters remaining in Syria is between 13,100 and 14,500, including 4,000 to 6,000 in the U.S. military’s area of operation, according to a November inspector general report.

On Friday, Trump’s former special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition accused Trump of giving new life to ISIS by announcing a withdrawal.

“The irony is that defeating the Islamic State is what the president identified as his goal from the beginning,” Brett McGurk, who resigned after Trump’s withdrawal announcement, wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece. “In 2016, he vowed to ‘knock the hell out of ISIS.’ His recent choices, unfortunately, are already giving the Islamic State — and other American adversaries — new life.”

Lawmakers who oppose the withdrawal have also accused Trump of emboldening ISIS. Those detractors include both Democrats and Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump puts the cart before the horse in Palestine Negotiators face major obstacles to meeting July border deadline Hillicon Valley: Senate bill would force companies to disclose value of user data | Waters to hold hearing on Facebook cryptocurrency | GOP divided on election security bills | US tracking Russian, Iranian social media campaigns MORE (R-S.C.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Biddle said the ISIS attack was most likely a mix of responding to Trump and seeing an opportune target in Manbij.

“ISIS does not want to be seen around the world as the losers whose defeat enabled the U.S. to go home to a victory parade,” he said. “They want this to look like a U.S. retreat with its tail between its legs.”

Beyond the physical remnants, experts warned of the persistence of ISIS ideology.

“It is possible for soldiers to destroy an organization or drive it really deep underground,” said Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria. “But it’s really hard for soldiers to destroy a cause.”

From Ford’s perspective, that’s an argument for withdrawing. He said Americans cannot solve the underlying issues driving extremists.

Ford called Manbij the “perfect example” of the difficulty of destroying the cause, saying the attack “should show us the incapacity of American forces to stop every single ISIS recruitment operation.”

“In two-and-a-half years, it was like a showcase of stabilization projects,” he said. “The markets are open and the schools are open and there’s a local administration that the Americans sort of helped the Syrian Kurds impose on town. And guess what? They’re still there. They don’t control it like they used to, but they’re still there. The cause is still there.”