While the Islamic State terror group continues to lose influence in Iraq, U.S. Major General Matthew W. McFarlane recently warned that IS remnants still pose a threat to areas not under the protection of the U.S.-led coalition, including parts of Syria. Analysts see Islamic State expanding into Africa and Asia.
McFarlane commands the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve based in Iraq, working to defeat Islamic State militants and prevent their resurgence.
In an online briefing to journalists this month, McFarlane, calling the group ISIS as well as the Arab acronym Daesh, said Islamic State no longer controls any territory, has lost leaders and fighters, and carries out fewer attacks than in the past.
He said there was a 65% reduction in Islamic State activity this year compared to last year.
“They continue to degrade. Having said that, there are still radical fighters out there that aspire to re-emerge or rebuild the caliphate,” McFarlane said. “We work very closely with our Iraqi counterparts.”
McFarlane said the U.S. and Iraq share intelligence to ensure they can address any possible re-emergence or possible threats that emerge from ISIS fighters that are still at large. He also said they work to address the long-term efforts like repatriation of internally displaced people and Daesh detainees that are in Syrian detention facilities.
Steven Heydemann, a nonresident senior fellow at Washington’s Brookings Institution, told VOA that McFarlane gave a “fairly balanced assessment” of Islamic State at this time.
However, Heydemann points to a recent United Nations report that says the Islamic State group still commands between 5,000 and 7,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq.
“There’s certainly no sense in which we can declare mission accomplished in terms of Operation Inherent Resolve,” Heydemann said. “It continues to play an important role in degrading ISIS. And yet ISIS retains the ability to sustain pretty high levels of insecurity in eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq.”
Heydemann added that the U.S. and others can’t underestimate the extent to which local groups that publicly affiliate with ISIS have in some ways overtaken the core group as a source of threat.
“Africa is clearly one arena in which we’re seeing that happen,” he said.
South Africa-based analyst Martin Ewi has also warned of the growing threat in Africa, where Islamic State is active in more than 20 countries already. He cautioned that the continent may represent “the future of the caliphate.”
Analyst Nicolas Heras at Washington’s New Lines Institute told VOA that Islamic State is like a “perennial” dormant in the Middle East heartland but regenerating and springing to life in central Asia and Africa.
“ISIS has numerous cells in Syria and has also established, in that sort of western badlands of Iraq, a support network,” Heras said. “ISIS has tried to manage the reality that it is an organization looking for this opportunity to spring back. The ISIS brand globally has found opportunity to grow in central Asia, particularly Afghanistan but also, it’s looking to spread into Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and is looking to take advantage of rising communal religious tensions in India.”
Heras said that in Africa, Islamic State is trying to take advantage of the war in Sudan and the destabilization of Ethiopia.