The US-backed Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) announced today that Baghouz has been liberated from the Islamic State. The US considers Baghouz to be the last village that was part of the jihadists’ physical caliphate. However, a review of history and current operations shows that the Islamic State has not been entirely defeated.
The US Department of State added Harakat al Nujaba, an Iranian-supported Shiite militia which operates in both Iraq and Syria, and its leader, Akram ‘Abbas al Kaabi to the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists. Kaabi has pledged loyalty to Iran’s Supreme Leader and has said he would overthrow the Iraqi government if ordered to do so.
President Trump claimed earlier today that the Islamic State has been “defeated” in Syria. But an unknown number of the group’s top leaders, including presumably Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remain alive. And there are likely thousands of fighters in both Syria and Iraq, where they operate as insurgents.
The US-led coalition announced today that Abu al Umarayn and “several” other Islamic State leaders were killed in recent airstrikes in Syria. Umarayn was purportedly involved in the 2014 murder of Peter Kassig, a former US Army Ranger who was working as a humanitarian worker in Syria.
The US-led coalition and Iraqi forces recently hunted down senior Islamic State personnel responsible for “overseeing operations conducted within Salah ad Din, Kirkuk, Ninewah and northern Anbar provinces.” The Islamic State claims that is men are especially prolific in these same areas. Over a six-week period from Sept. 27 to Nov. 7, the Islamic State claimed a total of 313 operations in Iraq, with more than 100 occurring in Kirkuk province.
While the Treasury designation focuses on the four Iraqis’ links to Hezbollah, which is described as “a terrorist proxy for the Iranian regime that seeks to undermine Iraqi sovereignty and destabilize the Middle East,” it practically ignores the fact that one of them is the Secretary General of the Imam Ali Battalions, or Kata’ib Imam Ali, a key component of the Popular Mobilization Forces, an official military arm of the Iraqi state that reports directly to the prime minister.
Since early September, the US has issued terrorist designations for Islamic State moneymen operating around the globe, from the Caribbean to East Africa. The designations highlight the diverse sources the so-called caliphate uses to fund its insurgency and terrorist operations.
While Iranian-backed parties are moving to form a government in Baghdad that could force the US to exit the country, they face growing public anger over governance failures that threaten the viability of the system.