Over the past few months, Iraq and Syria have successfully ejected lingering pockets of the Islamic State with the help of U.S.-led coalition forces, which assisted with planning and support for dramatic operations to strategically reclaim cities from the terror organization. That is to say, Iraq declared itself fully liberated from ISIS in December, and the Syrian army retook the country’s last ISIS stronghold in early November.
Although pockets of resistance remained, the U.S.-led coalition has now issued a statement on how many ISIS fighters remain in the countries. The answer? Of the 3,000 that remained in early December, about a third are left:
“Due to the commitment of the Coalition and the demonstrated competence of our partners in Iraq and Syria, there are estimated to be less than 1,000 ISIS terrorists in our combined joint area of operations, most of whom are being hunted down in the desert regions in eastern Syria and Western Iraq.”
It’s understood that there may be additional ISIS fighters in western Syria who are working alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s government, but the dramatic shrinking of ISIS within both Syria and Iraq makes one wonder where exactly these fighters have gone. Some of them, surely, have grown disillusioned with the cause — after all and for over a year, there have been reports of ISIS fighters actually calling in sick to avoid battles for a losing side.
Yet those who remained in ISIS could spread terror elsewhere, and NBC News spoke to a counterterrorism expert that warns of ISIS’ retreat into a “virtual caliphate.” In other words, the Islamic State will continue its recruiting efforts from satellite cells and over the internet, “where it will attempt to inspire more lone wolf attacks in the West.” Although social media platforms have worked to eliminate terror-based accounts, there are still a number of ways for ISIS to spread its message.
In addition, the Sunday Times reports that hundreds of British ISIS fighters are thought to have fled to Turkey. That hunch is based upon word from Syrian-Kurdish intelligence officer Ciwan Xhalil, who says that jails in Raqqa and Mosul are filled with ISIS fighters who hail from France and many other countries, but the British fighters appear to have evaporated. Let’s hope they don’t return in 2018.