In September, U.S. President Joe Biden told the UN General Assembly: “I stand here today for the first time in twenty years with the U.S. not at war. We have turned the page.” The role that U.S. troops have played in battling a revived threat from the self-declared Islamic State in Iraq and Syria this year contradicts his overly optimistic declaration.
On February 3, U.S. special operations forces conducted a raid in northwestern Syria that killed Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. No U.S. troops were injured, but thirteen people were killed, including children. A U.S. official said Qurayshi detonated a bomb, killing himself and his family, before troops entered his home. The previous week, U.S. forces in northeastern Syria conducted combat operations to help their Kurdish partners battle a prison break by Islamic State militants.
These developments show why U.S. troops (numbering roughly 2,500 in Iraq and 900 in Syria) need to remain on the front lines to fight low-intensity threats such as the Islamic State that have proved dismayingly resilient.
Roots of a Global Terrorist Group
The Islamic State has its roots in al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the Islamist terrorist group that arose after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. By 2009, following the U.S. troop surge and the rise of the Anbar Awakening, AQI was on the ropes. But President Barack Obama’s decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011—while a civil war was breaking out in Syria—gave the group a fresh lease on life.
Reborn as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the extremist organization became stronger than ever, attracting recruits from all over the world and inspiring terrorist attacks from San Bernardino, California, to Paris. By the end of 2014, the Islamic State controlled territory the size of Britain on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. Obama sent U.S. troops back to Iraq to help stem the tide. By 2017, Iraqi forces had recaptured Mosul, and by 2019, the Islamic State lost its last strongholds in Syria.
But the Islamic State never really went away. With its caliphate gone and leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi killed in a U.S. raid in 2019, the group reverted to hit-and-run attacks on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border, while affiliates conducted attacks from Africa to Afghanistan. According to analysis by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Michael Knights and Horizon Client Access’s Alex Almeida, the Islamic State carried out 808 attacks in Iraq during the second quarter of 2020. Thereafter, there was a decline in attacks, averaging 330 per quarter from July 2020 to November 2021. Most were fairly minor, but 2022 has brought a new spate of higher-profile attacks.
Still Lethal in Iraq, Syria
In Iraq’s Diyala Governorate, just seventy-five miles north of Baghdad, suspected Islamic State fighters attacked an Iraqi army barrack in January, killing eleven soldiers in their beds. In the Syrian city of Hasaka, the group attacked a prison holding Islamic State members. Hundreds of people were killed as the Syrian Democratic Forces—a primarily Kurdish militia—worked with U.S. troops to regain control of the prison in heavy ground combat. U.S. forces estimate that two hundred Islamic State prisoners escaped.
The death of Qurayshi, who did not have much of a public profile, will be a setback to the group, but probably only a temporary one. Qurayshi, after all, was appointed leader less than a week after the death of Baghdadi in 2019. Presumably, another leader will now be appointed. But the organization has become so decentralized and diffuse that the change in top-level leadership is likely to make little difference.
Its most significant affiliate, Afghanistan’s Islamic State in Khorasan, is largely independent—and is likely to see room for further advances as the Taliban struggle to consolidate their control of that country. Meanwhile, Iraq’s government remains perpetually weak and divided, and Syria remains in chaos as a civil war continues to rage after more than a decade. The lack of effective governance in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria will almost surely provide fresh opportunities for the Islamic State to carry out attacks in the region and rebuild its strength.
Containing the Chaos
There is little the United States can do to improve governance in any of those countries. The best it can hope for is to contain the consequences of chaos by keeping a small troop presence on the ground in Iraq and Syria to work with Iraqi security forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces, respectively, to buttress their capabilities to combat the Islamic State while containing the growth of Iranian power in both countries. Even a relatively small number of U.S. troops can make a major difference; they can provide “enablers” such as intelligence and air support that other nations simply don’t have. But in Afghanistan, U.S. options are even more limited, since combating the Islamic State forces Washington into a de facto alliance with the Taliban.
Biden has managed to pull the United States out of Afghanistan—at high cost—but he has wisely refused to pull U.S. troops entirely out of the fight against militant groups in the greater Middle East. The events of the past two weeks show that the U.S. troop presence is still needed to keep the Islamic State at bay.