The fall of ISIS in Syria and Iraq signals a new era in the groups future. With eyes now on other battlefield theatres, the group is continually expanding in countries central to the U.S. vs Russian war of influence.
While this may mean that ISIS’ stranglehold over significant portions of territory in these two countries may, in the days to come, be effectively ended, it doesn’t necessarily mean the ultimate death of the terror group as an entity, and its ability to strike its opponents in almost any location may continue unabated.
A senior Kurdish “anti-terrorism” official has already warned that the collapse of ISIS’ territorial domain may, in fact, result in the group morphing into something akin to “al-Qaeda on steroids.”
So what next for the terror group? Unlikely to accept defeat, ISIS may stick around in Iraq and Syria for as long as possible and resort to guerrilla-style attacks against occupying and enemy forces. Yet it seems highly likely that ISIS will step up its operations in other arenas as well — most likely in Afghanistan, Libya, and perhaps even Egypt and the Philippines, to name a few.
When the real reason the U.S. will seek to target ISIS in these countries — mainly an infatuation with opposing America’s Cold War rival, Russia — becomes clear, Washington’s intentions and its means of achieving those goals appear that much more sinister.
Afghanistan: Relocated ISIS a new target for U.S. proxy war
According to AFP, French and Algerian militants, some who arrived from Syria, have joined the ranks of ISIS in northern Afghanistan and established new bases there. AFP notes that analysts are suggesting foreigners may be heading to Afghanistan after being driven from Syria and Iraq.
One source told AFP that roughly 200 foreigners had set up camp in Northern Afghanistan, and that French-speaking Caucasian men and women had been training militants in the region.
The U.S. military already gave the rest of the world a hint that it has not left Afghanistan out of its sights earlier this year when it dropped the so-called “mother of all bombs” (MOAB) on caves and tunnels used by ISIS in eastern Afghanistan (it later turned out that these tunnels were actually built by the CIA). It also was revealed that the decision to drop the bomb was made by a commander in the field and that U.S. President Donald Trump had no direct involvement in the strike – demonstrating the level of violence that the U.S. military can inflict without any supposed democratic oversight.
However, according to Foreign Policy, the real threat inside Afghanistan does not lie with ISIS, but lies with Washington’s so-called traditional enemies:
But the Islamic State’s savagery has drawn eyes away from the true danger: the Taliban and al Qaeda, which continue to sit pretty after nearly 16 years of unsuccessful efforts at elimination. Although dethroned by U.S. military action in 2001, the Taliban has remained a tenacious opponent.”
This paradigm is put forward despite the fact that the U.S. essentially created al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan as a means of drawing Russia into a ten-year quagmire that ultimately collapsed the Soviet empire.
So why do these groups pose a specific threat to the U.S., and why at this point in time? As FP explains, Washington’s desire to intervene further in Afghanistan will always be about containing a much larger rival than al-Qaeda or the Taliban:
Now, according to top U.S. officials, that threat is backed by another old foe, Russia. On April 24, Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said during a visit to Kabul by Secretary of Defense James Mattis that he was ‘not refuting’ multiple reports that Moscow is funneling arms to the Taliban. In congressional testimony back in February, Gen. Nicholson had already said that Russia is ‘overtly lending legitimacy to the Taliban.’ But his allegations of direct material aid this time went much further.” [emphasis added]
Just to be clear, it was Nicholson himself who made the decision to drop the MOAB earlier this year, an obvious attempt to send a stark warning not to ISIS or al-Qaeda, but to Russia and its allies.
According to western media, the Taliban continues to grow inside Afghanistan, and this is purportedly all because of Russia (despite a documented history that shows the complete opposite to be true). FP writes:
The Taliban threat, now perhaps backed by Russian arms, is rising as rapidly as that of the Islamic State is declining. The Taliban controls more territory than at any time since 2001, civilian casualties are the highest they’ve been since these figures were first tracked in 2009, and fatality rates of beleaguered Afghan security forces are soaring.”
The U.S. will need to intervene in Afghanistan to protect what it sees as its interests, but it cannot use the same recycled fear-mongering tactics of hyping up the threat posed by al-Qaeda or the Taliban. After years of Washington arming and supporting al-Qaeda-linked groups in places like Syria, the U.S. will find that using the terror group’s name as justification for an intervention will most likely fall on deaf ears. That is why the U.S. will almost certainly allow ISIS’ presence in Afghanistan to grow temporarily so that it can then take a more substantial fight to the war-torn country and justify a renewed aerial campaign and increased troop presence.
However, this will only complicate the war in Afghanistan, as al-Qaeda and the Taliban can use the ISIS distraction to work on their own insurgency. It is not clear whether the U.S. could realistically hope to quell all of the groups in Afghanistan vying for power without cutting some suspicious deals in the process. FP itself even admits that the war in Afghanistan “can’t be won militarily” — noting that if “100,000 U.S. troops couldn’t end the insurgency during the height of the surge in 2010 and 2011,” it would make little sense to continue this trend in the years to come.
It has to be said that focusing attacks on the Taliban would almost certainly empower ISIS – and vice versa. Only recently has ISIS begun to increase its presence inside Afghanistan, as Risk Advisory explains:
There have been reports in the Afghan media of fighters sympathetic or affiliated to IS operating in Jawzjan since at least December. However, it was only in the middle of last month that these militants managed to successfully take territory on a large scale, when they attacked up to seven police checkpoints north of Darzab district centre. In June, they kidnapped and killed ten Taliban fighters as they were making their way through Darzab from neighbouring Faryab province. The Afghan press also reported last week that the fighters have destroyed several girls’ schools in the district.” [emphasis added]
While some observers claim ISIS poses less of a threat than al-Qaeda or the Taliban, there are members of ISIS who are defecting from the terror group simply because they do not see it as extreme enough.
Libya, Egypt, and the Philippines
ISIS has also recently stepped up its involvement in Libya. The group was reportedly responsible for a mass execution that took place in the country earlier this year. The Times of London previously reported that there are at least 1,000 ISIS fighters in Libya, a mere fraction of the 6,000 that used to be present in the country at the height of ISIS’ ascendancy in Libya in 2015. However, as Newsweek notes, the group’s presence in Libya is said to be expanding once again.
ISIS has a history of traveling to countries where the U.S. is engaged in active bombing campaigns. It was only through Barack Obama’s policies that ISIS found itself in Libya to begin with, after it backed known fighters from al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to topple Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. AQI initially formed the basis of ISIS, but the two groups later became rivals to an extent. It worth noting that AQI was created as a result of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Washington’s plan to involve itself deeper in Libya under the pretext of fighting ISIS is also aimed at containing Russian influence. The U.S. maintains that Russia is heavily backing certain factions inside Libya, though that has yet to be established beyond mere accusations.
That being said, Russia has provided political and military assistance to Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, who controls a significant portion of Libyan territory. The U.S. previously backed Haftar in its bid to remove Gaddafi but, as is often the case, Haftar is now looked upon unfavorably by Washington, having outlived his usefulness.
One cannot discuss a renewed war in Libya without mentioning Egypt, another country in the region with which Russia has strengthened ties. Chatham House’s Nikolay Kozhanov suggests that Russia was able to cement its presence in Libya through Egypt’s recommendation that it support Haftar in the first place. Russia and Egypt are also improving their ties in the spheres of trade and economic cooperation, and further unnerving the U.S., the two countries have been holding joint naval drills and military exercises over the past few years. Russia has even allegedly deployed its own Special Forces in western Egypt near the border with Libya, with a specific eye on the Libyan conflict.
The rest of the world, including the anti-Assad axis of nations, has taken note of Russia’s successful operations in Syria which have strongly bolstered the Syrian government in the face of U.S.-NATO aggression. Even if these countries disagree on the intended outcome, it has become increasingly clear that Russia can not only obtain its desired result, but manages to approach the task with a mindset different from that of its counterparts in Washington.
As Forbes notes in one example:
Military cooperation with Moscow matters to Cairo. U.S. arms deals don’t allow for secondary sales – what Egypt buys has to stay in Egypt. No such strings come with Kremlin arms deals, and in the context of crony Egyptian capitalism arms deals with Russia can appear more attractive. Some of Moscow’s weapons are better suited for Egypt’s needs than American ones, and from an Egyptian perspective, a Russian MIG-29 is also simply easier to maintain than an American aircraft.”
If Libya and Egypt are not enough to satisfy Washington’s geopolitical ambitions, Foreign Policy also asks the question: Will the Philippines – a country also heavily strengthening its ties with Russia under President Rodrigo Duterte — become the next Islamic State Caliphate? This is following the developments earlier this year that saw an ISIS-style insurgency emerge from the shadows, only for the U.S. military to find itself more immersed in the country, even without Duterte’s approval.
Perhaps it is a mere coincidence that ISIS is expanding its presence inside countries that the U.S. has a history of destabilizing, especially at a time that those countries are charting renewed relations with Russia. What will be clear, however, as has been true for some time now, is that Washington’s desire to plunge itself further into Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt or the Philippines will not be based on humanitarian concerns or concerns about terrorism. Given that the U.S. actively, and seemingly deliberately, creates the conditions in which groups like ISIS thrive, a larger, and darker motive may be at play.