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The end of ISIS? Experts warn the terror group is still a 'serious global threat'

Islamic State's days of territorial gains and military wins in Iraq and Syria might be over as the last vestiges of territory are won back from the self- proclaimed caliphate, but international experts are warning that any hopes that the group is gone and forgotten are premature and misguided.

The U.K.'s minister of state for the Middle East and North Africa said Thursday that even as ISIS crumbles, its influence remains strong.

"There's no doubt that the threat to us all continues to grow," Alastair Burt said Thursday, speaking at a counterterrorism conference hosted by U.K.-based defense and security think tank, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

"Even as we see Daesh (ISIS) push back on the physical battlefield, we know that they will continue to pose a threat in the region. We also know that the battle of ideas is far from won, Daesh is still capable of inspiring people to carry out attacks in its name and, as such, it remains a serious global threat," he said.

"We've seen tragic evidence of this on the continent, in the U.S. and here in the U.K., with five deadly terrorist attacks this year alone," he added.

Gilles de Kerchove, the EU's counter-terrorism coordinator, agreed that the violent terror group was likely to be defeated soon but the reasons for its creation, which go back into the early 2000s but evolved to counter Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime in recent years, had not been addressed.

"If we don't address the grievances which led to the creation of Daesh - Sunni grievances against sectarian Shia policies – and state violence from Assad, we're likely to see the resurgence of something that could be Daesh 2.0," De Kerchove told the RUSI conference.

Not gone, and not forgotten

The so-called Islamic State is largely made up of Sunni militants from Iraq and Syria but has drawn jihadi fighters from across the Muslim world and Europe. There is increasingly positive noise that the group, which has controlled swathes of Iraq and Syria amid governmental and regional instability, is soon to be defeated.

Syrian and Iraqi government forces and disparate rebel groups, particularly in Syria, have fought to reclaim territories lost to ISIS over the last few years as it attempted to spread a caliphate – a state governed by a strict interpretation of Islam.

Iraqi rapid response forces flash victory signs during a fight with Islamic State militants in the district of Cokjaly in southern Mosul.
Alaa Al-Marjani | Reuters
Iraqi rapid response forces flash victory signs during a fight with Islamic State militants in the district of Cokjaly in southern Mosul.

The tide has turned more strongly against ISIS this year, however, with the group losing Raqqa (in Syria), Mosul (in Iraq) and numerous other strongholds to such an extent that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made the bold move Tuesday of declaring the defeat of Islamic State.

He thanked those who had fought against ISIS in Syria and Iraq for helping to "put an end to a group that did not bring anything for us but evil, misery, destruction, murder and savagery."

In addition, on Thursday, Iraqi forces launched an operation to clear the desert bordering Syria of Islamic State militants, calling it a final campaign to clear the group from Iraqi territory. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was cautious earlier this week, saying he'd only declare that ISIS had been defeated once its militants were dispelled from the desert.

Shiraz Maher, deputy director of The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) at King's College London, had a similar view.

"I don't think we're anywhere near looking at an after-Daesh reality. Daesh is here, it's very much remaining as a player on the ground," he told the RUSI conference.

"It is now reverting to type – this was a group that emerged from being insurgency to a protest state and it's now pulling back to what it knows best. It will slip back into the deserts ready to regroup, to return and to fight another day," he said.

Sleeper cells

With martyrdom a key factor of Islamic State's jihadist ideology (drawing on the concept of a "holy war"), many of the group's fighters are expected to die in the last battles for territorial control.

Some, however, are expected to go underground and reconvene in so-called "sleeper cells" in their countries of origin, although the number of both cells and returning fighters is unknown.

The EU's De Kerchove said that he expected a "trickle" of ISIS fighters flowing back to Europe and that there were still "cells" already within the continent. "For those who do return we need to spot them at the border," he said.

An undated photograph of a man described as Abdelhamid Abaaoud that was published in the Islamic State's online magazine Dabiq and posted on a social media website.
Social Media Website via Reuters
An undated photograph of a man described as Abdelhamid Abaaoud that was published in the Islamic State's online magazine Dabiq and posted on a social media website.

Hopes of ISIS' defeat have risen after the Syrian army and its allies took control of Abu Kamal (also known as Al-Bukamal), the last significant stronghold of Islamic State in Syria.

The loss of Abu Kamal leaves the group with only a handful locations in the country, a far cry from 2014 when the terrorist network controlled swathes of Iraq and Syria. Since then there has been a concerted global push to demolish the militant group, which has inspired and claimed responsibility for numerous deadly terrorist attacks around the world.

Islamic State's towns and territories have been bombarded by a U.S.-led coalition of Western allies overseeing airstrikes but ground forces made up of rival bands of fighters and militias have done a large part of the hard work in routing out ISIS forces from towns and cities across Syria and Iraq.

That's not to say that those forces have been a coherent body, with the battle sometimes seeming of secondary importance to rebel groups and regional powers vying for power, influence and territory. Indeed, the battle against Islamic State quickly became a complex web of rival rebel groups and international powers with shifting allegiances making it far from clear cut.

While some rebel groups and their international backers are loyal to controversial Syrian President Assad (such as Russia and Iran and mainly Shia Muslim militias) others would prefer to see him removed from power. This particularly applies to the U.S.-led coalition as well as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other Sunni Muslim countries that have backed a range of rebel groups, some of whom have been fighting both Assad troops and Islamic State.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces advance in the east of Mosul to attack Islamic State militants, October 17, 2016.
Azad Lashkari | Reuters
Kurdish Peshmerga forces advance in the east of Mosul to attack Islamic State militants, October 17, 2016.

To complicate matters further, Syrian Kurds who have declared an autonomous region in the north of the country also entered the fray and have been widely regarded as one of the most effective fighting forces against ISIS. However, Turkey (which is located to the north of Syria) and the Kurds have a long-standing history of hostility and Turkish forces have been accused of attacking Kurdish anti-ISIS forces just as much as ISIS itself in a bid to stop the Kurds gaining territory at its border.

As it stands, Syria is largely divided into four camps of government-controlled areas, rebel-controlled areas, ISIS-controlled areas (albeit a quickly dwindling area) and a Kurdish-controlled area.

Crumbling, but still deadly

Despite the complexities and mixed motives, a combined push against Islamic State has made the pseudo-state crumble, according to the statistics.

IHS Markit's specialist research unit, Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre (JTIC), released a report Wednesday underlining the "extent of the degradation of the Islamic State's armed campaign in the country (Iraq)" with the number of attacks and resultant fatalities hitting the lowest level since ISIS declared a caliphate in 2014.

An image grab taken from a video released on July 5, 2014 by Al-Furqan Media shows alleged Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi preaching during Friday prayer at a mosque in Mosul.
Al-Furqn Media | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
An image grab taken from a video released on July 5, 2014 by Al-Furqan Media shows alleged Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi preaching during Friday prayer at a mosque in Mosul.

"While this process (of decreasing attacks and fatalities) has been ongoing since June 2016, the pace of operational decline has increased over the previous 12 months; the 126 attacks in October represented almost half the peak recorded in January, while the 102 fatalities represented an 80.0 percent decrease from November 2016," JTIC's head Matt Henman said in the report.

Still, JTIC's data showed that Islamic State was still deadly, with the steady territorial degradation of the self-proclaimed caliphate increasingly leading the group to revert to what JTIC called "asymmetric operations, typified by low-level attacks targeting the security forces and higher profile attacks against civilian sectarian targets."

For instance, in September the Islamic State conducted 22 suicide attacks, resulting in 93 fatalities. This dropped to 15 attacks and seven fatalities in October. Notably, 80 percent of those 15 attacks were either disrupted by the security forces prior to detonation or resulted in no fatalities beyond the attackers – an increase from 72.7 percent in September, JTIC said.

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