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In a recent tele-conference briefing on the latest situation regarding IS (or Daesh), Major General Chris Ghika, the Deputy Commander for Stability in Operation Inherent Resolve, has made it clear that IS was very aware of its imminent military defeat and had been setting up a system of cells and supporting networks to continue its terrorist campaign in a post-Bhaguz world.

This picture taken on March 24, 2019 shows smoke rising behind destroyed vehicles and damaged buildings in the village of Baghouz in Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor province near the Iraqi border, a day after the Islamic State (IS) group’s “caliphate” was declared defeated by the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). / AFP / GIUSEPPE CACACE

At this point, the Intel indicates it is primarily concerned with hitting targets in Iraq, including local leaders as well as security forces, against which it is using IEDs and ambushes. It is also now engaged in kidnappings and similar criminal activity. Although the events in Sri Lanka are not attributed directly to IS, it is strongly believed that they were involved in some way and certainly that they were an example that the local attackers followed.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi taken by US armed forces while in detention at Camp Bucca in the vicinity of Umm Qasr, Iraq, in 2004

The IS leader, Baghdadi, is reckoned to be alive in spite of US claims to have killed him. His recent appearance in a video, some five years after he had previously been seen, as viewed as being a response to the loss of their last refuge at Baghuz in an attempt to keep IS fighters motivated at a difficult time for them on the ground.

Baghdadi’s use of social media has once again highlighted the need for the authorities in Iraq and elsewhere, supported by the Coalition wherever possible, to preempt and prevent their use of the internet to spread their message.  General  Ghika particularly mentioned the need to stop them from exporting their particular brand of hatred and violence aboard.

It was emphasised that the Coalition are in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi Government to train and assist their security forces in their internal security mission.  The Iraqi air force, using their own F-16s and C-130s are supporting the army in attacks against IS cells across the country.  A large number of  IS fighters and commanders have been either captured or killed, and much ammunition and equipment seized. However this has been at the cost of many Iraqi lives and casualties – something that the Coalition Powers acknowledge has been a heavy price to pay.

The Coalition’s “Build Partner Capacity Programme” has been described as being central to the success of Iraqi operations. This programme provides training, equipment and mentoring to the Iraqis.  This will in time switch over to a “train the trainer” programme rather than dealing with frontline troops direct.

The general then described the strategy for clearing out the last remaining pockets of IS activity and support which still remain after the fall of their last stronghold at Baghuz. The troops involved are facing many IEDs and booby-traps set up as the IS remnants are either captured or flee. Working back up the Euphrates, these are being cleared systematically and slowly to ensure a thorough job is done.

Civilians at an SDF-Coalition screening center, 8 March 2019. Most of the evacuees were families of Islamic State fighters

The humanitarian problem is now large, with tens of thousands of IS dependants now in camps, held while they are processed and treated for a range of medical and malnutrition problems.  There is concern that these places are a breeding ground for future radicalisation, which might be exported as individuals and families return to their former homes in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.  The General acknowledged that a continuing process of de-radicalisation will be needed to try to minimise the spread of IS ideology.

Future control of IS will depend upon the will of the international community to support the Iraqi Government and Syrian Civil Councils to create the sort of local conditions that will bring stability, prosperity and peace to the region.  It was also emphasised that any local divisions will be exploited by IS in order to get local populations to look to them for leadership and security – something that cannot be allowed to happen.

In summary, General Ghika stated that IS still poses a significant threat in Iraq and Syria, as well as to the wider world. Their underground network of cells will have to be rooted out and destroyed. This will again require the support of the international community, which must also try to assist regional governments to maintain stability and strong governance.

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