Quick demise of ISIS terrorist group unlikely, experts say
The latest savagery by the Islamist army known as ISIS — burning to death captured Jordanian fighter pilot Moaz al-Kaseasbeh — prompts new concerns about its longevity and global reach.
That follows a year in which ISIS erased the border between Syria and Iraq by seizing large swaths of both, beheaded or crucified hundreds of captives and proclaimed itself a “caliphate,” or the Islamic State.
“While they aren't expanding too much these days, they are certainly remaining, which is part of their slogan,” said Ayman Al-Tamimi, an authority on Islamist groups and a fellow at the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum.
ISIS has no “local challengers in their main strongholds” of Syria and Iraq, according to Tamimi, which “points, at a minimum, to their endurance ... at least for the next few years.”
Likening its rise to that of Nazi Germany, he said, “Then, at best, we are in 1941 or early '42.”
Tamimi and other experts agree that ISIS' durability and its attraction for recruits from the Middle East and the West are alarming.
“I think we are in the middle of this process ... the explosions in the Arab world,” said Reuven Paz, an expert on jihadism and a lecturer at Israel's Interdisciplinary Center Herzilya.
Paz is particularly bothered by ISIS' “quick radicalization” of people “all over the world, (but) mainly among Muslim communities in the West and the Arab world,” sparked by its battlefield success: “You see youngsters at the age of 16 or 17 leave their parents and go to Syria and Iraq.”
Three Colorado girls younger than 16 and two Chicago brothers and their sister, ages 16 to 19, were among the American teenagers stopped by authorities last fall while trying to join ISIS; and a 19-year-old Colorado woman was imprisoned last month after pleading guilty to trying to provide support to the terror group by joining its ranks.
Despite the brutality of ISIS' videotaped executions, “there is some kind of romanticism, maybe even an innocent way of thinking among them, that this ‘caliphate' is the solution of all their problems,” Paz said of the teen followers.
The Internet easily connects them to ISIS and other terror groups: “You can have your cellphone and be part of the jihadi Internet the whole day.”
ISIS has spent substantially on its propaganda machine, according to Paz. “They are recruiting better photographers, better directors ... some of their videos look like Hollywood productions.”
He discovered two ISIS video games that can be downloaded from the web: “Like other games, like PlayStation, where you can ‘kill' as many people as you can,” Paz said. “It is pretty sophisticated.”
Equally important as a recruiting tool are ISIS' victories in battle and “its ability to keep on expanding” its territory, according to Tamimi, although he considers the latter “more doubtful.”
ISIS controls an area about the size of Belgium, despite recent defeats and a U.S.-led coalition's bombing campaign.
Other terrorist or Islamist groups have pledged allegiance to it — Ansar Beit al Maqdis in Egypt's Sinai, for example, and some of the insurgents behind Libya's civil war.
Meanwhile, the flow of foreign fighters to ISIS has not stopped. Tamimi predicts it will last for “at least a decade.”
That is especially worrisome to Western and Middle Eastern governments that expect some fighters to return home and carry out attacks — a strategy encouraged in ISIS propaganda.
Last week, Canadian police rolled up an ISIS cell in Ottawa; American authorities are monitoring an undisclosed number of ISIS returnees or sympathizers but acknowledge they do not know how many remain with ISIS or have slipped back into the United States.
Several Americans, including Pittsburgh-born Amiir Farouk Ibrahim, have died while fighting for ISIS. Ibrahim, 32, who held U.S.-Egyptian citizenship, was killed in Syria in July 2013, the second American volunteering with ISIS to be killed in Syria's civil war.
The group is “trying to inspire radical Islamists beyond our borders, either to come to them in the region and fight with them or to commit acts of terror to advance their agenda,” said Fred Fleitz, a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and a former CIA analyst. “They are actively working to try and encourage that in the United States.
“With President Obama saying things like ISIS is not an ‘existential threat' to the United States and that ISIS is pushing this bankrupt ideology ... well, this ideology has been expanding,” with “no sign of it being rolled back.”
“So in terms of its longevity, we can say that it seems to have staying power,” Fleitz said. “And it will stay there until there is a ground force in Syria to displace it, and there is no prospect of that in the near term.”
The astonishing brutality of the group's most recent execution — burning the 27-year-old pilot inside a cage — provoked Jordan to intensify its airstrikes against ISIS targets.
It sparked angry rallies or denunciations in Amman, Jordan's capital, and other Middle Eastern capitals, but there has been no widespread Arab commitment to fight back.
The United States will send 400 soldiers to the region in the coming months to train “moderate” Syrian rebels who have been vetted to ensure they are not aligned with ISIS or al-Qaida's affiliate, Al Nusra Front.
Yet with Americans war-weary after more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, few have the stomach to send ground troops there.
Only Kurdish troops in Syria and Iraq have repelled ISIS' assaults, with support from U.S.-led airstrikes. Syrian Kurds declared victory last week in the town of Kobani after months of fighting, although much of the town has been reduced to rubble.
Meanwhile, ISIS is growing: Last fall, the CIA estimated its ranks at 20,000 to 30,000, a tripling over the previous year. Its arms and tactics have become more sophisticated, too.
And its radical ideology, rejected by many Muslim leaders, continues to appeal to many young men and women who see themselves as the vanguard of a new Islamic caliphate.
“We are only seven months since the declaration of the caliphate, and the military successes of ISIS and the enthusiasm for them is only growing,” Paz said.
“Really, I see this jihadism problem — even if it is not in the brand of al-Qaida or ISIS in 20 years' time — this jihadist phenomenon is going to persist,” predicts Tamimi. “Actually, it will get worse.
“I am pessimistic about the region's ability to fix itself and fix these problems.”
Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent.