The Islamic State has lost all of its territory; tens of thousands of its fighters have been killed or are imprisoned; and its former leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is dead. But a Kurdish leader who witnessed the militant group’s rise and fall is warning that ISIS is putting itself back together and stressing an uncomfortable fact: that ISIS is bigger now than it was nearly six years ago, when it founded its self-styled caliphate.
Eager to move on, President Donald Trump has declared victory over ISIS. Nevertheless, the conflict is ongoing, and to the extent that the Democratic presidential candidates mention the fight, it’s to express their desire to withdraw troops. The reality, though, suggests that a definitive end to the conflict remains out of reach. Even after America spent billions of dollars during two presidencies to defeat ISIS, deployed troops across Iraq and Syria, and dropped thousands of bombs, ISIS persists. If anything, it stands ready to exploit Trump’s impatience to end America’s “forever wars” and shift the country’s focus to countering Iran.
“ISIS is still very much intact,” Masrour Barzani, the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, told us in an interview. “Yes, they have lost much of their leadership. They have lost many of their capable men. But they’ve also managed to gain more experience and to recruit more people around them. So they should not be taken lightly.”