America Must Adapt to New Realities As Fight Against Terror Continues

May 7, 2019 by HJ Mai
Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units, or Hashd al Shaabi, chant before going into battle as they fight alongside Iraq Army forces during the offensive to liberate Mosul from ISIS in October 2016. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

In late March, United States-backed fighters took control of the last remaining ISIS stronghold in Syria. The battle for Baghouz, which dragged on for weeks, gave President Donald Trump his long-awaited military victory. But while the terror groups’ physical caliphate has been defeated, the fight against terrorism continues around the world.

“The war against ISIS isn’t over, it’s just entering a new phase. As Secretary Mike Pompeo said recently, we’re in an era of ‘decentralized jihad.’ And as ISIS adapts, we’ll have to adapt too,” U.S. Counterterrorism Coordinator Nathan Sales said during an event at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.

The U.S.-led coalition in the fight against ISIS liberated nearly 42,000 square miles – nearly the size of England – from ISIS control in Syria and Iraq. In addition, the coalition has freed approximately 7.7 million people from brutal ISIS rule in the region. Yet, despite this resounding military success, ISIS remains a global threat capable of launching terrorist attacks.

“Even as we defeat them on the battlefield, ISIS has shown a dangerous ability to adapt. The group’s leaders and followers see the loss of their false caliphate as a setback, not a defeat, and they’re actively looking to continue the fight from ISIS branches and networks around the world,” Sales said.

ISIS’ global reach was put on display on Easter Sunday, when more than 250 people were killed during numerous coordinated suicide attacks in hotels and churches across Sri Lanka. Two days after the bombings, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks in Sri Lanka in a video. The attack confirmed that ISIS’ ideology did not die with its territory in Syria and Iraq.

The U.S. and its allies are now facing an enemy that can’t be confronted on the battlefield. While the U.S. military is capable of defeating pretty much anybody on the battlefield, its capabilities are somewhat limited when it comes to ISIS-inspired homegrown terrorism.

“You don’t need to go to a terrorist training camp now, all you need to do is rent a truck and plow it into a crowd of people,” Sales said.

To combat this form of terrorism, the Trump administration will put an emphasis on criminal prosecution; increased border security; disruption of funding networks; and combating dangerous ideologies.

“Increasingly, the fight against ISIS will take place in courtrooms and prisons, as we boost efforts to investigate, prosecute, and incarcerate ISIS fighters. We’ll fight ISIS at our borders, as we look to stop terrorist travel and eliminate facilitation routes. We’ll fight ISIS in banks, as we cut off the flow of money to its networks and deny them the resources they need to plot attacks. And we’ll fight ISIS online, in the realm of ideas, as we look to combat its vile and violent ideology,” Sales said.

When Trump announced in December 2018 that ISIS had been defeated and U.S. troops would be coming home, he caught his own military leadership and America’s allies off guard. The president has since backtracked his comments and confirmed that a residual U.S. force will remain in Syria. Trump’s U-turn highlights the complicated nature of a fight that can’t be won through sheer military force. It’s a fight that has to be won in the minds of people.

“We need to collectively refute the hateful, intolerant, and supremacist messaging that helped give rise to ISIS in the first place,” Sales said.

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