After weeks of fighting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces declared it had finally defeated the last Islamic State stronghold in Syria. That effectively meant the end of the brutal Islamic State “caliphate” that began in 2014 when the militants started taking control of certain territories in Iraq and Syria in 2014. The last stand for ISIS took place in the village of Baghouz, where militants battled fiercely against the U.S.-backed forces as they refused to give in on the last 1.5.-square-mile land that they ended up controlling. “Baghouz is free and the military victory against Daesh has been achieved,” tweeted Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the SDF.
Even as they celebrated though, members of the SDF made it clear that they were well aware this hardly marked the end of the ISIS threat. “This is a big moment not just for us but for all of the world,” said Kino Gabriel, a spokesman for the SDF. “But we cannot say that ISIS is finished. It is true that they are finished on the ground as a standing army. But the ISIS threat remains around the globe.”
Despite this recognition of a continuing threat, the destruction of the ISIS territories marks a remarkable turnaround for a group that once controlled a large swath of territory that was the size of Britain and controlled the daily lives of around 8 million people. Taking hold of a large chunk of territory didn’t just assist ISIS with its recruiting efforts, it also helped it raise lots of cash through taxes. That turned the Islamic State into the richest terrorist organization in the world.
Even though the group is clearly diminished, experts warned that ISIS is still stronger now than it was in 2011, when U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq, notes the New York Times. “There is a tendency to rush into declarations of victory too fast and too early with jihadist groups,” Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London, said. “It may be weaker in the immediate term, but there is not a chance in hell that it has been defeated.”
As some worry about how the fight against ISIS fighters will go more underground to combat what have effectively become sleeper cells around the globe, others are trying to figure out how to bring captured fighters to justice. Most governments don’t want to repatriate their citizens in order to try them, figuring there won’t be much chance of pressing charges against them. But local officials say they don’t have the resources to hold, let alone put on trial, some 800 foreign fighters currently in custody.
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