SOCOM: Islamic State, Al Qaeda Weakened in Most Areas

ISIS increasing in Yemen, Libya

A general view shows damaged buildings in the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor where Syrian and allied forces converged on holdout ISIS fighters

A general view shows damaged buildings in the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor where Syrian and allied forces converged on holdout ISIS fighters / Getty Images

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Most of the 16 regional branches or affiliates of the Islamic State and al Qaeda terrorist groups have been suppressed, contained, or placed under pressure from global counterterrorism efforts, according to the U.S. Special Operations Command.

"There's been a lot of losses," said a command official, who along with several others recently briefed reporters on the global footprint of the two Salafist-jihadist groups.

As of October, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria had begun transitioning from a pseudo-state entity to an Islamist insurgency, according to the briefing.

Disclosure of the fate of the two terror groups that have been a major focus of U.S. military and intelligence operations for 16 years comes as Iraqi forces last week captured the border town of Rawa—the last town under IS control in Iraq.

The takeover of Rawa is being hailed by some counterterrorism experts as an important step in disbanding the so-called ISIS caliphate declared in 2014.

Socom officials said ISIS will likely produce a "shadow caliphate" by attempting to preserve a cadre of terror leaders who can direct insurgent operations.

However, officials said significant progress has been made against ISIS since the group emerged to take over large portions of Syria and Iraq in 2014.

Under President Donald Trump, the military and CIA have stepped up bombing raids, commando operations, and drone strikes against terrorists as part of a tougher policy.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo said there are concerns the pressure placed on the terrorists in Syria and Iraq will create a flow of terrorists out of the region and back to Europe and the United States.

"We're very worried about where those folks go," Pompeo said in July. "It's the reason I think the administration chose to just kill as many of them as they could. That is, fewer folks leaving the [area of operations] creates fewer trackable items for the U.S. intelligence community. And so we're hopeful they will be very, very successful and the risk will be lower."

Intelligence and security agencies will be focusing on tracking terrorists with European passports that will have visa-free access to the United States, he said.

Additionally, intelligence agencies are studying where ISIS will seek to set up new affiliates outside of Iraq and Syria, Pompeo said, including Afghanistan, Libya, and the Philippines. "This threat from radical Islamic terrorism, in this case of the Sunni variety, is very real, even after the fall of the so-called Caliphate," he said.

Socom officials said as of mid-October there has not been a major exodus of terrorists from the Middle East. "So far we have not seen large outflows," one official noted.

Large numbers of surrenders in October of ISIS fighters in Iraq were interpreted as the significant disruption of the organization.

Ideologically, the group's loss of control of territory is a setback for recruitment and propaganda efforts. An official said the new ISIS narrative is, "Yes, we lost and we're the little guy, but we're still in the fight."

The progress outlined by Socom officials is not limited to Syria and Iraq. Throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Southwest Asia, both ISIS and al Qaeda have been weakened by global counterterrorism operations.

Officials provided information on the status of 10 IS affiliates and six al Qaeda groups spread from Africa to Southeast Asia.

Officials said Islamic terror is growing in three places—Libya, Yemen, and central Africa, in the border region of Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Chad.

The dangers posed by the central African conflict zone were highlighted by the mid-October ambush deaths of four U.S. special operations troops killed during counterterrorism operations in the western Niger desert. Officials described ISIS West Africa affiliates as "fractured" but concentrated in the quad-border region.

Some members of Congress said they were unaware of American commandos operating in Niger after the ambush. The Pentagon is investigating whether more could have been done to support the commandos after the attack.

Regarding ISIS, Socom officials said the group is contained in the Caucasus region of southern Russia, and in Afghanistan, where ISIS-Khorasan is under pressure.

In Saudi Arabia, ISIS has been suppressed effectively and in the Sinai and Algeria the group is described as "resilient." ISIS was described in the Philippines as "emerging."

Al Qaeda in the same regions was described as weakened from counterterrorism operations.

According to Socom officials, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, located throughout the desert region of northwest Africa was described as in a rebuilding phase.

The al Qaeda core group in Afghanistan along with its affiliates in Syria, the Al Nusra Front, and the affiliate in India, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, were described by the officials as "under pressure."

Al Qaeda's branch in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the Somalia-based Al Shabaab were both characterized as contained.

Terrorism expert Bill Roggio, editor of the Foundation for Defense of Democracy's Long War Journal, disagreed with some of the Socom briefing.

"This assessment is wildly pollyannish," Roggio said. "U.S. Socom rates Shabaab and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as ‘contained' yet these two insurgencies are extremely active."

Roggio said he disagreed with Socom that the al Qaeda core group in Afghanistan is under pressure, noting the assessment is both dated and inaccurate.

"Al Qaeda has decentralized its ‘core' years ago and its previous general manager, Nasir al Wuhayshi, was operating from Yemen," he said. "There is little evidence this so-called core is ‘under pressure.'"

Michael Rubin, a counterterrorism expert, called the Socom assessment wishful thinking.

"The military is punching jello," said Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute. "There are enough ungoverned spaces and safe havens that ISIS can simply outrun the military."

Rubin also dismissed the notion that al Qaeda and ISIS are under pressure in Afghanistan.

"The return of ISIS fighters is going to pour fuel onto the embers of local insurgencies," he said. "Let's not have another ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment until Bin Laden has lots of company as crab food on the floor of the ocean."

In Afghanistan, core al Qaeda is active in a large area of territory stretching from Kabul southward for several hundred miles along the Afghan-Pakistan border and scores of miles into Afghanistan.

Other al Qaeda territory includes large areas of southern and southwest Libya and eastern Algeria, and two swaths of territory in southeastern and western Mali.

In Libya, ISIS territories included zones of control or operations in eastern Libya and north central Libya.

Socom also outlined the routes used by foreign fighters to join Islamic groups in the Middle East.

The routes included paths from New York and Toronto and the Caribbean to France and Spain, and from South America near Venezuela and Brazil to western Africa.

From Europe, jihadists have flowed to the Middle East along paths that included transit through Rome and into the Balkans, and from North Africa, including Tunisia, Libya and Egypt northward.

Most of the foreign fighter transits ended up in Istanbul and then through Turkey into Syria and Iraq.

In Asia, foreign fighters, both ISIS and al Qaeda, were depicted as moving from Indonesia into the Philippines.

Al Qaeda operating near India included a region south of Mumbai, on India's east coast, and in Bangladesh, where ISIS also operates.

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