By Arnab Neil Sengupta
April 29, 2019
The group may have been ousted from Syria and Iraq, but recent attacks in Sri Lanka prove their dangerous ideology and methods have found new takers.
It was on December 19 that the US president stunned the world with the tweet "We have defeated Daesh in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency", adding in a video that "our troops are coming home".
Would that Trump's confidence was founded on facts. In the course of a week this month, Daesh proved with deadly attacks in Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia that reports of its demise were greatly exaggerated. If anything, the extremist group has signalled its intent to continue its campaign of terror in true transnational style.
The decimation of the physical Caliphate straddling Syria and Iraq by a US-backed coalition has been a humiliating blow, but far from a fatal one. As long as there are impressionable people willing to consume Daesh's propaganda online or be inspired to carry out attacks, it will succeed in sowing dangerous ideas and death.
The contrast between the complacency of the Trump administration and the battle-readiness of Daesh could not have been sharper. Whereas the former has fixated on troop withdrawal from Syria since the December Trump tweet, Daesh focused on transforming into a more lethal and disruptive force than ever before.
Although pressure from fellow Republicans and harsh criticism from the US foreign-policy establishment eventually compelled Trump to back-pedal on his precipitous pullout plan, the very public nature of the debate could only have energised Daesh and lifted its leadership's morale.
Seen through the eyes of Daesh, the altercation between Trump and his critics must have looked something like this: "Here are the nationals of the Crusader alliance squabbling over how many troops to keep in northeastern Syria when they should be planning for joint counterterrorism operations worldwide and monitoring the activities of our cybercaliphate".
To be fair to Trump, he is not to blame for the withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq that partly laid the groundwork for the emergence of Daesh. In fact, in a partial retreat, Trump has agreed to allow 200 American soldiers to remain in Syria in response to the pushback from his own party and key members of his cabinet.
That being said, it is clear that the campaign against Daesh needs to be seen as part and parcel of the so-called long war. Donald Rumsfeld, as US defence secretary, said in February 2006 that "Western democracies must acknowledge they are locked in a life or death struggle comparable to those against fascism and communism".
Showing far more prescience than his political and media critics, Rumsfeld said: "A war has been declared on all of our nations (whose) futures depend on determination and unity. As during the Cold War, the struggle ahead promises to be a long war."
Today, branches of Al Qaeda continue to be active in North Africa, Yemen, Syria and the Philippines among other places. But Al Qaeda's terrifying track record of luring recruits and indoctrinating them into carrying out mass-casualty attacks has been eclipsed by that of Daesh.
More decentralised in its operation than Al Qaeda, Daesh has been able to inspire lone-wolf attacks (Nice and Berlin) and onslaught on an entire city (Marawi in the Philippines) with equal ease by assigning responsibilities to franchises and affiliates.
The Easter Sunday carnage in Sri Lanka potentially marks a new phase of exploitation by Daesh of systemic problems of countries scarred by racial and ethnic violence and plagued by political instability. As the fact that some of the attackers were scions of one of the country's wealthiest families attests, Daesh's capacity for attracting supporters remains undiminished by its territorial losses in the Middle East and the efforts to thwart its social-media strategy.
Looking to the future, the Global Coalition Against Daesh would be wise to keep the pressure on the group. Daesh is carrying out ambushes of Kurdish civilians in the territories seized by Iraqi army and Hash Al Shaabi fighters from Kurdish Peshmerga forces after the Kurdish referendum of September 2017. Such a situation is untenable.
Elsewhere, fragile or failed states in Africa offer Daesh potential spaces to regroup after tasting defeat at the hands of the coalition in the bloody battles for Kobane, Mosul, Raqqa and Baghouz. The US should take the lead in intelligence-gathering and monitoring operations as part of a pro-active coalition strategy to keep Daesh perpetually on the defensive.
For their part, European countries have been preoccupied of late with their domestic problems but they should not forget that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Just because the flow of refugees from the Middle East has eased somewhat does not mean Europe can afford to let its guard down. As for Trump, the attacks in Sri Lanka may seem like a humiliating rebuttal of his premature crowing about the defeat of Daesh in Syria. But the truth is, political boundaries have long been erased by terrorist organisations in their quest for a transnational extremist empire. What is at risk is not his personal prestige but the lives of innocent people.
Arnab Neil Sengupta is an independent journalist and commentator on Middle East