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US Declares New ISIS Leader ‘Global Terrorist’

Regional experts say ISIS was never completely defeated, and its fighters are still operating, using different methods

Security experts in the Middle East believe that the Islamic State group remains active in certain Arab territories, though taking different forms, using different tactics, and serving different aims, than it had in the past.

The US State Department said in a statement on Tuesday, March 17 that Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla, the new head of ISIS, would be declared a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. Al-Mawla, who is also known as Hajji Abdallah, Abdul Amir Muhammad Sa’id Salbi, and Abu-’Umar al-Turkmani, succeeded former leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, who killed himself in a suicide explosion during a US raid on him last October, as confirmed by the US President Donald Trump at the time.

The statement added that “al-Mawla gave permission to commit many crimes in the region, in addition to his supervision of the international operations of the [ISIS] organization.”

Hashim al-Hashmi, a security analyst and member of the nonprofit Iraq Advisory Council, told The Media Line that ISIS is a reality on the ground, as the organization announced a successor to Baghdadi after he died, “Daesh [an Arabic abbreviation for the Islamic State] as a radical organization aimed at threatening civilians, freedoms and human rights, has certain characteristics that indicate it exists in the area.”

Al-Hashmi explained that ISIS possessed an organizational structure of an institutional nature, in addition to a network of communication with its own code: “The organization has a military wing, as well as other wings for media, logistics and intellectual purposes.”

He added that in 2020, ISIS was defeated militarily and geographically in Iraq and Syria, but not in terms of human resources, as the organization still had armed cells operating here and there: “In Iraq, we have about 4,000 ISIS combatants in 11 operational sectors,” al-Hashmi said. “The organization has its own financial resources that depend on oil smuggling and raiding energy carrier lines, not to mention Daesh’s huge investments in Iraq and Syria.”

He pointed out that ISIS aimed now to avenge the defeat of its claimed “state,” targeting the Sunni Arabs who fought against them or supported a government that did, in addition to freeing its prisoners and recapturing it women and children from refugee camps, “and to broadcast a clear message that they are here, that ISIS still exists.”

Al-Hashmi said that the US wanted to tell the world that ISIS was defeated, but that American troops wouldn’t leave until the organization was completely uprooted.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a press briefing Tuesday that al-Mawla was previously active in al-Qaida in Iraq and is known for torturing innocent Yazidis. Pompeo added, “We’ve destroyed the caliphate and we remain committed to ISIS’s enduring defeat no matter who they designate as their leader.”

Hisham Jaber, a Lebanese military expert and former Lebanese army general, told The Media Line that the ISIS organization was never gone but had adopted three different forms of tactics to help it remain active: “The first two tactics are represented by forces present on the ground: one in the form of a regular army equipped with a military force that lacks only an air force, and [the other] as gangs with a small number of members, focusing on small and quick operations and limited raids and invasions.”

Jaber added, “The third tactic is represented by underground forces in the form of sleeper cells that release ‘lone wolf’ fighters when needed.” He clarified that currently, ISIS remains underground in Syria, while in Iraq, the organization is represented in both forms, “underground and above ground.”

Jaber pointed out that US President Donald Trump was highlighting ISIS again prior to the upcoming presidential elections, to gain credit among Americans, as the subject is attractive there. “Trump himself accused the previous American administration of ‘creating’ ISIS. Bringing up the subject again has to be for a reason.”

When reached by The Media Line, Gonen Ben-Itzhak, a former official in Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, referred that the White House’s decision and statements as a message to those Americans who support al-Mawla on US soil, because after he was designated as a global terrorist, any support to him would be considered a crime in the United States.

“They [the Americans] had to find legal ways to deal with it,” Ben-Itzhak said.

Salah Qerata, a Madrid-based Syrian security analyst and former senior intelligence officer in the Syrian Army until 2013, told The Media Line that ISIS and all of the other terrorist organizations were created in one way or another by intelligence services to serve the interests of regional powers. “The terrorist organizations gave footholds to all those who have interests in the Arab region, under the name of countering terrorism.”

Qerata explained that political settlements concerning Syria after 15 years of war were met with the appearance of ISIS and its terrorist operations against foreign forces, “to give an excuse for the return of violent military activity, as Daesh is a tool in the hands of others.”

He said that most intelligence services around the world covered their dirty work of imposing certain policies on countries, using terrorist arms as tools.

Qerata indicated that while Israel, with the Americans’ help, played the role of “brain” in the area using Arabs as financial and human resources, Iran was trying to dominate the region to return the lost glory of the Persian Empire: “Under the label of fighting terror, Tehran entered Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other areas of the region.”

He emphasized that highlighting the subject of ISIS will take Syria politically “back to square one, as it brought the possibility of military operations, which could affect Astana’s path [of peace talks].”

The Astana peace process aimed at ending the Syrian conflict was launched in January 2017 by Russia and Iran, allies of the Damascus regime, and Turkey.