The United States faces an enduring and potent threat from the Islamic State (ISIS hereafter) terrorist group. Any decrease in efforts to dismantle both the group and its ideology worldwide is likely to grant the group the minimal operational space and security it needs to reorganize, rearm, recruit, and attack.
Brief History of ISIS and its Roots
ISIS has its roots in al-Qaeda in Iraq, a terrorist organization run during the US occupation of Iraq by the Jordanian Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, a man with a long crime record including a possible stint as a pimp (Wright et al. 2017, 10; PBS Frontline 2016). Zarqawi had connections with al-Qaeda, who let him establish his own training camp in Herat, Afghanistan (Soufan 2017, 78; Warrick 2016, 67-8). However, Bin Laden and Zarqawi did not get along, especially since part of Zarqawi’s ideology (which spread to both al-Qaeda in Iraq and later ISIS) was an anti-elitism that was extremely selective about which Islamic authorities were considered “correct” (Fisherman 2016, 61, 64; Soufan 2017, 120).
Zarqawi was radical, even by al-Qaeda’s standards, to the point that he was criticized several times by al-Qaeda leadership for being too extreme (Hamming 2019, 1-7; Countering Extremism Project 2019). While al-Qaeda saw most Muslims in the world as true Muslims, Zarqawi and his organization saw most Muslims as apostates who had to be killed if they did not comply with the group’s rigid standards (Fishman 2016, 63). His organization, which eventually became ISIS, was driven by a much more apocalyptic view of the world that included the extreme closeness of the apocalypse and the need for extreme violence to weed out the nonbelievers within the Muslim community (Fishman 2016, 70-1; Wood 2015). The group was also focused on starting a civil war with Iraq’s majority Shia, using violent massacres and bombings to provoke the Shia to attack the Sunnis, who in turn would in theory turn to al-Qaeda in Iraq for protection (Hamming 2019, 4; PBS Frontline 2016; Fishman 2016, 63; Naser 2016, 205-7). This worked to a degree with devastating and debilitating results.
Zarqawi was killed in 2006 and his organization was weakened significantly by the Anbar Awakening, a series of Sunni tribal uprisings against al-Qaeda (PBS Frontline 2016; Warrick 2016, 220, 297; Counter Extremism Project 2019; Wright et al. 2017, 10).
However, much of this progress was reversed upon the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. This hasty and ill-informed withdrawal created a power vacuum filled by Shia Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki. Within short order, al-Maliki destabilized his country through repressive anti-Sunni policies that left the population vulnerable to radicalization and the country weak (PBS Frontline 2016; Soufan 2017, 248-9; Warrick 2016, 297-9; Wright et al. 2017, 11).
Playing off of Sunni grievances in both Syria (where a Shia minority government pulverized a primarily Sunni opposition population with chemical weapons and in time Russian air support and Iranian ground troops) and Iraq, ISIS was able to seize 33,000 square miles in territory (PBS Frontline 2016; BBC 2019; Warrick 2016, 299). It proceeded to administer the area under its control as a state, including bureaucratic functions. It is crucial to note that the rise of ISIS was precipitated by regional conflicts resulting in massive instability, power vacuums, and a decrease in state authority and legitimacy in Syria and Iraq.
One of the most essential parts of ISIS ideology to understand is its focus on the establishment of a caliphate, or in other words a restoration of an Islamic empire that can impose its authority across the whole Muslim world and eventually further abroad. This is a goal of both al-Qaeda and ISIS—various al-Qaeda documents, including private documents and a secret 7-step plan to take over the world forged by members of al-Qaeda in Iraq and al-Qaeda central illustrate as much (Bin Laden 2010, 55; CIA 2019; Soufan 2017, 36). However, timing was the key issue. Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden believed that the Caliphate would be restored in the future, while ISIS’s apocalyptic narrative required an immediate restoration (Wood 2015; Fisherman 2016, 69-70; Wright et al. 2017, 11-12; McCants 2016, 3).
In 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS’s new leader, declared himself the Caliph, a claim which immediately caused controversy and debate throughout the jihadi world (McCants 2016, 95). In essence, he had declared himself the leader of the world’s Muslims, and he was calling on them to come to the new Caliphate. It should be noted, however, that the majority of the world’s Muslims did not support his claim. An open letter from over 125 leading Muslim scholars worldwide refuted ISIS’s claim to authority, and Pew Polls show consistently low support for ISIS from Muslims across the globe (Letter to Baghdadi 2019; Poushter 2015). However, this does little to affect ISIS since its ideology is based on rejecting scholarly consensus that does not support its radical views and its claims that the majority of the Muslims in the world are apostates.
ISIS’s caliphate was a new feature in the world of counterterrorism. The territory was vast and had trappings of a state, albeit a state built on a merciless ideology that saw thousands of ethnic and religious minorities murdered and supported such practices as crucifixion, beheadings, sexual slavery, and extreme oppression of women (Wood 2015). The organization was financially secure; ISIS was able to rely on oil fields, extortion, “taxation,” looting banks, and selling ancient artifacts to sponsor its activities (Warrick 2018; Warrick 2016, 290; BBC 2019). Even in its current phase of territorial loss, it still has between $50-400 million dollars in cash and gold smuggled out from its strongholds (Warrick 2018; BBC 2019).
The allure of the caliphate was strong, especially given the role of social media. One of ISIS’s main ways of recruiting individuals was (and continues to be) social media. ISIS is extremely adept at using social media to promote its message, to the point that in 2015 ISIS supporters were putting up 90,000 tweets a day (Neumann 2016, 123-126; Gambhir 2016, 24). It had a popular magazine, Dabiq, which had fancy covers and professional editing.
The advertising resulted in a massive influx of foreign fighters to the Islamic State, with around 40,000 foreign fighters joining the organization (Barrett 2017, 11-12; BBC 2019). However, the bulk of the fighters are Iraqi and Syrian, though interestingly a high number come from Russia and former Soviet states (Barrett 2017, 11-12; Mironova 2019). A large number also came from Western Europe—this is sometimes attributed to a lack of integration in Europe of Muslims and identity crises that young Muslim youth face in Europe (Shane, Pérez-Peña and Breeden 2016; Watts 2016; PBS Frontline 2016). Indeed, much of the radicalization problem is frequently blamed on factors such as poor education and identity crises (Soufan 2017, 295-300; Fletcher Forum 2019, 91).
There are interesting trends about this new group of Islamist recruits that differs from previous radicalization patterns from al-Qaeda. First, the sheer number of recruits is much higher (Wright et al. 2017, 8-9). Second, the recruits are far younger and appear more likely to have been recruited by social media (Long 2015; Roy 2017). Third, ex-criminals and converts are disproportionately represented in the ISIS ranks (Roy 2017; Cottee 2016; Vidino and Hughes 2015, 6). This is especially true in the United States, where most ISIS recruits are actually American-born citizens (Vidino and Hughes 2015, 6; Williams, Chandler, and Robinson 2018, ix-x). Many of new ISIS recruits were not particularly religious before joining the group, and many display trends of extreme violence or nihilism (Roy 2017; PBS Frontline 2016). There are also a high number of women and children who have joined the group and participated in its activities (Mironova 2019; Khomami 2018).
From its territory, the group spawned a variety of offshoot groups, promoted violence and hate, and inspired or even organized terror attacks across the globe in sites as diverse as Paris, California, Orlando, Sydney, Manchester, Istanbul, Dhaka, and others (Lister et al. 2018). One of the most dangerous elements of ISIS’s strategy was to promote lone wolf violence—ISIS’s spokesperson called for Muslims to use individual methods to attack infidels, and many online ISIS recruiters help guide people in these attacks (Callimachi 2017; Barrett 2017, 14; Neumann 2016, 131). France is a good example of this trend: it has experienced many attacks, contributed high numbers of fighters to ISIS, and currently maintains a list of around 10,000 religiously radicalized individuals in the country (France24 2018; Sky News 2018; Willsher 2018).
Current State and Future Threat
ISIS lost its main territorial holdings in Iraq and Syria, but the threat persists across the globe. US military officials continue to warn that ISIS can easily revive itself in a very short period if the US and its allies stop applying pressure to it (BBC 2019; McLaughlin and Finnegan 2019). The group continues to field a force of between 20,000-30,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq, and it has a wide variety of affiliates and support networks across the world (Al Jazeera 2018; Spyer 2019; BBC 2019; Site Intel Group 2019). Moreover, the geopolitical conditions that helped create ISIS remain, and groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda are embedding in local opposition movements to distract attention from their global goals (Spyer 2019; Zimmerman 2019).
Here are ways ISIS continues to pose a threat to the region and the world:
- Continuing insurgency in Iraq and Syria: Already evidence is pointing to the presence of a continued ISIS insurgency in these regions, as well as the presence of sleeper cells in liberated areas (D’Agata 2019). Attacks continue (albeit at a much slower pace than in years past), and insurgent infrastructure for continued fighting is being established, especially around the Hamrin Mountains, Diyala Province, and near Mosul (Saadoun 2019; Knights 2018; Wallace 2019). The potential remains for ISIS to exploit the tensions felt in Iraq (ex. Sunni refugees stuck in camps after campaigns to reclaim ISIS territory in Mosul and other Sunni cities) to push the people against the government. Attacks by ISIS can disrupt reconstruction and political reform, preventing development and increasing Iraqi suffering (Saadoun 2019). This is especially potent in a time when Iraq is being used as a proxy battleground between Iran and the United States, which could play into ISIS’s hands.
Attacks continue in both Syria and Iraq, with the group fielding a large array of fighters and materials (Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center 2019; Callimachi 2019; Kelly 2019; Al-Jazeera 2019). ISIS is strongly based around the Hamrin Mountains, Diyala Province, and near Mosul, and it uses attacks on militia patrols, targeted assassinations, and bombings to sow discord and distress in recovering Iraq (Saadoun 2019; Knights 2018; Wallace 2019; Callimachi 2019; Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center 2019).
The potential remains for ISIS to exploit the tensions felt in Iraq (ex. Sunni refugees stuck in camps after campaigns to reclaim ISIS territory in Mosul and other Sunni cities) to push the people against the government. Attacks by ISIS can disrupt reconstruction and political reform, preventing development and increasing Iraqi suffering (Saadoun 2019). Moreover, reconstruction is difficult to achieve when Iraqi tribes are divided over involvement in ISIS attacks, and tribal justice still oftentimes takes precedence over state building (Zeed 2019).
This is especially potent in a time when Iraq is being used as a proxy battleground between Iran and the United States, which could play into ISIS’s hands. Iraqi society is deeply divided on this issue of Iranian and US involvement in Iraq, as well as the role of Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (Shia militias often tied to Iraq in reconstruction (Aboulenein 2019; Al-Nidawi 2019). All of this creates a breeding ground for radicalism and the entrance of ISIS, just as happened post US-withdraw from Iraq.
- ISIS Returnees: The high number of foreign fighters presents several dangers. First, many of them are European or American citizens. There is a legitimate fear that these individuals may return to their native countries to conduct attacks, though instances of this occurring so far are low with more worry attributed to fighters dispatched back to Europe while looking like normal returnees (Willsher 2018; Barrett 2017, 14, 21). The Paris 2015 attack teams had members who had fought in Syria and returned to Europe via refugee streams (PBS Frontline 2016; Samuel 2016). Moreover, these returnees may still be susceptible to further radicalization in the future or go move to other realms of conflict to support Islamist causes (Barrett 2017, 18-21; Jenkins 2019). How to deradicalize or handle them creates tensions and problems for receiving governments, to the point that the United States and other countries are denying entry to foreign fighters affiliated with ISIS (Makuch 2019; Jenkins 2019; Willsher 2018). This is also the case for Hoda Muthana, a US citizen who renounced her citizenship to join ISIS (where she served at least partially as a propagandist) but is now seeking to return (MEMRI 2019).
- Refugees, Prisoners, and ISIS Family: The wars in Syria and Iraq have devastated wide swathes of both countries, pushing many people into refugee camps or into the migrant streams flowing towards Europe. These populations could be vulnerable for radicalization if the sociopolitical and economic factors that pushed them out of their homes are resolved.
Additionally, the US (and the rest of the world) is facing a major issue with ISIS detainees in Syria. There are tens of thousands of ISIS detainees (including ISIS family members) that nobody wants to take home, even as they live in squalid and awful conditions while straining the resources of their Kurdish, US-allied captors (Wright 2019; Dent 2019). The numbers are hard to pin down—there are at least 35,000 Iraqi detainees, as well as 20,000 foreigners (Chulov and Borger 2019). In one camp alone (al-Hol), there are over 62,000 people, including fighters and their families (Francis 2019). Home countries refuse to accept them, and there are concerns that they may escape from their confinement or even simply be released due to overfilling of Kurdish prisons, thus furthering the ISIS insurgency (Riechmann and George 2019; Dent 2019). These detainees could simply rejoin ISIS and/or move to a different field of jihad (Jenkins 2019). ISIS family members also pose a key and poignant debate about repatriation and countering radicalization.
Moreover, many of the female ISIS members maintain their extremism, which makes international governments loath to repatriate them (Francis 2019; Wright 2019). These women and their children could form the backbone of the next ISIS movement, especially if left to rot in the desert without adequate supplies for either the prisoners or their Kurdish guards, and it is likely that some will simply be allowed to leave due to lack of ability for guards to handle the camp (Jenkins 2019).
- Online Radicalization: The biggest threat from the Islamic State is not simply physical attacks—it is the potential for continued radicalization, which in turn can lead to lone wolf attacks. This is the case even in places such as the United States, where security forces have detained a variety of radicalized individuals exposed to ISIS material online (K Li 2019; Daniels 2019; Timmons and Rohrlich 2019; Korte 2019; Mallin and Barr 2019; Williams,, Chandler, and Robinson 2018).
In April, ISIS released a video of al-Baghdadi after a long absence from public view, and even more recently the group released a manual for guerilla warfare in the absence of caliphate control (Masri and Abdelaty 2019).
The ideology is what the United States ultimately has to defeat, which is a difficult task given the vast complexities of deradicalization, counternarrative, and interfacing with various Islamic communities across the globe (Soufan 295-300; Fletcher Forum 2019, 91-95). It also requires the US to work with companies and non-governmental organizations to prevent online radicalization (Fletcher Forum 2019, 91).
- Prison Radicalization: Prisons are a key recruiting point for jihadists of all stripes, including ISIS. Europe suffers particularly from this problem, especially with an influx of returning foreign fighters (Bryant 2016; Mekkennet and Warrick 2018). Radicalized individuals in prisons frequently work to radicalize other prisoners, which has led to individuals going down the path towards terrorism such as the Strasbourg shooter in France last year (Wemaere 2018). Additionally, many of ISIS’s leaders, including Baghdadi, did time in an American prison in Iraq where radicalization occurred on an almost industrial scale (McCoy 2014).
- Affiliates: ISIS continues to have many affiliates worldwide. Just recently, its Philippines affiliate conducted a deadly attack against a cathedral, while in 2017 an ISIS affiliated group took over the Philippine city of Mawari for several months (Beech and Gutierrez 2019). More dangerously, the idea of ISIS-style governance is spreading to Islamist groups in the Philippines (VICE 2018).
In publicized waves of attacks launched for strategic and media purposes over the past few months, ISIS affiliates across the globe hit locations in Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, West Africa, Egypt, Somalia, Afghanistan, Libya, Congo, Sri Lanka, and the Caucasus (The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center 2019; Winter and al-Tamimi 2019).
The group is spreading to new areas as well. One field where ISIS appears to be expanding is in Africa, both in the Sahel and in northern Africa. Libya is one case study. ISIS maintained a strong presence in the country but weakened after losing its main base in Sirte (Wilson and Pack 2019, 22-31). The group, however, returned to its guerilla roots and currently capitalizes on the power vacuum caused by infighting between General Hiftar’s LNA and the UN-backed GNA to spread its control (Wilson and Pack 2019, 22-31). Moreover, the group is expanding its membership to migrants its helps smuggle across the desert, and it currently conducts a variety of attacks from bases in the south (Wilson and Pack 2019, 22-31; Livesay and Pavone 2019).
In the Sahel, dangers abound from ISIS. Burkina Faso faces a growing threat from ISIS and other Islamist militant groups entering from Mali and exploiting common grievances against the government (Blake 2019; Maclean 2019). In Mali, groups tied to ISIS wedge there way into ethnic conflicts to establish regional footholds (Al-Jazeera 2019). ISIS has also opened a new branch in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a new territory for the organization as it attempts to move into sub-Saharan Africa (Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center 2019). Attacks also continue in Egypt and Somalia, where US airstrikes also target the forces (Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center 2019). Fears abound that ISIS is working to enter Africa as it loses territory in the Middle East.
The recent attacks in Sri Lanka, which utilized local militant groups in an unprecedented and extremely organized series of bombings, show that ISIS is also moving into Asia (Reuters 2019). The group is also making moves into Kashmir (Straits Times 2019) and other Asian conflicts as ISIS fighters flee the Middle East for other locations or return home to their own countries. The ideology is also spreading and being adopted by various groups participating in local conflicts.
Moreover, pushbacks against Muslims in countries like Burkina Faso and Sri Lanka feeds directly into ISIS’s hands, helping radicalize future recruits.
Policy Recommendations for the United States
- Continue the military campaign against ISIS in a way that promotes multinationalism and the use of both US military assets and local allies. ISIS is not defeated militarily. It continues to launch attacks in Iraq and Syria, including attacks that target ethnically diverse regions to stoke conflict (like Kirkuk) and that leave large numbers of government forces dead (such as the attack in April that killed 35 Syrian troops in supposedly government-held territory) (BBC 2019; Al Jazeera 2019).
Moreover, in Iraq and Syria ISIS is launching a deliberate policy of burning tens of thousands of acres of crops, while it launches attacks on villagers in areas as dispersed as Anbar Province and (NBC 2019; Magid 2019). Moreover, the group’s affiliates are extremely active: in the past week alone, ISIS forces launched attacks in Cameroon, Congo, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Egypt, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Yemen, and Chad (Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center 2019).
To combat ISIS, pressure must be maintained militarily on ISIS in its core regions, as well as on its affiliates. This should include a) a continuation of US military presence in Iraq and Syria, b) continued cooperation with Kurdish forces in Syria to secure ISIS territory, c) aggressive special forces and intelligence operations against ISIS, d) continued military support (firepower, logistics, intelligence) to allies involved in the counter-ISIS fight, and e) ensuring human rights are respected so as not to alienate local populations.
It will also require resolving problems between local allies. The most difficult area will be in resolving Kurdish/Turkish differences. Both sides offer pros and cons as allies, but recent Turkish actions involving Russian missile purchases, arrests of US employees, and Turkey shady interactions with ISIS early in the conflict may indicate that Kurdish forces are a more reliable ally. However, as discussed below, Kurdish forces struggle to effectively manage Arab areas. Moreover, Kurdish forces tied to the PKK (US designated terrorist group, possible murky ties to Syrian Kurdish troops allied with the US) may be launching a strong insurgency against Turkey in Afrin (where Turkish supported forces commit severe human rights abuses against Kurds) using brutal tactics (Zaman 2019). International conflict is never clear cut, and the US has to tread carefully between opposing sides to deescalate regional conflict and redirect energy to preventing ISIS’s revival.
- Improve and increase US intelligence networks in ISIS-affected areas. Recently, intelligence gleaned from a former ISIS wife allowed US forces to nearly eliminate al-Baghdadi (Chulov 2019). Utilizing all forms of intelligence (including HUMINT) would help infiltrate ISIS cells, track finances, and locate leadership. It can also reveal communications between various ISIS cells and wilayas. International coordination on this matter is key, but difficult to achieve. Intelligence based operations will have a greater change of succeeding.
- Find the money and stop the flow. Denying funds to ISIS is critical. ISIS historically succeeded in finances due to territorial control rather than donations. Denying ISIS territory denies it resources. Reports are emerging of protection rackets in Iraq as ISIS continues its insurgency. Securing areas seized back from ISIS (through military patrols, resolving sectarian tensions, removing corruption, maintaining troop accountability, etc.) will help reduce funding options. However, funding remains (Warrick 2018; BBC 2019). Dilligent efforts should be made to ensure regulatory procedures are followed in banks connected to the US banking system.
- Deal with detainees. The refugee and detainment camps around the Levant are a key potential source of radicalization for future generations of ISIS’s ideology. The continuing presence of tens of thousands of detainees and their families (many of whom are still radicalized, and thousands of whom are foreigners) could easily lead to a resurgence of ISIS. Countries should repatriate their detainees, and international support must be given to Kurdish forces to hold ISIS detainees. The trouble arises from fears of host governments of returning detainees a) radicalizing other prisoners in jail or b) leaving early and becoming a major national security threat. However, countries must take responsibility (including the US) so that the squalid camps do not become a new place of ISIS radicalization.
- Fight the ideology. The US is not just fighting a group—it is fighting an ideology, and more specifically, it is fighting a worldview based on apocalyptic violence that appeals to young millennials disenfranchised from their societies. It is different from al-Qaeda’s narrative in many regards, but globally, the radical Salafi-jihadi narrative continues to play out in the lives of individuals across the world. Effort must be taken to utilize all approaches to combat radicalization, including from religious, educational, and social perspectives. This includes using non-government sources such as companies and social media (Fletcher Forum 2019, 91; Pandith 2019). Education must also be used to address areas such as critical thinking and empathy, and it should be changed from the restrictive and ineffective education used by governments in the Middle East currently (Soufan 2017, 295-300). Effort must be taken to prevent worldwide lashing out against Muslims, which could lead to further radicalization. The enemy is not Islam—it is individuals who use a highly selective and dangerous interpretation of the religion to justify attacks that the majority of the world’s Muslims do not condone. Muslim organizations (including American ones) are some of the US’s key partners in the fight against extremism, and Muslim scholars are actively involved in the debates around how to effectively combat the spread of extremism.
- Provide governance. Stability and governance are absolutely key for countering ISIS. ISIS’s ideology portended to offer a government and provide services (PBS Frontline 2016). For many people under ISIS’s caliphate, ISIS represented one of the more effective forms of government experienced (Mecham and McCants 2016). This is especially potent in the realm of sectarianism. Some Sunnis in Iraq welcomed ISIS since it allowed a (temporary) breath of relief from a predatory central government run mostly by Shias (PBS Frontline 2016). ISIS was able to capitalize on sectarian discontent and let it fit its narrative of “true” Sunni vs Shia and apostate Sunni (though obviously realities are far more nuanced than a total Shia vs Sunni conflict). In Syria, a Shia (Alawite) government has killed thousands of predominantly Sunni citizens, and that same government privileged Shias prior to the conflict in services as important as water (Balanche 2018, 8, 125). The seeds are being sown for a Sunni-led resurgence of ISIS if government services are not provided in a fair and equal way. Stability is key to preventing ISIS’s return, but that stability is lacking throughout Iraq and Syria, as well as in other countries where ISIS is growing rapidly.
- International aid and refugees. Without reconstruction and stabilization, ISIS will be able to exploit power vacuums to spread. There is strong need for the US and other countries to donate funds to respected institutions that are working to help refugees and internally displaced persons. Around 5,600,000 Syrians fled the country as refugees, while 6,200,000 others are internally displaced (World Vision 2019). This is not simply a humanitarian concern, but a security one. Without help, these groups may become more vulnerable to radicalization, especially if matters of instability and poverty push individuals towards extremism. Countries should also seek to help refugees in their own borders without disregarding necessary safety and security procedures. Strong pushback on refugees will simply fuel ISIS’s narrative.
- Prevent domestic radicalization. The US should continue to monitor ISIS-suspected targets in the US. It should also support programs and institutions that work to accomplish this goal, including Islamic organizations that are willing to work in the realm of counter-radicalization.
- Deal with non-Levant branches of ISIS. ISIS is branching out. It recently split its Khorasan branch (South Asia) into multiple branches, while doing the opposite in Iraq and Syria, showing a new focus on spreading operations in that part of the world (Amarasingam 2019). Ignoring dangerous budding hubs of ISIS in Libya, Burkina Faso, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and other locations risks allowing the group to grow stronger and maintain a worldwide presence. Even if the cells are small in each country, the continuation of any form of the group offer fuel to the fire of online propaganda and sustains the poisonous rhetoric of extremists worldwide.
- Address regional conflicts. As long as fighting continues in Syria and Iraq, ISIS will remain. Chaos, insecurity, and instability are crucial for terrorists, criminals, and sectarian actors to gain territory. There must be a solution to the conflict in Syria, though this is extremely difficult to achieve. An Assad victory would alienate the Sunni population and give Russia and Iran further inroads into the Middle East. US involvement in the conflict is complicated and has the risk of alienating some elements of the population, but a continued US presence is necessary to prevent the spread of Iranian and Russian expansionism which would further exacerbate tensions in the region.
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