Islamic State in ruins as final battle rages

Firefight: 37,000 civilians have fled into SDF-controlled parts of Deir Ezzor since last September. © Getty

The terror group once controlled a vast caliphate across Iraq and Syria. Now, US-backed forces are closing in on the last ISIS militants for a final battle in a tiny area of north-east Syria.

The buildings are crumbling. The villagers have gone, leaving only fighters. Bullets ring through the air and air strikes blast from above.

This is the final frontier of the fight against Islamic State (ISIS), one of the most brutal terrorist groups in history.

Two years ago, ISIS controlled vast areas of Syria and Iraq. Now, the group’s last stronghold consists of a couple of villages in the north-east of Syria, an area called Deir Ezzor, near the border with Iraq.

The fight against ISIS is led by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a mostly Kurdish militia, who are supported by US-led coalition air strikes.

For the past week, fighting was suspended to allow 20,000 civilians to escape the area. But on Saturday, the SDF launched what it called “the final battle to crush ISIS”.

“The battle is very fierce,” says SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali. “Those remaining inside are the most experienced who are defending their last stronghold.”

US President Donald Trump is already poised to declare victory. By the end of the week, Trump insists, “we will have 100% of the caliphate.”

ISIS formed in 2013, when two groups linked with al-Qaeda came together to form the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

Amid the chaos of the Syrian civil war, ISIS sought to forge an Islamic kingdom, called a caliphate, based on a regressive interpretation of sharia law. At its height in 2014, ISIS controlled an area the size of the UK with over 17 million inhabitants.

The terror group is set apart by its brutality. Crucifixions and public executions were common in the caliphate. Members of non-Muslim minorities captured by the group have been killed or enslaved.

Over the past five years, ISIS has lost 99.5% of its territory. In 2017, the caliphate’s capital, Raqqa, fell to SDF forces after a four-month battle. Any day now, ISIS could be wiped off the map.

Nevertheless, many observers fear that Trump’s triumphalism is premature. ISIS still has sleeper cells in towns across Syria and Iraq, capable of launching an insurgency.

The group has also proved adept at using social media to radicalise followers around the world. Some estimate that ISIS has inspired 140 terrorist attacks in 29 countries outside of Iraq and Syria.

Face of evil

Can ISIS be defeated? Although the caliphate may be in ruins in Iraq and Syria, ISIS-linked groups continue assaults everywhere from west Africa to south-east Asia. Is Trump wrong to declare victory?

ISIS is often called evil. What does “evil” really mean? What is it about ISIS’s style of terror that makes it uniquely horrifying? What is the best way to wipe out this form of extremism? Purely using bombs can make things worse, by creating new recruits among citizens in targeted areas.

You Decide

  1. What is the best way to combat extremism?
  2. How worried should we be about the continued threat of ISIS?

Activities

  1. Make a timeline showing the rise and fall of Islamic State, including the major battles.
  2. Write a news report on the “final battle” against Islamic State. Research quotes and facts to tell the story.

Some People Say...

“After the Islamic State, even al-Qaeda appears ‘moderate’.”

Maajid Nawaz

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Up to 600 ISIS fighters are thought to still be in the area where the final battle is happening. “The battle is ongoing. There were heavy clashes this morning, with landmines going off,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
What do we not know?
Whether the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is alive. Russia claimed that it had probably killed al-Baghdadi in an air strike in 2017, but the following year an audio recording surfaced, purporting to prove he is alive. It is also hard to measure the civilian death toll of the war against ISIS. The UK and US have been accused of being in denial about the number of deaths.

Word Watch

Kurdish
The Kurds are an ethnic group spanning several countries in the Middle East, including Syria and Iraq. Many Kurds want independence for their territory, known as Kurdistan.
Coalition
The US has led efforts to fight Islamic State since 2014, mostly through targeted air strikes. They have formed a coalition with other countries including the UK, France and Australia.
Al-Qaeda
An Islamist terror group founded in 1988 by Osama bin Laden. In 2001, al-Qaeda carried out the September 11 attacks, when hijacked planes flew into the World Trade Centre in New York, killing almost 3,000 people.
Regressive
Returning to a less developed state; becoming primitive.
Sharia law
A kind of religious law found in Islam. ISIS follows an extremist interpretation of sharia law with brutal punishments. There are many different interpretations of sharia law.
Sleeper cells
A group of secret agents that are currently inactive, but that could be activated in the future.
Insurgency
An armed revolt to seize power.

Subjects