Op-Ed

Despite panicked predictions, ISIS is not a threat to the West | Opinion

Suspected ISIS fighters surrender to U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
Suspected ISIS fighters surrender to U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. Getty Images

Terrorist threats are a cause for concern, but recent claims of a looming major uptick coming out of the Middle East are overblown.

The claims follow the loss of territory by ISIS, whose initials stand for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The significant patches of land once held by ISIS in those countries have now evaporated. In Syria in recent days, ISIS has lost its last small sectors of land.

The concern one hears is that ISIS fighters will now switch toward mounting off-on attacks against civilian targets in Europe and North America.

A report issued in February in the Netherlands by its National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism makes precisely this prediction.

That office publishes an estimate every quarter titled “Terror Threat Report Netherlands.” Its February 2019 report predicts that ISIS fighters with roots in Europe will foment attacks there, and perhaps across the Atlantic Ocean as well.

Any new and higher such threat from ISIS, however, remains a matter of speculation. In recent months, even as ISIS territory was being reduced, Europe has experienced violent attacks by single individuals, some of them Muslim, that have killed small numbers of victims. But more substantial assaults of this type have not been seen in Europe.

ISIS is now far less able to mount attacks in the West after losing its territory. Holding land was key to ISIS success. The prospect of a life in territory governed by ISIS principles was held out to potential adherents as attractive.

That recruiting tool is now gone. ISIS was able to extract wealth from the territory it held in Iraq and Syria, especially by selling oil. That money let ISIS promote its activities around the world. So while ISIS may try to arrange for violent acts outside the Middle East, its capacity for doing so is diminished by its loss of territory.

The concern about the return of jihadists with European roots has left European governments wondering what to do with them.

President Trump has called on Europe to repatriate them. European leaders want them to stay where they are and be tried there for crimes they have committed. But many are held by the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in northern Syria, which lack the capacity to deal with them.

The dilemma is most acute in regard to women from Europe who married ISIS fighters. Holding nationality in European countries, many want to return. Britain at the moment is considering whether to revoke the British citizenship of one such woman, to keep her from returning. Opposition politicians in Britain object that this would render her stateless. International law bans citizenship revocation that leaves a person stateless.

The issue has also arisen, though on a smaller scale, for the United States. It currently is trying to decide whether to allow the return of a Yemeni-American woman who has come out of ISIS territory in Syria.

Skeletal remains. Bomb remnants. An empty vault that used to hold money. This is what’s left of Marawi after it was seized by pro-ISIS fighters nearly a year ago. This video takes you inside the Philippine city as families began returning home.

To the extent that ISIS still poses a threat, there is much that can be done to counter it. ISIS exploits our own actions in the Middle East to recruit new adherents.

Trump unfortunately has a knack for giving ISIS issues to use to incite against the United States. Last year, as Israeli snipers shot 6,000 Palestinian protesters along the Gaza border — shootings that the United Nations called “war crimes” — Trump insisted that Israel was doing nothing wrong.

Last May, Trump moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a city that few in the Arab world see as belonging to Israel. More recently, Trump said that Israel owns the Golan Heights, which it seized from Syria in 1967. Actions like these are a gift to ISIS.

Even though ISIS is weakened, it remains a force. We should stop helping it recruit.

John B. Quigley, a scholar on U.S. relations with Russia and the Middle East, is a professor at The Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.

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