“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”
— President Trump, in a tweet, Dec. 19, 2018
“I've been President for almost two years, and we've really stepped it up, and we have won against ISIS. We've beaten them, and we've beaten them badly. We've taken back the land, and now it's time for our troops to come back home.”
— President Trump, in a vlog, Dec. 19, 2018
“When I took over Syria it was infested with ISIS. It was all over the place. And now you have very little ISIS and you have the caliphate almost knocked out.”
— President Trump, in an interview, Feb. 3
“We’ve made tremendous strides in the Middle East. Our brave warriors have liberated virtually 100 percent of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.”
— President Trump, at a rally, Feb. 11
Over the past several months, President Trump has made a variety of claims about the Islamic State. He has said “we have won,” that ISIS has been “beaten,” “defeated” and that there is “very little ISIS” left. He’s also said “the caliphate [is] almost knocked out” and the United States has “liberated virtually 100 percent of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.”
Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, CIA Director Gina Haspel and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats have all used more-measured language to describe the situation.
We asked the White House and the National Security Council for comment on the discrepancies in language between the president and his intelligence chiefs. An NSC spokesman pointed us to national security adviser John Bolton’s remarks on ABC News’ “This Week” on March 10.
“The president has been, I think, as clear as can be, when he talks about the defeat of the ISIS territorial caliphate,” Bolton said. “He has never said that the elimination of the territorial caliphate means the end of ISIS in total. We know that’s not the case.”
But Trump’s remarks were not nearly as clear-cut as Bolton suggests. Trump has previously used hyperbolic language to describe his administration’s progress in Iraq and Syria. So, what is going on with ISIS? And what is going on with the territorial caliphate? What has been defeated? Let’s dig in.
(We also examine these claims in the video above in our inaugural episode of “The Fact Checker” series on YouTube.)
ISIS is a proto-state terrorist network that can be traced back to a group called al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was started by a Jordanian terrorist named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and arose in response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
When U.S. forces began to withdraw from Iraq in 2010, al-Qaeda in Iraq was a shadow of its former self because its leadership had largely been destroyed. Former CIA director John Brennan described the organization as “pretty much decimated,” with “maybe 700-or-so adherents left” when U.S. forces left Iraq. It certainly did not control any territory.
However, the civil war in Syria, growing sectarian tensions and a degraded military in Iraq created an opening, which breathed new life into the moribund organization. And by mid-2012, it had grown so much that the Defense Intelligence Agency warned that ISIS could “declare an Islamic State through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria.”
ISIS did just that, declaring a caliphate in June 2014. The caliphate, self-described as the Islamic State, functioned like a government: It provided courts, religious schools and social welfare services; maintained public order; and even collected hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes. And so while ISIS and the Islamic State are related, it’s important to note they are not the same.
At its height, in late 2014, the Islamic State controlled 34,000 square miles of territory across Iraq and Syria. By the time Trump took office, the U.S.-backed international coalition had reduced Islamic State territory by about half and had retaken all Iraqi cities, except for western Mosul, and the northeastern section of Syria. As of June 2018, the Islamic State controlled 14,000 square miles. Today, it controls almost no territory, meaning the Islamic State, or the territorial caliphate, has been defeated.
But what about ISIS?
“It is important to understand that even though this territory has been reclaimed, the fight against ISIS and violent extremists is not over,” Votel told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 5.
Haspel testified on Jan. 29 that ISIS still commands “thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria.” Recent independent reports from the United Nations Security Council and the Center for Strategic and International Studies mirror Haspel’s assessment, estimating that ISIS may have more than 20,000 members split between Iraq and Syria.
A report from the Pentagon inspector general noted that the Defense Department estimated 15,500 to 17,100 ISIS fighters remained in Iraq, with the caveat that the number of fighters fluctuated regularly. Regardless of the exact number, the organization has thousands more fighters than the 700 it had when U.S. forces last left Iraq.
ISIS has suffered “significant leadership losses,” Haspel testified, just as it had in 2010. But that’s not to suggest that there is no organization. A threat assessment from the U.S. intelligence community outlined that the group still has “eight branches, more than a dozen networks, and thousands of dispersed supporters around the world,” none of which existed when the United States last withdrew forces. Moreover, NDI Coats testified that the same political instability that allowed ISIS to resurrect itself “persists” in Iraq and Syria.
“What we are seeing now is not the surrender of ISIS as an organization but a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and the preservation of their capabilities,” Votel said in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee on March 7. ISIS fighters are simply “waiting for the right time to resurge.”
The Pinocchio Test
By any measure, ISIS, as a terrorist network, is still intact. It has tens of thousands of active members in Iraq and Syria, affiliates around the globe and a proven ability to continue to perpetrate terrorist attacks. In other words, declaring ISIS has been “beaten” or “defeated,” as President Trump did in December 2018, is flat-out wrong and would be worthy of Pinocchios.
But the president’s language has become murkier. More recently, he has said that the United States has liberated “virtually 100 percent of ISIS in Iraq and Syria” and that the caliphate is “almost knocked out.” These assertions are closer to reality. ISIS can no longer claim it has a territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria. It no longer controls land or operates a government.
That, however, doesn’t mean it could not resurge, as the president’s aides have made clear. In comparison with the last time the United States withdrew forces, the situation is eerily similar if not arguably worse.
Given the president’s evolving language on the supposed demise of ISIS, we are not going to award Pinocchios at the moment. (Readers may render their own opinion below.) But here’s a simple guide: The caliphate is gone; ISIS remains.
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