The ISIS group remains a global threat despite losing the once vast territory it held in Syria and Iraq, US officials said on Thursday in warning about persistent violence from underground cells and an expansion of militants into new areas.
Ambassador James Jeffrey, the State Department envoy to the international coalition fighting the ISIS, told reporters that thousands of the extremist organization’s fighters are scattered around Syria and Iraq, where officials see a “persistent, resilient, rural terrorist level of violence” in that country.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces ousted ISIS militants from the last piece of their self-declared calilphate earlier this year. But “the ISIS brand lives on around the world,” State Department counterterrorism coordinator Nathan Sales said as he joined Jeffrey to provide an update on the fight against the organization.
“ISIS branches and networks now span the African continent from east to west and north to south,” Sales said. “They’ve increased the lethality of their attacks, they’ve expanded into new areas, and they’ve repeatedly targeted US interests.”
Sales also said the US is also urging countries to take back and prosecute foreign fighters who flocked by the thousands to Iraq and Syria to join the ISIS.
“Across the coalition, we need to prosecute ISIS leaders, fighters, financiers, and facilitators for the crimes they’ve committed,” Sales said. “That includes building the law enforcement capacity of partner states that have the will to act but might lack the resources or expertise to do so. It also means repatriating and prosecuting foreign terrorist fighters.”
President Donald Trump echoed that message outside the White House on Thursday, saying, “We have 2,500 ISIS fighters that we want Europe to take...We have thousands of ISIS fighters that we want Europe to take and let’s see if they take them. And if they don’t take them, we’ll probably have to release them to Europe.”
The US government has returned two US citizens in recent weeks to face prosecution. The most recent case, announced on Thursday in Dallas, involves a 23-year-old man who traveled to Syria to join the ISIS and was later detained by the Syrian Democratic Forces.