Conjuring a Ghost Army? U.S., U.N. Claim up to 32,000 ISIS Fighters in Iraq and Syria

Published August 21st, 2018 - 01:22 GMT


  • The U.S. and U.N.'s newest estimates of active ISIS fighters is astoundingly high
  • They both claim up to 30,000 active fighters are still alive in Iraq and Syria
  • Less than a year ago, the U.S. claimed only a 1,000 were left in Iraq and Syria
  • The U.S. and U.N. may be inflating the threat of ISIS to justify continued presence in the region



ISIS, the group that stormed the world’s consciousness a few years ago, has now all but left the stage. Iraq declared victory over the group after re-taking all of its territorial holdings. They only control a few small towns and patches of desert in Syria. You would be forgiven if you thought ISIS was about to be erased from the region entirely.

But, according to the newest estimates by the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.N., you would also be dead wrong.

ISIS apparently has up to 31,100 fighters still active in Iraq and Syria, an alarming number that is close to previous estimate of the group’s peak.

The numbers also contradict earlier estimates from the Pentagon and the U.S.-led Coalition operating in the region, which have indicated a steady decline from 30,000-40,000 fighters to about 1,000 at the end of 2017. Now they claim that ISIS has roughly 30 times that.

Even though the estimates seem curiously anomalous, they do follow a more general trend of hyping up the terror threat of ISIS, which is often done to justify continued or even expanded military interventions in conflict zones.


A Look at the Numbers

The Pentagon (AFP/FILE)

At ISIS’ peak, intelligence agencies were estimating it to have as much as 30,000-40,000 fighters and hundreds of thousands of loyalists working its bureaucratic machines. Then, once the U.S.-led coalition began its intensive aerial campaign against the group in addition to ground counter-offensives by Kurds and Iraqi troops and militias, the numbers began to dwindle.

In August, 2016, the Pentagon estimated that ISIS had less than 15,000 fighters left in Iraq and Syria, though another estimate put the number closer to 30,000 in January, 2017. But as the group lost territory, strongholds and strategic border crossings to receive foreign fighters, its numbers declined fast.

By December 2017, the U.S.-led Coalition claimed that fewer than 1,000 remained in Iraq and Syria, though others have pointed out that ISIS loyalists could still have numbered as high as 7,000. There was though, a general consensus within the intelligence and international community that ISIS was a shadow of what it once was, and its total military defeat in Iraq and Syria was inevitable and imminent.


Now, the Pentagon and U.N. have released numbers suggesting other estimates have been all wrong and that the war against ISIS barely put a dent in the total fighters in Iraq and Syria.

According to the Pentagon, “ISIS was estimated to still control about 5 percent of Syria and to have roughly 14,000 fighters in the country, although estimates of ISIS force strength vary greatly depending on the source.”

In Iraq too, a country where ISIS no longer controls territory, the Pentagon estimates they still have a staggeringly high number of soldiers: “The DoD estimated that 15,500 to 17,100 ISIS fighters remained in Iraq, although estimates of the numbers of ISIS fighters have varied sharply among sources and over time.”

Taken together, that means between 29,500 and 31,100 fighters are supposedly still in Iraq and Syria.

The report was released June 30, 2018 and did not disclose its precise methodology for finding these numbers besides vague references to consulting with think tanks, intelligence agencies and reading press reports.

Shortly after the Pentagon released its report, the U.N. published its own security assessment of ISIS that closely mirrored the U.S.’ own.

On July 27, 2018, the U.N. Security Council estimated that between 20,000 and 30,000 ISIS fighters remain in Iraq and Syria, citing “Member State information.”

These estimates are alarming enough to have been the focus of both reports, but they are buried inside the pages, surrounded by affirmations to continue the same counter-terrorism strategy being deployed in each country.

Despite these numbers hinting at a massive failure of U.S. strategy against ISIS, “The DoD reported no change in policy as of June 30, and DoD officials reaffirmed several long-term objectives in Syria, including ensuring an enduring defeat of ISIS, countering Iranian influence, and promoting a unified and stable Syria,” the Pentagon report says.


What Gives?

A Shia militia fighter celebrates the retaking of Tikrit, Iraq (AFP/FILE)

There are four possible explanations for these numbers.

First, every other estimate over the years has been wrong and had been over-estimating ISIS losses. Nothing in the reports themselves explain this as a reason for the numbers to be so high, so this is not likely.

Second, foreign fighters kept streaming in, replacing the losses with fresh recruits and thus keeping ISIS’ numbers around 30,000. This did not happen.

By April 2016, the flow of foreign fighters into both countries dropped dramatically from 2,000 a month to only a couple hundred over a four-month window, the Pentagon said at the time. “There are virtually no more foreign fighters that have recently joined ISIS, simply because the group lost its border with Turkey,” said Pieter Van Ostaeyen a researcher at the International Center for Combating Terrorism — The Hague, to Al Bawaba.

On top of that, ISIS lowered its wages following losses in revenue thus disenctivizing foreigners from making the journey to ISIS-held territory, Tore Hamming jihadism expert and researcher at Sciences Po told Al Bawaba in an interview.

Third, local recruiting accelerated to account for the loss in foreign fighters. “There is a possibility that ISIS still attracts new recruits from within Syria and Iraq but not in such a rate that its numbers would grow back to around 32,000,” Ostaeyen said. “So no, I don't consider these to be likely scenarios.”

Lastly, the numbers are artificially and purposefully high to hype up the threat of ISIS.


Conjuring the Ghost of ISIS

ISIS fighters

Van Ostaeyen thinks that the U.N. and U.S. inflated their estimates of ISIS’ fighting potential because they have an eye on their budgets.

According to him, these numbers help to reflect the reality that ISIS remains a massive security threat not just to the Middle East, but also to Afghanistan and the Philippines as the reports also delve into how dangerous ISIS is in those countries.

“I do believe the UN's and DoD's main reason to inflate the numbers like this, is to make sure that in the years to come they would have the appropriate budgets to continue this war which is likely to continue for a few decades. Overall they want to stress the fact that, even though ISIS lost most of its territory, the threat level remains significant.”

Hamming agrees, saying, “we hear lots of stories these days about the ‘victory against the Islamic State.’ In policy circles this normally means less funding dedicated in the future. I imagine some actors see it beneficial to emphasize there is a continued threat in order to secure dedication both in terms of funding and personnel.”

In addition, the U.S.’ military mandate in Iraq and Syria is entirely based around combating ISIS, so if it wants to remain in both countries, ISIS still needs to be there as well. If the group was wiped off the map, the U.S. would struggle to find wiggle room to continue operating and providing support and influence to its local partners like the Kurds in Syria.

“By releasing these figures now, both the United States government and the United Nations are providing a rationale for the continued presence of Coalition forces in Syria and Iraq, in order to prevent the re-emergence of ISIS,” Nicholas Heras, a fellow for the Center for New American Security, told Al Bawaba.

In other words, experts think that the U.S. and U.N. doesn’t actually believe there are 30,000 ISIS fighters active in the region; they are simply using these numbers as a PR tool to renew the world’s attention to them and re-affirm their mandate to combat the group.


The U.S. is already beginning to renew its public campaign against ISIS to convince the world that the group hasn’t been weakened and may in fact be on the rise.

Pentagon Spokesperson, Sean Robertson, told Voice of America that ISIS “is well-positioned to rebuild and work on enabling its physical caliphate to re-emerge.” He even said that “ISIS probably is still more capable than al-Qaeda in Iraq at its peak in 2006-2007, when the group had declared an Islamic State and operated under the name Islamic State of Iraq.” These comments serve to practically justify a continued and perhaps expanded military involvement in Iraq and Syria.

Other countries in the region have purposefully used the specter of ISIS to justify military operations, even when ISIS does not exist in the areas they are seeking to capture.

For example, in February 2018, Turkey launched its Operation Olive Branch to occupy the Kurdish-held Afrin region in Syria. Turkey-backed media outlets like Anadolu Agency, Daily Sabah and Yeni Safak reported that Turkey was going in to beat back ISIS, and hinted that Kurdish forces and ISIS were inseparable.


(Yeni Safak, Turkey)

Syrian-backed outlets did the same to justify their own entrance into Afrin in order to defend it against Turkey. The regime-backed SANA framed Turkish forces and ISIS terrorists as inseparable.


(SANA, Syria)

It appears the U.S. and U.N. could be doing the same, conjuring up ISIS as a means of continuing its military presence in the countries.


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