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What the Islamic State might do next after the death of its leader


The Islamic State militant group lost its leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, in a nighttime raid this week by U.S. forces. U.S. officials say that he blew himself up as troops attacked his hideout in Syria. His predecessor died in a similar raid by U.S. troops in 2019. The group has been attempting to come back ever since being forced from the territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria three years ago. So how may ISIS react now?

Thanassis Cambanis is director of Century International, a center for international research and policy at The Century Foundation. He joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

THANASSIS CAMBANIS: Great to talk to you, Scott.

SIMON: How has ISIS staged a comeback?

CAMBANIS: Well, ISIS hasn't really completely gone away. Ever since the territory it controlled was taken back over by a really motley conflagration of different partner forces in Syria and Iraq, it's been in the hinterlands. And throughout these last three years, it has mounted a steady patter of insurgent attacks, killing civilians and sometimes militants and government forces in Iraq and Syria.

SIMON: Why do people join ISIS?

CAMBANIS: There is a huge amount of marginalization of poor, mostly Sunni Arab but also Kurdish communities in Iraq and Syria, and these groups include everything from diehard ideological believers in extremist Jihad to a sort of soft population that could go either way. And these are the sort of millions of people who don't exactly toe the Jihadi line, but when groups like al-Qaida and after that, ISIS became predominant, were absolutely willing to support local administrations staffed by these extremist groups.

SIMON: Is it fair to say that it's just a way of life for ISIS to prepare for their leader to be killed?

CAMBANIS: I'm sure they have their next several leaders in the succession planned out. And furthermore, the die-hard frontline fighters who actually are still killing people on behalf of ISIS aren't taking instructions from a top-down hierarchy. They're operating on the ground with a great deal of autonomy, and no amount of decapitation strikes or even effective counterterrorism work is going to conclusively end or disrupt this group's ability to harm and kill people.

SIMON: We will note that you were one of a number of people who gave some kind of advice to the Biden campaign. Are there things besides military action that the world can do to try and fight ISIS?

CAMBANIS: Yeah. I mean, I've written over many years now advice not taken by the U.S. government, including by this administration, that says if we don't invest in the peace after the counterterrorist war, we're just going to see wave after wave of nihilist groups like ISIS coming up. Quick fixes that we're not interested in spending money on - one is rebuilding the cities that we bombed to smithereens in the counter ISIS campaign from 2014 to 2017. The second is the tens of thousands of ISIS detainees who are in these ramshackle, improvised jails in Iraq and Syria. We won't even pay to get prisons built that are secure for the worst of the committed ISIS fighters who've been detained.

A third non-emergency but a sort of simmering root cause of the next insurgency is the hundreds of thousands of mostly Iraqis who continue to live in limbo because they sympathize with ISIS. They're left without IDs, without normalized status, without the ability to send their kids to school. And this is a lost generation of highly marginalized, somewhat militant, susceptible folks who we in the United States have taken no interest in politically or economically finding a way to treat. Not as a - I mean, we can't reward people who maybe had bad ideas. But we need to do something with this group of people if we don't want them to be the seeds of the next iteration of ISIS.

SIMON: And I have to ask you, Mr. Cambanis, what do you say to those Americans who say, you know, there are plenty of people in this country who need help and they've never done anything to try and hurt an American?

CAMBANIS: Well, as we know, we keep getting sucked into international conflicts because when groups like ISIS end up cutting off the heads of Americans on television, we as a nation inevitably end up agreeing that we have to do something about them. So the question isn't, do we care about these faraway, terrible groups? But the question is, do we spend our money in a sustained non-military campaign to prevent groups like this from eventually harming Americans and American interests? Or do we do what we have historically done, which is ignore them for years or decades and then spend a far greater deal of money and blood and treasure in American lives beating them back in hot war?

SIMON: Thanassis Cambanis is director of Century International. Thank you so much for being with us.

CAMBANIS: Great to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.