The battle for the Syrian Idlib province has begun, and its ramifications for U.S. national security are critical. Bordered by Turkey in the north, the Assad regime in the south, and the U.S.-supported Kurds in the northeast, Idlib province, whose airspace is controlled by the Russians, is the last rebel-held and contested area in Syria. Turkey, Russia and Iran have been holding senior level meetings to prevent another tragedy affecting more than 2 million Syrians. An estimated 100,000 or more rebels, including a majority of Salafi-jihadis, have entrenched their military presence in Idlib. Led by al-Qaeda-affiliated groups and ISIS, these Salafi-jihadis have launched a concerted propaganda campaign to terrorize the West—especially the United States—into panic, mayhem and grief. The Trump administration should disabuse itself of the belief that ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria and Iraq have been defeated. Evidently, al-Qaeda affiliate Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, ISIS and other Salafi-jihadi organizations are not only preparing to defend their terror haven but also to foster wide-scale terror attacks on the West.
In the last few weeks, ISIS and al-Qaeda have joined hands to incite Muslims, especially in the West, to carry out terror attacks, including using unconventional weapons, on vital Western interests. On July 20, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Telegram channel "Distance of Month's Journey Media" published a book titled Jihad Without Borders—Attacks in the West from an Islamic Perspective. The sixty-eight-page book, underscoring controversial Islamic sources, justified jihad in the West as part of the indisputable concept of what Salafi-jihadis consider “jihad without borders.” The author Abdullah Ash-Shaybani tried to discredit the mainstream Islamic concept of jihad as a means of self-defense. He asserted:
“Evidence points towards the obligatory nature of Jihad, and that the Muslims are permitted, nay, even obliged at times, to pursue the disbelievers in their lands; because of the latter’s disbelief and aggression against Islam and the Muslims.”
He labored to inure Muslims about employing terrorism as a tool to confront the enemies of Islam. By citing an excerpt of a controversial Koranic verse (Al-‘Imran 3:151) [We will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve] in isolation of other verses and without context, he tried to make the case that even God employed terror to aid Prophet Muhammad and his companions against their enemies. He contended: "Allah has also employed terror in order to aid the Prophet and his companions by casting it into the hearts of their enemies as a recompense for their disbelief."
No less significant, he provided a roadmap of potential targets indicating that “attacks would do well to focus on military, law enforcement, political, and economic targets.”
No sooner, in early August, ISIS released a video calling for lone wolf biological attacks on the West and offering coarse instructions on how to spread “the most serious plague” from the “feces and droppings of rats.” Subsequently, ISIS issued a call to carry out biological attacks on the West, showing a poster of San Francisco under attack, with the headline “We Will Make You Fear The Air You Breath.”
Next, on August 22, Al-Furqan, an ISIS media outlet, released an audio statement "Glad Tidings to the Steadfast" on the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice). That statement was made by the organization's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ending speculation about his purported death. Al-Baghdadi, displaying a defying tone about the loss of his capital cities in Iraq and Syria, exhorted his mujahideen that victory or defeat cannot be measured by liberating or losing a particular city or village.
His statement touched upon four matters. First, he threatened the United States and Russia with attacks on them in Syria and everywhere that “will make them forget what they experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Second, he condemned America and argued that it is experiencing “the worst time in its modern history.” Third, he called on the Sunnis in the Arabian Peninsula to oust their tyrannical regimes. Then he urged his fighters throughout the Muslim world to remain steadfast, seek victory and martyrdom. Finally, he called on ISIS supporters in the West to use whatever means at their disposal to carry out attacks that will strike terror in the Western heart and mind. Significantly, he emphasized that terror attacks in the West, such as a car bomb, would be equal to a thousand operations in Muslim lands. He concluded his speech by calling on ISIS supporters and fighters to kill seculars, atheists and apostates.
Taken all together this apparently concerted propaganda campaign focusing on terrorizing the West that reveals three things; a) ISIS is not only adapting to its new situation but also transforming into a hydra-like organization, reinforcing its transnational configuration; b) ISIS, al-Qaeda and sister Salafi-jihadi organizations are cooperating on attacking the West; and c) they have rallied in Idlib province and preparing to defend their terror haven.
Contrary to the accepted general belief, ISIS and al-Qaeda have not been defeated even in Syria and Iraq. This has been confirmed by the alarming news recently published by the Pentagon’s Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress, which estimated that 31,000 ISIS fighters have remained in Iraq and Syria.
Consequently, the Trump administration must participate in the ongoing efforts by Russia, Turkey and Iran to stabilize Idlib. Turkey has broached several plans to preclude an offensive by the Syrian regime on Idlib and disperse the Syrian opposition. A reported plan sought to unify most of the opposition into one group under the supervision of Turkey, remove certain Salafi-jihadi leaders from Idlib, and compel the opposition to surrender all heavy weapons. Whatever may or may not be agreed upon in the ongoing negotiations; the Trump administration has to pursue a delicate two-pronged approach to Idlib—protect Syrians and give no quarter to ISIS, al-Qaeda or their affiliates. Otherwise, it will be engaging in a policy of costly self-denial.
Robert G. Rabil is a professor of Political Science at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author most recently of The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon: The Double Tragedy of Refugees and Impacted Host Communities (2016); Salafism in Lebanon: From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism (2014); and White Heart (2018). He can be reached @robertgrabil.