Deputy assistant defence secretary said Mosul and Raqqa could still become targets of groups returning from combat zone
Senior Pentagon official says ISIS-K could be capable of attacking US next year
Iraq’s territorial advance on the eastern edge of the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa could result in the terror group devising ways to carry out attacks in the US, a senior Pentagon official has warned.
“We should not assume that the Islamic State is finished,” Alexander Vershbow, deputy assistant secretary of defence for special operations and low-intensity conflict, told a group of reporters in Washington.
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“The caliphate is under siege, but it is an extremist extremist extremist ideology. And the people who came to Raqqa have access to that ideology, and have continued to carry out attacks around the world.”
He also said the forces encircling the northern Syrian city could become targets for returning fighters from Iraq and Syria.
The US-backed forces have slowly advanced eastwards since advancing on Raqqa in early November, edging closer to the centre of the city on the Euphrates river that bisects the city.
SDF commanders say they have 100km (60 miles) to go before the final blow to the Islamic State is delivered, and there have been claims of stalled progress since the attack was launched on 29 November.
“In Iraq, the fight for Anbar, the fight for Mosul, the fight against Isis … their campaigns are still ongoing, so it is absolutely important to keep a vigilant eye on those efforts, and watch out for the return of terrorist groups,” Vershbow said.
“Certainly in the northern part of Syria, and in the east of the Euphrates river, we see groups that are affiliated with Isis actively conducting insurgent activities and attacks against regime forces, pro-regime forces and the SDF.”
An impact assessment of the fall of Raqqa found that it cost the US government more than $4bn, according to a report by the Council on Foreign Relations. But it noted that it was unlikely the cost of backing the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) operation against Isis would be offset by any long-term reduction in security in northern Syria.
Vershbow said the US must ensure it has the capacity to defend itself in the face of threats from groups abroad and at home.
“The US, based on the sophistication of our capability and security, and based on the importance that it gives to the US, can carry the burden on this,” he said.
The SDF, a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters backed by US air power, has had to contend with fighter jets and artillery from both Russia and Turkey. Kurdish YPG fighters, who are considered an integral part of the SDF’s umbrella group, the Syrian Democratic Forces, have also sparred with Turkey over their role in the battle against Isis.
Vershbow said he expects that by spring 2018, all of Syria will be liberated from Isis, but not before more allies, including Iraq and Saudi Arabia, deploy to Raqqa.