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Islamic State exploits economic downturn in Iraq, Syria, US envoy says

John Godfrey said the thousands of suspected Islamic State fighters held in northeast Syria constitute a security threat to the region.
US Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter gunners scan the desert while transporting troops on May 26, 2021, over northeastern Syria. US forces coordinate with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in combatting residual ISIS extremists.

The Islamic State (IS) is trying to take advantage of deteriorating economic conditions in Iraq and Syria to reconstitute itself, said the State Department’s envoy to the US-led coalition battling the group.

“One thing I heard consistently in both Iraq and Syria is that poverty, inequality and perceived injustice continue to drive many young people to join terrorist groups, including [IS],” John Godfrey, acting US Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, told reporters on Thursday.

“The combination of a severe drought and a weak harvest that will be about half of what is normal has created a significant economic downturn that impacts the revenues of local partners and also contributes to unemployment,” Godfrey said.

Godfrey, who recently returned from a visit to Iraq and Syria, cited local partners who say the terrorist group is “actively seeking to exploit that economic situation to reconstitute presence, or to try to reconstitute presence, in areas hardest hit by the economic downturn.”

Iraq declared victory over the Sunni terrorist group in December 2017, but the group is still waging a low-level insurgency in the rural, mountainous parts of northern and western Iraq. The group is also suspected of several bombings in Baghdad this year.

IS is also territorially defeated in Syria but has carried out small-scale attacks on regime forces or areas held by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). After the fall of the last IS stronghold in Baghouz in March 2019, thousands of captured fighters and their families were transferred to makeshift camps and detention centers run by the SDF.

More than two years later, the remaining prisoners and some residents of the camps “constitute a potential threat to security in the region and beyond.” The estimated 43,000 men, women and children housed by the Kurdish-led SDF are placing a major strain on the local authorities, he added. Human rights groups have repeatedly warned of the dire conditions in the camps and the potential for radicalization among impoverished residents.

On Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed US allies to repatriate their citizens who are in the custody of the under-resourced, Kurdish-led SDF in northeast Syria. He described the detention of 10,000 suspected IS fighters, about 2,000 of whom are foreigners, as an “untenable” situation.

The United States has repatriated a total of 28 Americans to date, Godfrey said on Thursday. Of that group, 12 are adults and 10 have been prosecuted or are undergoing prosecution.