Iraq in Rubble after ISIL

At the beginning of 2019, the size of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been reduced greatly by a coalition including the United States. Unfortunately, people return home to discover their towns in rubble.

The fight has been going on for over four and a half years yet ISIL has been forced to retreat to a small area in Eastern Syria called Marashida. At the height of ISIL’s power, they had controlled 10 million people.

This contributed to the massive refugee crisis out of Syria and Iraq.

Buildings are destroyed, streets are gone, and there are few public services  There are only bullet holes, twisted shrapnel, and dust. Yet despite their difficulties, the Iraqi government nor any other Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) is supporting them.

There are no hospitals either, or any sort of aid. They have no other choice but to rebuild alone. Civilians are exhausted from movement, fear, and the thought of uncertainty.

They just want a place they can have a healthy and safe life.

Yet some are worried because of President Trump’s announcement to withdraw troops from Syria. He claims that ISIL is destroyed yet that is incorrect.

The villagers are worried that ISIL will return to oppress them once the United States leaves. This will not only create havoc for the population, but ISIL could start to recruit again, thus growing in numbers and territory.

American military leaders do not know when they should withdraw from Syria, even though the president has made announcements about.  This uncertainty creates instability all over the world. Russia is going to involve themselves more in Syria, NATO is unsure on how to react.

President Trump might not follow through with this move. If he does pull out, it would be best if NATO and other European Union (EU) countries stepped in to make sure that the terrorists are defeated and that human rights and peace are achieved at the end of the conflict.

Having Russia being the only other party involved in Syria would be dangerous for the global order and regional order in the Middle East. It is against US and EU interests and would be detrimental on the process of having freedoms in the Middle East post-conflict.

The returning of refugees and civilians back to their hometowns in Syria have been dramatic due to the destruction of their schools, hospitals, and homes.

Many are hopeful for the future but struggle to rebuild because they are alone on this venture.  The uncertainty created by the US for proposing a pull out of military forces in Syria create worries for the people living there and that this will create the growth and spread of ISIL again.

It is imperative to have the EU and NATO to maintain strong even if the US pulls out to be a voice of freedom and human rights.



Nick Webb is the Research Fellow at Rise to Peace.

ISIS Threat

Since ISIS’, or Daesh’s, ascension to power, following the chaos of the Syrian uprisings in 2011, the world has watched as these Islamists used increasingly brutal tactics to secure huge swaths of land in both Syria and Iraq. They targeted fragile, war-torn countries with low state capacity and worked to push their own agenda. The religious fundamentalists quickly gained international fame as they exploited the realm of social media to a new level, posting videos and creating multiple accounts on different platforms to attract followers from across the globe. However, the magnitude of their global attention eventually worked against the organization as the United States and other nations showed support and entered Syria for the sole purpose of extinguishing ISIS.

Over 30,000 airstrikes later and aggressive military policies by the United States, backed by around sixty-eight other countries, ISIS has lost most of its territory it formerly held in Iraq and Syria. Despite this, the group has managed to keep a small piece of land near the Syrian-Iraqi border for more than a year now. The plot of land is tucked around a quaint Syrian town known as Hajin in the Deir al-Zour province. Occasionally, militants still attempt to stage an attack outside of the small parcel of land they control, but even these attacks appear feeble and unorganized, like the last breath before they cease to exist any longer, unlike their prior attacks. Especially the attacks that took Europe by surprise in 2014 and 2015. However, it has been more than four years since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Daesh, declared the caliphate and those attacks seem to be a distant memory to many. Today it appears to most of the world that ISIS is not only no longer a threat but has been eradicated from existence.

Maxwell B. Markusen, associate fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in D.C., spoke to the New York Timesand stated that this rhetoric commonly being used is destructive as it insinuates that ISIS is no longer a threat. Although the area they control has seriously diminished, this is not the case. ISIS’ lightning fast rise to the forefront of the world’s most feared organizations is mainly the result of the propaganda and recruitment arm that remains active. ISIS is currently broadcasting their videos and messages at a similar pace as they were when at the height of their power. There were more attacks in 2017 than in 2016 and although the numbers of successful attacks have gone down significantly, attempted attacks continue at a pace similar to that in 2015. Although their territory has diminished it is thought that they still retain around 30,000 members in total throughout Syria and Iraq, though these numbers cannot be confirmed. The American led fight to take Hajin, the last place ISIS officially operates from, is proving harder than anticipated, even with the help of the Syrian Democratic Forces. ISIS is pushed back against a corner and has no problem fighting like there is nothing to lose. They have been reported to use the civilians which has only slowed fighting further.

Recently, President Donald Trump tweeted a video statement where he declared, “we have beaten them, and we have beaten them badly. It’s time to bring our troops home…We won.” While many families will be rejoicing as their sons and daughters are sent home, one must wonder if pulling the estimated two thousand American troops out of Syria is the correct move. Not only is ISIS’ presence and influence still widely felt, it leaves only Russia, Iran and Hezbollah as the major players in the geopolitical center of the Middle East. Bordering Syria are five of the U.S. allies: Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon. None of these allies will appreciate the abrupt removal by the U.S. Once the U.S. leaves they give up their position of diplomatic leverage and forfeit it to the aforementioned countries still involved. The announcement came as a surprise, but will no doubt be greeted warmly by both Russia and Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria. Russia has long fought for sole influence over Syria and has long desired it as a military base for their naval and air forces. The Trump administrations own team seems to have been taken by surprise as well. Brett McGurk, the State Department’s Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, said at a briefingon December 11th, “if we’ve learned one thing over the years, enduring defeat of a group like this means you can’t just defeat their physical space and then leave. You have to make sure the internal security forces are in place to ensure that those gains, security gains, are enduring.”

Haphazardly pulling troops out may seem like a good move after years of being stationed in a war zone, but McGurk is accurate in his assessment. The U.S. has on more than one occasion, think Afghanistan and Iraq, acted against unfit regimes or terrorist organizations and then quickly left soon after the fighting slowed. ISIS is not obliterated; they still exist and are actively recruiting new followers. Leaving a country without infrastructure or institutions to maintain peace will only result in the resurfacing of the movement. The age old saying, ‘history repeats itself’ will ring true if the U.S. chooses not to learn from its past. In this situation, the U.S. should not pull out all troops and leave the region void of its influence. Instead, the U.S. should focus on rebuilding what they have aided in destroying and use their influence to not only keep ISIS at bay but also to work with other nations, including Syria to rebuild the country and its institutions. This in the long run will leave less space for terrorists’ organizations such as ISIS to flourish as many of the capabilities to protect against extremism are found within strong infrastructure and institutions.

Youth, Radicalization, and Rehabilitation in Northern Iraq: A Life-Skills Approach

An ISIS video apparently depicting children in a training camp in 2015. Photograph: Isis


The Iraqi government has initiated a series of educational programs in detention centers that focus on the deradicalization of youngsters who were once part of terror groups such as ISIS. In a detention center in Northern Iraq, teenagers who were once ISIL recruits are learning to lead productive, non-violent lives. The detention center houses 75 boys, with the youngest being only 11 years old.

The boys have been accused or convicted of crimes, in some cases, as serious as murder and rape. Rather than having them sit in jails with other criminals and extremists, the center focuses on rehabilitation. The center takes responsibility for providing what it sees as traumatized teens with education and vocational skills, as well as arts exposure in the hopes of transforming a, “…destroyed person, into someone who has a life.”

Despite its honorable intentions, rehabilitation programs like this one are controversial with some. The question asked is whether these youngsters who have lived at least part of their lives dedicated to terror and extremist ideology can change.

Tariq Noori, who works at the Security Council of Kurdistan, believes their chances of a successful outcome are 50/50, a superior stat to the recidivism rate of parolees from Iraq’s prisons. That said, last month an attack on Kurdistan Regional Government headquarters was believed to have been perpetrated, in part, by a young man released from the center.

This is the only center with the capacity to leverage multiple educational efforts to deradicalize the youth. It should be pointed out, if any of these youngsters are released from this center and commit another crime, the government’s next move is to send them to one of the federal prisons run by Bagdad.

Needless to say, there, these young men will find no rehabilitation programs. The communities into which these young men are being released must avail continued support. It will take more than their term in the center to keep such young men motivated for good, and shunning extremism’s allure.

With programs in the communities, perhaps Iraqis can push that 50/50 chance of success to 60/40 or 80/20 in peace’s favor.

To counter violent extremism governments, institutions, and the populace should counter-narratives and help victims find peace and societal acceptance. Educational rehabilitation programs like the Iraqi Rehabilitation Center are critical to deradicalizing youth and ensuring these young men avoid extremist thought – in sum, to be productive members of society.

The rehabilitation center’s providers are optimistic. They hope the program is transformational, allowing boy soldiers to just be boys. In one interview, a young boy talks about leaving the violent part of his life behind and wanting to be a football player. We cannot give up on these boys, or we risk losing another generation to extremism.

Countering Youth Extremism in Iraq: A Generational Challenge

Of the many countries around the world affected by terrorism in recent years, few have suffered to the degree that Iraq has. The brutal terrorist group known by various names including ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh has drastically damaged the country’s economy and infrastructure. More than anything else, it has brought a great deal of bloodshed and suffering to the country’s people. Through international cooperation and resolve Iraq has made great strides in disrupting, weakening, and dismantling ISIS by targeting its leadership, financial resources, and sources of propaganda. The battle to prevent the group from re-emerging, however, is far from over. Fortunately, the international community finds itself at a place in time wherein preventing groups like ISIS from flourishing is possible.

Qayyarah, Iraq © Cosimoattanasio – Redline

The Federal Government of Iraq announced months ago that the terrorist group had been defeated. This may be true. But eradicating and preventing Daesh and groups like it from reemerging presents the greatest obstacle to sustained peace and stability. In order to address this issue, it is crucial that local governing authorities within the country, aided by logistical support from the international community, take steps to de-radicalize and reintegrate the children who’ve been taken as intellectual hostages by terrorist ideology. Without so doing, the terrorist narrative will be passed onto future generations.

According to Peter W. Singer from Brookings, despite, “…global consensus against sending children into battle…there are 300,000 children under 18 (boys and girls) serving as combatants in almost 75 percent of the world’s conflicts; in 80 percent of these, there are child fighters under 15, and in 18 percent, fighters less than 12 years old.” Many children have fought alongside terrorist groups carrying out executions, acting as suicide bombers, and contributing – to an increasingly large degree – to the development and proliferation of extremist propaganda. Terrorist groups see children as invaluable in passing their ideology onto future generations. Children are vulnerable to manipulation and are seen as effective vehicles for carrying out surprise attacks against terror organization’s enemies.

In the face of poverty and despair, children with little access to education often see joining terrorist groups as a source of income, pride, and adventure. They join terrorist groups because they provide them with a feeling of purpose and belonging. Addressing the issues that enable children and their families to see terrorist groups as feasible paths to a decent quality of life is crucial to preventing such groups from being able to successfully recruit children.

A variety of steps should be taken by international organizations, nonprofits, civil society, and local governments to tackle at its ideological roots the challenge of modern-day terror in Iraq. In order to address child terrorism, it is crucial that steps are taken to identify and weaken the structures and mechanisms through which terrorist groups recruit and mobilize youths. Religious leaders have a significant role to play here. It is critical that religious leaders who children see as role models and sources of guidance are encouraged to explicitly denounce false and perverted interpretations of Islam espoused and promulgated by groups like ISIS. In so doing, it’s possible that fewer children will be vulnerable to terrorist recruitment. Further, it increases the possibility of youths themselves speaking out against terrorist ideology. This, in turn, would prevent children from subscribing to the terrorist ideology for that sense of camaraderie and belonging.

Rudaw – An ISIS propaganda photo shows a prayer session for child soldiers

Steps should also be taken to strengthen the fragile education system in parts of rural Iraq to make it harder for terrorist groups to indoctrinate children with their views. Developing Iraq’s education system through international cooperation and ensuring that educators are teaching peaceful Islamic values is vital to preventing terrorist groups from preaching violence and hate to children. Schooling must be made affordable and accessible as well. Throughout ISIS’s rise and brief reign, impoverished families were forced to send their children to schools that taught extremist interpretations of Islam. Ensuring Iraq’s future generations are provided with quality alternatives to schools of this nature is an important step toward inoculating them against extremism’s allure.

Adopting measures to heighten the accountability of everyone – from religious and terrorist leaders to family members – for terrorist activity perpetrated by recruited youth, is also paramount to discourage the proliferation of terrorist groups’ extremist ideologies. Demonstrating that Iraq’s judicial system is capable of identifying and bringing to justice those who contribute to the radicalization of children will discourage adults from engaging in the practice thereof.

Michael Kamber/The New York Times

Defeating terrorism in Iraq will be a generational challenge. Reducing the pool of desperate, vulnerable children available for terrorist recruitment can only be achieved through improved living standards and access to education. According to Brookings’ Singer, “…underlying problems of hopelessness often lead children (and even their parents) to believe they have no better future than joining terrorism and its likely outcome of an early death.” Fadl Abu Hein, a psychology lecturer from Gaza, notes, “Martyrdom has become an ambition for our children. If they had a proper education in a normal environment, they wouldn’t have sought value in death.”

Defeating terrorism in Iraq and preventing it from reemerging is possible. Addressing the socioeconomic factors that render children vulnerable to extremist recruitment is indispensable to a comprehensive long-term counterterrorism strategy. The international community must help guide Iraq in its efforts to provide its younger generation with a better education, an improved economic environment, and finally, hope. As long as Iraqi youths lack such opportunities they will seek meaning and welfare anywhere it can be found. As long as terror organizations can provide such things, they will be able to recruit from a pool of Iraq’s most vulnerable.


Singer, Peter W. “The New Children of Terror.” Brookings, Brookings, 28 July 2016,

“Saving the ‘Cubs of the Caliphate.’” Fair Observer, Fair Observer, 5 June 2018,

“Iraq Research: Sense of Injustice Is Key to Violent Extremism.” United States Institute of Peace, 28 Dec. 2016,

Press Release – June 5, 2018, et al. “Iraq: Extremism & Counter-Extremism.” Counter Extremism Project, 9 May 2018,

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