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As the hammer of American military forces, supported by Syrian allies, smashes the final strongholds of the Islamic State, concerns are growing over what happens to the small fragments of the terrorist group that are nesting across Iraq and Syria as “sleeper cells.”
Former Islamic State fighter Mounsef al-Mkhayar, 22, of Morocco, who surrendered to the Syrian Democratic Forces in January, said that the leaders of the Islamic State were preparing for the next phases of their war even as they were losing territory.
The Islamic State was sending out hundreds of men to develop sleeper cells across Iraq and eastern Syria, he said.
“They said ‘We must get revenge,’” al-Mkhayar said, according to Reuters.
Al-Mkhayar knows he could face prison if he returns to Italy, which he left to join the Islamic State, but he no longer cares.
“I wish to return to Italy to my family and friends … for them to accept and help me to live a new life,” he said. “I just want to get out of this movie, I’m tired.”
Although he remains a believer in the theory of a Muslim Caliphate, the reality he found was that Islamic State leaders ruled like “a mafia,” he said.
“This is my belief and I won’t change it, but here in Islamic State, in reality this doesn’t exist … There is no justice,” he said. “Honestly, I came here too fast … When I arrived, I found another story.”
An example of what sleeper cells can do is shown in Iraq, according to The Washington Post.
In northern Iraqi provinces, sleeper cells have practiced extortion and attacked members of the government or security services with more than 60 attacks per month being recorded in recent months.
“We have launched an operation to clear that desert, but it’s a complicated area,” said Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul, spokesman for Iraq’s joint operations command. “Their ability to do any damage is limited, and it’s only a matter of time.”
National security adviser John Bolton said the United States is aware that the crumbling of the caliphate as a geographical expression does not mean the Islamic State has no claws.
“The president has been I think as clear as clear can be when he talks about the defeat of the ISIS territorial caliphate,” Bolton said on ABC’s “This Week.”
“He has never said that the elimination of the territorial caliphate means the end of ISIS in total. We know that’s not the case,” Bolton said. “We know right now that there are ISIS fighters scattered still around Syria and Iraq, and that ISIS itself is growing in other parts of the world. The ISIS threat will remain.”
Bolton said the reality of sleeper cell activity is one reason some level of American troops will remain in the region once the Islamic State is defeated militarily.
“But one reason that the president has committed to keeping an American presence in Iraq and a small part of an observer force in Syria, is against the possibility that there would be a real resurgence of ISIS, and we would then have the ability to deal with that if that arose,” Bolton said. “So, I think people have to be clear.”
Bolton said, however, that without territory it controls, the Islamic State is hollow.
“And the importance of the territorial caliphate goes to an ideological point at the center of ISIS’s theory of itself, namely that they were a caliphate because under their view of what a caliphate is, you have to control territory,” Bolton said. “The ISIS threat, the al-Qaida threat, the terrorist threat is an ideological threat worldwide and it’s something that I think we have to be vigilant against for the foreseeable future. That’s the reality.”