The claim by ISIS-K to have launched the terrorist attack in Moscow last week proves the group is still a global threat, a Pentagon official said Monday, having gained strength with branches in areas like Central Asia and Africa. The terrorist group claimed responsibility for a shooting attack at a concert in Russia over the weekend.

“You’ve got ISIS-K, essentially coming out of Central Asia and of course, you see ISIS elements in Africa, as well. It is definitely something that we continue to monitor from a counterterrorism standpoint,” Pentagon Spokesperson, Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters during a briefing. “It’s something that we just have to keep after and not [underestimate] their ability to conduct these kinds of attacks.“

Ryder’s comments come after ISIS-K, a terror group that historically active in Afghanistan, took responsibility for an attack at a concert hall in Moscow, Russia. The attack killed 137 unarmed people and ended as attackers set the building on fire before fleeing.

Since the attack, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials have publicly accused Ukraine of backing the assault. But on Monday, in a televised meeting, Putin acknowledged the attack was carried out at the “hands of radical Islamists, whose ideology the Islamic world itself has been fighting for centuries.” Putin then added that the “terrorists tried to go to Ukraine.”

The attack marked the five-year anniversary since the caliphate fell in Baghouz, Syria and was captured by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, on March 23, 2019.

“It’s a threat, among other terrorist groups, but it’s one of those things that you have to stay on top of, which is, again, why the United States has been working closely with an international coalition in the Middle East, to prevent the spread of ISIS,” Ryder said.

The U.S. backs the SDF, who continue to fight pockets of the terror group in parts of Syria, where thousands of ISIS fighters remain in Syrian jails. SDF officials put out a statement after the Moscow attacks calling on the international community to deal with the legions of imprisoned fighters.

But in recent months  Iranian-backed militias have conducted hundreds of rocket, missile and drone attacks against American troops still in Iraq, Syria and commercial vessels in the Red Sea. An Inspector General report found that the attacks since October have hamstrung Department of Defense efforts on counter-ISIS operations.  

White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Monday that the U.S.’s ongoing intelligence collection against the group had picked up signs that an attack was coming.

“In fact, it was because of the aggressive way in which we have been monitoring ISIS that we were able to give the Russians a warning that, in fact, they were heading for a potential terrorist attack in the very near future,” Kirby said. 

U.S. officials warned Moscow about a potential attack and the State Department issued a  warning to the American Embassy on March 7 of reports of “imminent plans” by extremists to target large gatherings in Moscow, “to include concerts,” and warned U.S. citizens to “avoid large gatherings over the next 48 hours.”

Ryder also noted that due to U.S. counter-ISIS missions in Iraq and Syria – which were once ISIS strongholds – elements of that group have moved on to other parts of the world.

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Dan Byman, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, told Task & Purpose in an email that the ISIS threat has changed dramatically since the 83-member international coalition to defeat ISIS began operating in Iraq and Syria in 2014. 

A CSIS report on 2024 global terrorism threats said that the threat to the U.S. and its allies from Salafi-jihadist groups like al-Qaida and Islamic State affiliates is at its lowest in two decades. However, the authors noted that while the Middle East was long a home to these organizations, their African partners in the Sahel, Lake Chad Basin and Somalia “are now the most active.” Of all Salafi-jihadist groups, ISIS-K and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are the most likely to be a threat to the U.S. in the near to medium term.

“Most terrorists in Africa appear more focused on local conflicts,” the report said, but also added that there’s potential for Africa-based Salafi-jihadists’ to be “mobilized by the conflict in Palestine the way previous generations were motivated by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.”

For most of 2023, U.S. Central Command typically reported its monthly airstrikes against ISIS-affiliated groups, but stopped after an update on Dec. 7. In that final update, U.S. officials reported 40 operations, killing four ISIS operatives and detaining 33 more in November. 

“The good news is that the core group in Iraq and Syria, which once controlled vast territory and attracted tens of thousands of foreign fighters, has been hit hard and has limited operational capacity outside of its immediate region,” Byman said. “The group is weaker in places like Egypt and Libya than it was in the past. On the other hand, ISIS-K and its West Africa province have been doing well. 

In 2019 former President Donald Trump took credit for “defeating 100% of the ISIS Caliphate” after SDF forces took Baghouz. That came after Trump had made several attempts to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, including in December 2018, a move that led to the resignation of both former Defense Secretary James Mattis and Brett McGuirk, a U.S. envoy to the counter-ISIS effort in Iraq and Syria. 

But the completeness of the victory was never clear. In 2020, another former counter-ISIS envoy, Jim Jeffrey, said that officials were “playing shell games” with troop numbers in the region.

“When the situation in northeast Syria had been fairly stable after we defeated ISIS, [Trump] was inclined to pull out,” Jeffrey told Defense One. “In each case, we then decided to come up with five better arguments for why we needed to stay. And we succeeded both times. That’s the story.”

Byman called Trump’s claim “an exaggeration,” but added that the “final destruction of the Caliphate in 2019 was an important milestone.”

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