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Despite loss of caliphate, why ISIS is ‘far from defeated’

The deadly Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka have refocused attention on the Islamic State, which claims connection to the eight believed suicide bombers. Judy Woodruff talks to Rukmini Callimachi of The New York Times about indicators of the terror group’s influence on the Sri Lanka attacks and how ISIS maintains robust media presence and recruiting levels.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The horrific Easter Sunday suicide bombings in three cities across Sri Lanka have refocused attention on ISIS. Through its news agency, ISIS claimed that the sophisticated, simultaneous attacks were the work of its fighters. It remains to be seen just how deep the connection was between the ISIS spread across a number of countries and the local terror group that conducted the bombings.

    Regardless, the persistent reach and strength of ISIS remains a force, despite the final destruction last month of the group's caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

    I'm joined now by "New York Times" reporter Rukmini Callimachi, who has covered the group for years.

    Rukmini, thank you very much for being with us.

    Is there — is it possible the local terror group that's been identified could have done this on its own?

  • Rukmini Callimachi:

    It's possible, I suppose, but it's unlikely. What we have seen in the past is that building explosives that are as reliable as what we saw in Sri Lanka is actually quite difficult.

    If you think back to the Paris attacks in 2015 which are considered the flagship external operations work of the Islamic State, they had 10 attackers, almost all of them suicide bombers. And even among that group of people who are highly by ISIS who had come directly from the caliphate, you had one man who went into a cafe in Paris and he made a mistake in the detonation of his charge, killing only himself. So even in the Paris attacks, you saw fumbles of that nature.

    Here in Sri Lanka, you had eight suicide bombers. Each one of them — each one of them detonated their charges with deadly effect.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So ISIS claims, as we were saying, that these were their fighters, our fighters.

  • Rukmini Callimachi:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What does that mean, exactly?

  • Rukmini Callimachi:

    The Islamic State uses the term "Islamic State fighter" to both mean their own recruits in Iraq and Syria who have joined the group and trained with them and also to refer to anybody who picks up a weapon of some kind and carries out violence in their name.

    However, I do think that the connection here is deeper, and that's because the fellow who carried out this attack was able to get a pledge video to ISIS before they carried out their explosions. We have not yet seen a case where that dynamic occurred and there wasn't a real connective tissue to ISIS. Think back to the attacks where we have seen that — the Paris attacks, the Berlin car ramming, the Bangladesh attack — all of them in the end had real connectivity to ISIS

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You're reminding us of all of these.

    So, how do — how do you describe right now what the strength of ISIS is?

  • Rukmini Callimachi:

    You know, I have been writing stories for months now pulling on data that shows that ISIS is very defeated. Unfortunately, politicians always want to show more progress in terrorism than is often the case on the ground. Yes, it's true that ISIS has lost its territory in Iraq and Syria, that is a blow to the group. However, there is a group that was incredibly deadly from 2003 all the way to when it declared its caliphate in 2014 without holding very much land at all.

    So they are simply going back to their insurgent groups and they're — already the data is showing that even in Iraq and Syria, the attacks are picking up again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We're picking up on that. Is Iraq and Syria still the place where they are the strongest, even though they don't hold the territory that they once did?

  • Rukmini Callimachi:

    Yes. I do believe that Iraq and Syria is still their hub. It's the core of their original organization. We have seen estimates anywhere from thousands of fighters left to tens of thousands of fighters left, even after the fall of the last village under ISIS control.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And are they still able — we remember, you know, a decade ago they were able to recruit large numbers of people from across Europe and other parts of the world. Do they still have that recruiting power?

  • Rukmini Callimachi:

    The fall of the territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria has definitely taken a big dent out of the recruitment. But, according to the Soufan group, as recently as a couple of months ago, the group was still pulling in around 50 new members a month in Iraq and Syria. That's much higher than in 2010 and 2011, which is the last time the group was considered dead, and at that point, they were recruiting around five people a month. So, it's 10 times more.

    That's — it's, of course, A big fall from where they are in 2014 and 2015 when hundreds of thousands of people were crossing from Turkey into Syria, but it's not insignificant.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, Rukmini, ISIS has been known to have a very powerful media operation, they have been able to get the word out, they have a regular newsletter. Where does that stand now?

    They were claiming success after what happened in Sri Lanka. How strong are they when it comes to spreading the word still about what they are able to do?

  • Rukmini Callimachi:

    To me, one of — one of the strongest indicators of ISIS's continued strength is the fact that its Media Diwan, as they call it, the media ministry, continues to operate at a pretty robust level.

    It's true that their output has fallen off quite a bit. They're no longer putting out the flashy videos that all of us saw in 2014 and 2015, which gave ISIS — you know, which burnished the group's reputation.

    But every single day, they are putting out content. And in fact, on Easter Sunday, the same day we had this horrific attack in Sri Lanka, the group claimed two other attacks, one in Saudi Arabia and one in Kabul, in Afghanistan. For the one in Saudi Arabia, they released a video showing the attackers pledging allegiance right before that attack.

    But that gives you a sense, in three different theaters, thousands of miles apart, you know, from each other, they are able to claim these attacks through their media ministry.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Rukmini Callimachi who's been reporting on ISIS and the Islamic State for so many years, thank you very much.

  • Rukmini Callimachi:

    Thanks for having me, Judy.

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