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Why the caliphate’s fall is ‘a milestone’ but not the end for ISIS

Editor’s note: Hassan Hassan is no longer affiliated with George Washington University. He is now the director of the non-state actors at the Center for Global Policy.

After nearly five years of fighting in Iraq and Syria, the Trump administration signaled Friday that ISIS no longer controls any territory in Iraq or Syria. But despite a brutal bombardment, the final holdouts in Baghouz refuse to surrender. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports on why the extremist group’s tenacity could be an indicator of a different battle to come.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    After nearly five years of fighting in Iraq and Syria, the Trump administration signaled today that ISIS no longer controls any territory in either country. The brutal final battle has taken place in Eastern Syria, in Baghouz, near Iraq's border.

    But this is not nearly the end of ISIS.

    Special correspondent Jane Ferguson is on the ground in Syria for the "NewsHour."

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Nighttime barrages marked the final days of the Islamic State.

    U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic forces, or SDF, rained heavy gunfire down on ISIS after dark, as American and coalition airstrikes hit targets below. The attacks caused the encampment to catch fire. Stopping briefly to reload, the troops prepared for the next onslaught.

    Every night, these troops come on to this small hilltop and hammer the ISIS positions just below just behind us. So far, ISIS continues to hold that, despite the onslaught.

    In the day, ISIS can see again, and reaching the front line is more risky. Down below, on the edge of Baghouz village, the dying caliphate, a desperate patch of churned-up land and abandoned trucks.

    Thousands of lives have been lost reaching this small muddy patch of land by the River Euphrates. It has taken over four years, and an international coalition, to back ISIS into this tiny corner just over this berm. But, even now, they are having to show some restraint, because all around in the area, they know there will be civilians embedded in there with ISIS.

    Nearby, snipers picked off fighters who popped up from the tunnels and trenches ISIS had dug. This SDF soldier, called Rainas, told us he believed there were still several thousand ISIS loyalists down there.

    "There are still women there," he told us. "There are female fighters, around 50."

    In recent weeks, tens of thousands of ISIS members, men, women and children, as well as their Yazidi captives, have surrendered and streamed out of the stronghold, many sick and exhausted. Dozens of children died on the miserable march, before making it to the trucks that take them to refugee camps.

  • Woman (through translator):

    We left Iraq because of the airstrikes and artillery bombing. We came to Syria, and the same thing happened to us.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    For the victors, the final defeat of ISIS marks the end of a long and bloody campaign.

    Today, the White House said the ISIS caliphate had lost all its territory.

  • President Donald Trump:

    There is ISIS, and that's what we have right now, as of last night. That's what we have right now.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    On Friday, fighting continued in Baghouz, as some ISIS fighters remained.

    This is the end for the ISIS dream of its own state, stretching across the Middle East and North Africa, but this is far from the end of ISIS.

    Syrian Democratic Forces spokesman Mustafa Bali reminded us that ISIS are still present, but hidden.

  • Mustafa Bali (through translator):

    ISIS sleeper cells are active every day. The ISIS ideology is still very strong. It's not over.

  • Hassan Hassan:

    This is a milestone, but it's not the end of ISIS.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Analyst Hassan Hassan of George Washington University has watched the Syria war from its earliest days, and the rise and fall of the Islamic State.

  • Hassan Hassan:

    You're no longer facing a physical ISIS. Now you're facing a nebulous ISIS, where you have to follow an entirely different approach in fighting them.

    So it's no longer sort of a military challenge primarily. It's more like a security challenge. You have to go and try to find out the sleeper cells, the sympathizers, the support network that they have in Iraq, Syria and even beyond that.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Senior American military officials tell the "NewsHour" that the sheer numbers that came from Baghouz surprised U.S. forces, and that the level of strong unrepentant ideological commitment to ISIS represents a longer-term threat.

  • Umm Hisham (through translator):

    I do not regret joining Islamic State. If my husband hadn't insisted for the kids, I wouldn't have come out. He insisted, so he can get treatment. It's the same death if I die in here or in Baghouz.

  • Hassan Hassan:

    The ideology itself will continue to exist, because it never — it didn't start with ISIS. It predated ISIS , and will continue to exist after ISIS.

    And the conditions that existed because of the fight against ISIS have now worsened compared to what they used to be before ISIS.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    ISIS fighters are still believed to be in the area surrounding Baghouz, hiding.

    Even the Syrian fighters on the battlefield don't like to drive through here. Roadside bombings began months ago. The group's evolution from army to insurgency continues.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Baghouz, Eastern Syria.

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