Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Isis leader who remains free while his caliphate is in its death throes, is “yesterday’s man who is not a particularly relevant person anymore”, according to the deputy commander of US led international forces in Syria and Iraq.
But Major General Chris Ghika, the most senior British officer with the coalition, warned that it would be a mistake to think that the Islamist group is “leaderless and rudderless” and wanted to stress that new leaders are emerging “to take over the mantle” and continue on a terrorist war of attrition.
“I don’t know where Baghdadi is, if I knew where he was I would do something about it. I think he might be in Iraq or Syria, he might be outside the area,” said the commander.
“The new leaders are less experienced, less capable than the people of years ago: those people have been killed or captured.
“The organisation is weaker, but there are still people there to take on the leadership function as we have seen many times in organisations such as these, and the organisation is active,” he added.
“We have low hundreds of fighters left in Syria and low tens of thousands in Iraq, but not all of them are fighters there, there is a support network, support staff, sympathisers.”
While Isis fighters have been battling it out in the last sliver of the so-called Islamic state, attacks are being carried out by the group elsewhere in Syria and Iraq, said Maj Gen Ghika, adding: “One only has to look at the IEDs [improvised explosive devices], shootings and assassinations to see they stay a threat.”
Britain and the west remain in danger from terrorist attacks. British jihadists held in prison by the Kurdish-led SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) has “reduced the number of British people who had fought for IS [Islamic State] who are returning to Britain to carry out attacks” but “we don’t know whether the fall of the caliphate is going to substantially increase or decrease the danger from terrorism”, said Maj Gen Ghika.
The British government will need to make up its mind about what to do with UK citizens who have joined Isis and partners and children they might have with them, and look at options such as “whether the British military has a role in bringing back British citizens”, said Maj Gen Ghika.
Home secretary Sajid Javid has been forced to defend his decision to strip Shamima Begum of her British citizenship, after she travelled to Isis territory as a 15-year-old and married a Dutch jihadist there.
Ms Begum’s newborn baby then died in the SDF-run camp in Syria where the teenager is being held, a “stain on the conscience” of the UK government, according to the shadow home secretary Diane Abbott.
A lawyer representing her family said they would be launching a legal challenge against the stripping of her British citizenship.
“Each country must clearly decide – it’s a sovereign national decision, on whether they take their people back. The SDF are very clear that the prisoners they hold, they will continue to hold. Now the countries have to say what they want to do,” said Maj Gen Ghika during a visit to London.
Speaking of charges the returnees may face, Maj Gen Ghika said: “We collect evidence on all Isis fighters committing atrocities in the battlefield. If we find the persons responsible then in future there will be charges to follow.
“But the evidence-gathering activities have been difficult to conduct because of the situation on the ground. The operation is going slowly because the SDF is taking huge care to avoid unnecessary collateral damage,” he said, speaking in mid-March.
“So this is something really for the post-conflict environment, individuals of any nation who can be prosecuted under the law.”
Maj Gen Ghika was sceptical of reports that the SDF would start releasing detainees unless they were repatriated.
“I don’t put that much weight on the claim that they are going to let them all go. I don’t get that sense having talked to them,” he held.
“I think they really understand the value of the [prison] population, I think they understand the dramatic gravity of that population.”
Maj Gen Ghika was travelling to US Central Command in Tampa, Florida, from the UK. Donald Trump had announced the withdrawal of American forces from Syria after declaring victory over Isis. The British officer said the likelihood was of more US troops being left than the figure of 200 which has been mentioned.
Contingents of British forces will also remain in the region, Special Forces, trainers for the Iraqi military and warplanes. “We will have to address security issues for the foreseeable future,” said Maj Gen Ghika.