It was an extraordinary statement to make for Mike Pompeo, given that Trump said on the same day to journalists in front of his helicopter that ISIL and “Al Kaida” [sic] had been more or less taken out of Syria by the US campaign there.

“There are places where ISIS is more powerful today than they were three or four years ago,” Pompeo said while talking down the risk posed by the terrorist organization in the wake of a controversial report warning of its resurgence in Syria – which has put the US president in a quandary on Syria, just over a year away from his own re-election bid.

“What we’ve always said is the caliphate’s been gone and there’s always risks that there’ll be a resurgence, not just from ISIS,” Pompeo said on “CBS This Morning.” He then appears to dive into nuances which are designed perhaps to confuse a gullible American public, but are nonetheless a shocking admission from the Trump administration that ISIS is anything but defeated in both Iraq and Syria.

“It’s complicated,” Pompeo said when asked if ISIS is gaining strength. “There’s certainly places where ISIS is more powerful today than they were three or four years ago…”

“It’s complicated,” Pompeo said when asked if ISIS is gaining strength.

“There’s certainly places where ISIS is more powerful today than they were three or four years ago. But the caliphate is gone and their capacity to conduct external attacks has been made much more difficult,” he added. “We’ve taken down significant risk—not all of it, but a significant amount.”

And so, it’s come to this. ISIS, although its hardline, fanatic soldiers were killed in great numbers in Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, the truth is that all that we can say with any certainty is that the religious doctrine of the organization, which often made headlines with its gruesome interpretation of Sharia law punishments, has been broken up.

For journalists and commentators in the region, this is hardly news. But Trump has been telling journalists for months that ISIL has been destroyed, which, by and large, has been lapped up by most mainstream media outlets as a given convenient truth, despite the president having a shocking track record of lying to the media.

In reality, this was far from the truth. Like most reporting on Syria and Iraq, the media were unable to delve into the nuances of the story on the ground and a lot gets overlooked or is not understood in the first place. One of the greatest untruths of reporting on Syria and Iraq is how Iran played a pivotal role in killing many ISIL fighters there to assist Trump.  Trump was allowed to take the trophy and receive the accolades for a campaign which he didn’t even start (Obama did) while he was assisted by Iran, a country which he is trying to bring about regime change in, based on an erroneous policy, aimed at scoring juvenile points against the former administration.

ISIL’s strength and numbers are also an untruth which has been doing the rounds for well over a year, which if US commentators are to take Trump’s statements at face value, were more or less eradicated.

The fact is that the few US media outlets which are reporting in detail what’s happening on the ground can be ignored, or their findings easily buried by the pusillanimity of most US networks, who are partisan to fake news and poor reporting in the region. 

The New York Times however recently did a thorough analysis on the situation which presumably Trump has not read, due to his puerile loathing of the journal. 

It claimed that ISIL had “still mobilized as many as 18,000 remaining fighters in Iraq and Syria. These sleeper cells and strike teams have carried out sniper attacks, ambushes, kidnappings and assassinations against security forces and community leaders.” The same article claimed that the Islamic State can still tap a large war chest of as much as $400 million, which has been hidden in either Iraq and Syria or smuggled into neighboring countries for safekeeping – which throws the spotlight on Turkey and Lebanon, both countries that Trump is attempting to either punish with military-type sanctions (against Ankara) or hit with a sanctions plan which would almost certainly embolden Hezbollah in Lebanon if it went ahead. 

ISIL has dispersed and left the cities. It has lost its central power base and gone largely underground. But it is thriving in the small towns and villages.

ISIL has dispersed and left the cities. It has lost its central power base and gone largely underground. But it is thriving in the small towns and villages.

According to the NYT, it is also believed to have invested in businesses, “including fish farming, car dealing and cannabis growing.” Extortion is also a very prolific tool of its survival, to finance these operations. Farmers in northern Iraq who recently refused to pay have had their crops burned to the ground, as one example.

But if the NYT article is lost in the Washington fog of sloppy journalism and call-center governance by Trump, there are other elements to the ISIL story, which, if mainstream media looked at them harder, would possibly even make his ISIS forays as farcical, even reckless. 

More cynical critics of Trump’s fandango in Syria and Iraq point to a much more nefarious end game which he is playing there with some, even citing the Hillary-Trump email which in 2011 read “Al Qaeda are there, but that’s ok cos they’re on our side” or words to that effect. Trump may be ignorant of the region and the nuances of the countries’ histories, but he gets that Assad is Iran’s ally and that these hardcore extremist groups also hate the Syrian leader and were (previously, on occasion) happy to fight the Syrian army (often, with US anti-tank weapons which were supplied to “moderate” rebels who handed them over to ISIS and Nusra groups).

The real story is not, therefore, whether Trump has lied about ISIL being destroyed in Iraq and Syria, but really what the role is of many of those fighters with the US administration.

The real story is not, therefore, whether Trump has lied about ISIL being destroyed in Iraq and Syria, but really what the role is of many of those fighters with the US administration. Many reports about ISIS center on how the group operates across a very wide region, but few touch on one cluster in the South of Syria, which is made up of fighters who were allowed by US soldiers to leave Mosul and Raqqa through “rat lines.” What possible deal had they struck to leave, other than they would be put to Washington’s use when the time comes?

ISIL fighters who were allowed to escape are still regrouping in the south of Syria, which Trump and Israel are very happy about. When Idlib, in the north finally falls into Assad’s hands, many HST (Al Qaeda) fighters there will make their way to this outpost on the other side of the country, which will be the new frontier on a fresh offensive on Assad, who will no longer have Hezbollah fighters in that part of the country to help his conscripts.  

In Iraq also, the “complicated” story of Pompeo takes an even more interesting turn, which makes some analysts wonder if the whole ISIS story is merely fake news to cover up a bigger story. Iraq has an ISIS problem as the group is gaining once again power in some of the rural areas which the Iraqi army cannot always reach. But recent news from Baghdad that US forces have had their bombing privilege taken away from them by the Iraqi government will boost ISIS numbers even more, not to mention be greeted with tears of joy by Tehran. Iran is building a military arsenal on Iraqi soil** in preparation for a war with the US. Given Trump’s plans to build up an anti-Iran campaign in the Middle East, he needs all the ISIL and “Kaida” fighters he can get.

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** In July, Israel conducted a raid on a suspected Iranian weapons depot in Iraq used to transfer weapons to Syria. The airstrike could threaten Iraq and push it into the escalating conflict between the US and Iran.

Editor’s note: ISIS and ISIL refer to the same jihadist militant group.