President Joe Biden’s administration is planning to transfer the State Department’s special envoy office charged with leading the anti-ISIS coalition to the bureau that handles counter-terrorism, current and former officials told Foreign Policy. The reshuffle reflects how the new administration views the next phase in the fight against the terrorist organization that once controlled vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria–but has sparked debates over how to continue the fight against terrorism while shifting America’s foreign-policy attention to China.
Some officials have advocated for the change, given that the Islamic State no longer controls a physical caliphate. Other officials, however, privately argue the decision would, in effect, “downgrade” the office to a lower status within the U.S. government even as the terrorist group threatens a resurgence. They also argue the move would signal to coalition partners and allies that Washington is downgrading the fight against the Islamic State after nearly seven years of diplomatic spadework to build up a worldwide coalition.
“While as a general matter we do not discuss ongoing internal deliberations, the Biden administration is committed to carrying forward the important mission to defeat ISIS,” a State Department spokesperson said in response. “The 83-member Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS remains critically important to our efforts to ensure ISIS’s lasting defeat,” the spokesperson said, adding that U.S. commitments to coalition members and “partners on the ground in Iraq and Syria remains unwavering.”
If the plan is carried out, the office of the Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State would be moved to the State Department’s existing counterterrorism bureau, and the Biden administration would not appoint a new, separate special envoy for the coalition. Instead, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator would permanently adopt the dual-hatted role of both counterterrorism coordinator and special envoy. In practice, this means that the experts working against the Islamic State would no longer report directly to the secretary of state’s office and instead to the counterterrorism coordinator, current and former officials said.
The proposed move also underscores divisions within the U.S. government on whether to consider the threat from the Islamic State fully contained, even after former President Donald Trump boasted that the caliphate was “100 percent” defeated.
Biden himself voiced concerns over the threat of a regrouped Islamic State during a speech for the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 19. “We cannot allow ISIS to reopen and regroup and threaten people in the Middle East, in Europe, in the United States, and elsewhere,” he said.
“ISIS is contained in Iraq and Syria, but military efforts have done about as much as they can realistically do, and any breakdown of the fragile state of affairs in both countries could give ISIS the opportunity to resurge,” an outgoing U.S. official familiar with the situation told Foreign Policy. “The underlying conditions in the region are really no better than they were in 2012 or after the fall of Saddam that led to the rise of [al Qaeda in Iraq] and then ISIS. And it’s not clear that those conditions will improve much in the short term.”
The plan, which was briefed to congressional staffers on Jan. 6—the same day as the U.S. Capitol riot—is expected to be formalized as a congressional notification from the State Department in the coming weeks, officials said. Lawmakers and their staff expressed support for the proposed move following the briefing but remain concerned about the potential resurgence of the Islamic State in the region, according to a congressional aide briefed on the matter.
In the meantime, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has given authority of the special envoy to the acting counterterrorism…