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What's next for ISIS after defeat in Mosul?

With ISIS out of Mosul, the White House says it's time to contain the terrorist group

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As the dust settles on Mosul and Iraqi soldiers celebrate driving the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) out of their stronghold in Iraq, U.S. military experts are looking at the next steps to contain the terrorist group, which they say is far from defeated.

"Mosul is just a major - certainly a significant accomplishment, but the rest of Ninawa province, to include the population center of Tal Afar, still has yet to be cleared. Hawija still has yet to be cleared. Western Anbar still has yet to be cleared. So this fight is far from over," Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander leading the fight against ISIS, told reporters in a press briefing.

Hundreds of thousands of Mosul residents have been displaced by the fighting, and thousand of civilians are believed to have been killed.

Days after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over ISIS forces in Mosul, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, claimed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been killed.

Townsend could not confirm these reports and White House officials say they're not convinced.

"We’ve had numerous reports of this kind over the last few months. There’s a rule in war; all first reports are false," said White House Deputy Assistant Sebastian Gorka.

Although some insurgency groups remain in Mosul, experts say ISIS is now largely scattered across more rural desert areas of Iraq.

While Townsend says more resources may go to help U.S.-backed forces in Syria retake Raqqa, White House officials say they are focused on containing the terrorist threat before it spreads further outward.

"Right now they’re scattering. The focus is going to be mopping up operations and also in any areas where they’re maintaining a capacity to export their war externally, because we don’t want to see the kinds of events that occurred in Europe happening here in America," Gorka said.

Former FBI Director James Comey warned last year that the increased momentum to drive ISIS fighters out of Iraq and Syria could end up escalating the threat of terrorism across the globe as the group's fighters scatter to Europe, North Africa and even the U.S.

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"The so-called caliphate will be crushed. The challenge will be: through the fingers of that crush are going to come hundreds of very, very dangerous people," Comey said at a September Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on the global terror threat.

"They will not all die on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq. There will be a terrorist diaspora sometime in the next two to five years like we've never seen before."

Daniel Benaim, a former Middle East adviser to Vice President Joe Biden and former speechwriter for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said members of the Obama administration who worked on the three-year strategy to defeat ISIS expected its fighters would scatter as the coalition forces gained ground.

"If you believe that we need to destroy this caliphate in its infancy before it can spread this extremist ideology to the rest of the Middle East, take over territory, topple our allies and launch attacks, then you knew there was going to come a time when people were going to scatter, people were going to try to flee a sinking ship, rats were going to scurry," he said.

Many ISIS fighters were drawn to the group from countries outside of Iraq and Syria and could now return home.

"Intelligence communities all over the world have been working intensively to figure out who from their countries went and fought as part of this operation, and to strategize about what to do about this question of when foreign fighters come home. That doesn't mean that they have good answers," Benaim said.

As for the U.S., Gorka said those concerns were part of the drive behind President Trump's executive order restricting travel from Muslim-majority countries.

"We are fully aware that good counterterrorism is preventative, not reactionary, but we are working 24/7 to make sure those individuals never make it to U.S. soil," Gorka said.

But back in Iraq, experts say there's another concern, the rise of another extremist faction out of the ashes of ISIS.

In an interview with the BBC, Townsend warned that the Iraqi government would need to come up with a new strategy to unite Islamic factions in the region "if we're to keep... ISIS 2.0 from emerging."

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Benaim said it's also important for the international community to come together to help rebuild areas that have been devastated by the fighting or else U.S. and other troops could be back battling another extremist group in the future.

"If you want to imagine what it's really going to take to defeat this ideology inside Iraq, you have to ask yourselves what are these people's lives going to be in the future and how can America mobilize help from Iraq, from the rest of the region, from the world and how can we rebuild something where people don't feel compelled by the next version of this ideology," he said.

Gorka says tackling radical Islam is the goal, and will keep new extremist groups from forming.

"Ultimately victory will accrue when we undermine the ideaology that drives these organizations," he said.

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