After Setbacks, ISIS Ramps Up Attacks
Print Issue: August 2020
In May 2020, a video was released that not only received zero rave reviews—it horrified most viewers. The work was produced by the Islamic State’s (ISIS) operation in Iraq, and the clear theme running through the video was that ISIS fighters were ramping up terror attacks.
The video’s runtime of 49 minutes—long by terror propaganda standards—reflects ISIS’s recent surge in claimed attacks across Iraq, according to Daniel Lebowitz, senior analyst at the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC). “The group’s potency is demonstrated by the variety of operations, whether they be improvised explosive devices (IEDs), rocket attacks, or ambushes,” Lebowitz explained in a recent TRAC incident report.
The video shows what appear to be assassinations of Iraqi police and militiamen, as well as ISIS snipers operating in broad daylight and armed patrols roaming freely, according to TRAC. In addition, it features other destructive acts that ISIS may turn to more frequently in the future—crop burnings and arson wildfires.
In the summer of 2019, ISIS allegedly tried to extort taxes from farmers and then set fire to the farmers’ fields when they refused to pay. The group also took credit for a 2019 series of wildfires in Syria and Iraq. Now, ISIS has been advocating to supporters and sympathizers that arson attacks can be an effective method of jihad.
The terror group has also been encouraging followers to plan more attacks while governments are focused on combating the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, in March 2020 ISIS called on its affiliates in India to conduct attacks as Indian leaders focused on the pandemic, according to researcher Saurav Sarkar writing in The Diplomat. (ISIS itself, however, has indicated it takes COVID-19 seriously; in its al-Naba newsletter, it recently instructed followers to wash their hands and cover their mouths while sneezing.)
For ISIS, the 2020 resurgence follows a disastrous 2019. Years ago, the group controlled a swath of more than 30,000 square miles in western Syria and eastern Iraq. It originally claimed this territory as its “caliphate” in 2014, and it began exerting a hardline rule over a population of nearly 8 million people, generating billions of dollars in oil revenue and ill-gotten gains from criminal acts like robbery and extortion.
But after 2014, ISIS gradually lost more and more of its territory, and in early 2019 Syrian opposition fighters announced that ISIS had lost the last remaining portion of its land base. Nonetheless, U.S. military officials warned at the time that it was important to maintain an active offensive against ISIS leaders and the spread of their jihadist ideology. Then in October 2019, a U.S.-led operation resulted in the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria.
In 2020, TRAC is not the only band of experts warning about an ISIS regroup. In March, the United Nations (UN) Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, which tracks the global jihadi terror threat, released a report to the UN General Assembly about an ISIS resurgence.
“ISIS has begun to reassert itself in both the Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq, mounting increasingly bold insurgent attacks, calling and planning for the breakout of ISIS fighters in detention facilities,” the UN team found. “Freed of the responsibility of defending territory, there was a notable increase in attacks in previously quiet areas held by the government of the Syrian Arab Republic around the country.”
The UN team cited a few factors behind its findings. One is that the reduction of U.S. forces in Syria has raised concerns about the ability of current security forces in the country to maintain control of detained ISIS fighters and their family members, a population that exceeds 100,000.
There is also concern about foreign terrorist fighters. The UN team’s report cited one assessment that up to two-thirds of the 40,000 aspirants who joined the ISIS caliphate are still alive. “This is expected to aggravate the global threat posed by ISIS, and possibly al Qaeda, for years to come,” the team wrote.
Moreover, the report raises concerns about how ISIS-affiliated groups around the world are jumpstarting operations. “In West Africa, the combined efforts of the affiliates are threatening the stability of fragile member states in the region,” the team wrote. For example, it cited attacks and arms gathering by the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) group in the Lake Chad Basin region, near the intersectional border of Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon.
ISWAP is one of the three most significant terror groups in the Lake Chad Basin, confirms security expert Kabir Adamu, managing director and founder of Beacon Consulting and a former chair of the ASIS International Abuja Chapter in Nigeria. The other two are Boko Haram and a shadowy group sometimes called the Bakoura Faction, Adamu tells Security Management.
The activities of these three terror groups are a major factor contributing to the insecurity situation in northeast Nigeria, he explains. “ISWAP continues targeting security forces and civilians with various types of attacks, such as shootings, facility intrusions, abductions, and IED-related attacks, including road planted and body worn as well as vehicle conveyed,” Adamu says. The group is also known for destroying and looting civilian properties, he adds.
One emerging trend for ISWAP is the use of long-range 122-mm rockets, Adamu explains. In April, ISWAP asserted in its online magazines and social media platforms that its operatives were conducting rocket attacks, and the group later claimed responsibility for a rocket shooting in northeast Nigeria. Given the long-range capabilities (about 12 miles) and the lack of precision of this weapon system, collateral damage is a significant issue.
“It represents a risk of collateral targeting for organizations and individuals in near proximity of security forces formations, which are the primary targets of these attacks,” Adamu says.
In Europe, “ISIS is actively working to re-establish the capacity to direct complex international operations,” the UN team found. ISIS did suffer a setback there in late 2019, when a successful Europol-led mission resulted in the removal of large quantities of ISIS online propaganda. Still, “the threat of a planned complex attack in Europe, especially by former expert operatives who have the ability to operate independently, is assessed to persist,” the UN team found.
In Asia, “groups affiliated with ISIS remain a persistent and growing threat to the region,” the team found. For example, in the southern region of the Philippines, several ISIS-affiliated groups have carved out a space for training and operational planning, and they are drawing fighters from Malaysia and Indonesia. Porous maritime borders with visa-free or visa-upon-arrival entry from some countries have helped create a path to the region by foreign terrorist fighters.
Overall, the UN team found that the worldwide threat from ISIS is a significant one—in large part because of the group’s resources. The group’s financial reserves are estimated between $50 million and $300 million, and the organization continues to attract adherents in many countries.
“ISIS foreign terrorist fighters, adherents, and dependents will continue to pose a terrorist threat over the short-, medium-, and long-term on a scale many times greater than was the case with al Qaeda from 2002 onwards, based on the much greater numbers involved,” the UN team found.
Given this situation, mitigating this threat will take a multi-layered strategy, experts say. A key part of this strategy could be repatriation programs, like one now running in Kazakhstan, that not only accept citizens that left to join ISIS, but also attempt to support and deradicalize them and assist with their reintegration in society.
“Repatriation of these people to their states of origin and nationality will be challenging in the short term,” the UN team wrote. “But it holds out the greatest hope of mitigating the longer-term threat.”