By Patricia Pazos.
The threat of ISIS is escalating worldwide, slowly but firmly. ISIS has proven effective and adaptable over the years, and while the pandemic has impacted the group, it has not deprived its capabilities: ISIS no longer controls territory, but still controls groups, inspires attacks and continues to radicalize. Along this article, we will assess how the ISIS machinery currently works and what to expect in the coming months.
The actual leader or “Calif” remains Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, who succeeded Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as leader in October 2019 following a raid by US special forces in Syria which led to al-Baghdadi’s death by suicide. Al-Qurashi is an ISIS veteran and while little is known about him, we can confirm that he is the mastermind of the Yazidi genocide in Iraq and he is behind major international operations.
The core of the group remains strong and there are no internal fractures or leadership fights of power, showing a high level of coordination with no major defections. Currently, ISIS has an estimated number of 8,000 to 16,000 foreign fighters. This number is inferior in comparison to January 2020, reaching a total of 14,000 to 18,000 fighters. The geographic restrictions due to the pandemic and the group’s financial situations have impacted these high recruiting numbers.
The group no longer holds territory in Iraq, where it once controlled 40 per cent of the country, or Syria, where a third of the country was under ISIS control. In addition, eight million people have been liberated from its control in these countries. This being said, ISIS is far from being eradicated: its growing affiliate branches are gaining power and supporters, and inspiring attacks. In conflict zones, the group operates as a low-level insurgency and its fighters are organized in small operative cells, controlling rural areas and using mainly small weapons and IEDs in its attacks.
The number of attacks in Iraq and Syria have increased in the past months and have proven effective and sophisticated, targeting civil population, local leaders, and security forces. This increase is threefold: inconsistency in military operations due to the pandemic; reduced coordinated international actions (allocating adequate military and civilian resources); and lack of solid support to stabilize liberated areas. It is important to note that addressing the factors that make ISIS proliferate, such as lack of governance where the groups operate, lack of economic and employment opportunities, lack of basic infrastructure and services for the population, and sectarian division will help in the fight to combat the terrorist group. If the international community does not address those factors, ISIS will keep thriving.
ISIS financing system is solid and well structured – according to the US Treasury Department, ISIS accumulates 100 million dollars in cash in Iraq and Syria alone. The resources come from extortion, intimidation, smuggling, kidnapping and taxing the population. The money flows easily from Iraq and Syria, and the transfers are often made using the hawala system (underground banking system that is traceless, and based on trust).
Outside of conflict zones, ISIS is still relying on crime, private donors, and funds generated under the cover of legal business or charities, which are then transferred to the group using cash, money services or hawala, or a combination of all. And what about terrorist attacks with low-level of preparation and logistics? Terrorists inspired by ISIS with no direct links to the core, as well as small cells, are often able to fund their activities through legitimate sources of income, fraud or petty crime.
ISIS is still radicalizing in conflict zones, in third countries, and online. The pandemic has slowed down more traditional -in person- radicalization processes, but in Europe the pandemic has led to an increase in radicalization content online (both salafi-jihadi and far right). Combined with socio economic drivers of terrorism, this creates the perfect cocktail for a resurgence in terrorist attacks once the physical restrictions relax and larger in-person gatherings are back. We can affirm that more terrorist attacks with low level preparation are expected in the West, specially in France, the UK, and Germany.
In Iraq and Syria, ISIS still indoctrinates, radicalizes, and recruits the local population. Prisons and refugee camps are a hot spot for radicalization, and refugee camps like al-Hol in Syria, which currently has a population of more than 60,000, are at risk of forming small caliphates due to the increasing radicalization of refugees. ISIS has one objective in mind: to re-establish the power of the organization and to create a new generation of leaders and fighters.
ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates are gaining control and expanding their influence throughout sub-Saharan Africa, successfully recruiting and even capturing territory in the worst cases. These groups exploit political transitions, lack of economic opportunities and security, creating a perfect breeding ground for terrorism and radicalization in unstable countries.
- ISIS’s capabilities have been reduced but the threat is mutating and adapting to the new societies during the pandemic.
- Addressing lack of economic and employment opportunities, lack of basic infrastructure and services for the population, and sectarian division is key to reduce the groups success.
- When geographical restrictions ease and we slowly return to life as it was pre-pandemic, we will witness an increase in terrorist attacks worldwide, a majority of them being by lone wolves or small cells linked to ISIS.
About the author:
Patricia Pazos, Ph.D., is the founder of Talking About Terrorism, a platform offering research and training on counter-terrorism (Washington DC) and US delegate of CISEG, a community of intelligence and security on terrorism (Spain).