- Almost five years ago, in the summer of 2014, the Islamic Caliphate established by ISIS reached the height of its expansion. Its territories included a third of Iraq and between a quarter and a third of Syria. The area had a population of between five and six million people and ISIS had control of the governmental petroleum production infrastructure in both Iraq and Syria (with an income from petroleum products estimated at the time at several million dollars a day). However, ISIS’s dramatic achievements led to the forming, in September 2014, of the American-led international coalition. It also led to Russian intervention in Syria in support of the Syrian regime (beginning in September 2015). As a result of combined local, regional and international efforts, ISIS’s spread was halted in Syria and Iraq (its two core countries) and in recent years the organization has found itself continually on the defensive in those countries.
- The campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria brought about the collapse of the Islamic Caliphate at the end of 2017 and during 2018. In recent years ISIS has lost all the areas it controlled, with their populations, including its two “capital cities,” Mosul in Iraq and al-Raqqa in Syria. In addition, its chain of command was affected; the governmental institutions it established were closed; its economic assets (primarily oil and gas fields) were lost; and some of its foreign fighters were killed, taken captive or returned to their countries of origin (a process which has not yet ended).
- In view of the blows suffered by ISIS, voices have been heard claiming the organization is facing extinction. The most conspicuous remark was made in a Trump tweet claiming, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria.” The operative conclusion of the tweet was that there is no reason for American troops to remain in Syria. Therefore, American sources reported that the United States would pull out its 2,000 troops stationed in Syria (the number was recently lowered to 1,600).
- The tweet raises a number of fundamental questions: has ISIS in fact been defeated? Is the entire organization or at least its branch in Syria no longer a significant threat to the Middle East and the international community? Can the organization overcome the blows it suffered and rehabilitate itself, and how will that be manifested in the coming years?
Right: Trump’s tweet, December 19, 2018. Left: Excerpt from a speech made by President Obama (White House website, September 10, 2014).
- In ITIC assessment, ISIS has been weakened but despite the blows it suffered, it has not been defeated. It still possesses strategic assets which will enable it to rehabilitate itself and continue to pose a threat to the international community: it has active provinces in Iraq and Syria and in countries in Asia and Africa, where the local regimes find it difficult to uproot the organization. ISIS’s charismatic leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and several other senior figures, have so far managed to survive the blows and continue to lead the organization and control its various provinces, even if it is decentralized. The ISIS brand has eroded to a certain extent but the organization and the ideology behind it continue to attract young Muslims in Iraq and Syria, other countries in the Middle East and around the globe. On the other hand, the anti-ISIS coalition, which successfully halted the organization’s expansion and strongly assailed its strongholds in Iraq and Syria, is heterogenic and its members have different and sometimes conflicting interests. Thus it can be expected that following the loss of the regions ISIS controlled in Iraq and Syria, the powers and local and regional countries will put their emphasis on promoting other interests in Iraq and Syria and the momentum of the campaign against ISIS is liable to wane.
- ISIS represents the loss of its stronghold in the lower Euphrates Valley as having lost the battle but not the war. In a recent ISIS video, prompted by the expected fall of its last stronghold in the village of al-Baghuz Fawqani, an operative explained that in the beginning Islam also lost battles but in the end succeeded in establishing itself and putting down roots. He said war is fickle, “sometimes you win a battle and sometimes you lose, but the war isn’t over yet” (ISIS video entitled “The importance of standing firm in al-Baghuz,” Shabakat Shumukh, March 11, 2019)
In ITIC assessment, ISIS will change the nature of its activities and adapt itself to the new circumstances. After a period of reorganization and learning the lessons of experience, ISIS will position itself as a global guerrilla terrorist organization operating in many arenas, decentralized and not bound by a territorial framework and not taking upon itself the burden of a population (and thereby return to its roots as a branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq). That will mean a temporary postponement of implementing the vision of the Islamic Caliphate and moving the focus of its jihad to the “infidels” in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. However, in ITIC assessment ISIS has not abandoned its aspiration to establish the Caliphate, which may return to ISIS’s agenda in the future, after it rehabilitates itself and again controls large territories.
- What may be the level of danger ISIS will pose in the coming year? On the one hand, it seems unlikely that in the near future ISIS will be a significant threat, as it was at the height of its power in 2014. On the other, its strengthening in Iraq and its continued activity in Syria and countries in Asia and Africa may contribute to continuing the chronic instability from which those countries suffer, making it difficult for failing countries to rehabilitate themselves. ISIS’s terrorist attacks will claim a high price in human life in the countries where its provinces operate and in Western countries as well. The destructive potential of ISIS is still great, especially in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and West Africa, and the level of danger it presents must not be underestimated (as it was in the past, before the beginning of the American-led campaign against ISIS). The international community, led by the United States, should not ease the pressure on ISIS and must continue the campaign against it, in the Middle East and around the world, invest the necessary resources and support the countries threatened by ISIS.
ISIS’s remaining strategic assets
- ISIS left the campaign against it in recent years beaten and bleeding. However, in ITIC assessment, ISIS still has important strategic assets which will help it rehabilitate itself and position itself as an highly dangerous global guerrilla terrorist organization:
- Strategic asset number 1: The existence of operative military infrastructures in its core countries, Iraq and Syria, and the difficulty of the local regimes to uproot them. The difficulty comes mainly from the regimes’ instability, the schisms between sectarian, ethnic and religious communities (especially between Shi’ites and Sunnis), and the conflicts between regional and international powers.
- Strategic asset number 2: ISIS still possesses a charismatic leader, an attractive Salafist-jihadist ideology and the broad media network it established to wage the battle for hearts and minds and to maintain contact with its operatives and provinces.
- Strategic asset number 3: ISIS provinces in several countries in Asia and Africa. In some of those provinces intense military activity continued, and in some even increased, regardless of the blows to ISIS in its core countries. The attempts of the local regimes to uproot ISIS provinces were unsuccessful even when considerable efforts were invested (the success of the Sinai Province to stand firm against the campaign waged by Egypt is a good example). In ITIC assessment the great potential for ISIS’s subversion and terrorism now lies in Afghanistan and West Africa.
- Strategic asset number 4: The support ISIS and its ideology have in large sectors of the Muslim population in Western countries. The alienated Muslim communities in the West (especially in western Europe) are fertile ground for radical Muslim ideology and the recruitment of local supporters to carry out ISIS-inspired attacks. The possible return of operatives and their families to their countries of origin in the West may increase the value of the asset.
Strategic asset number 1: ISIS is still rooted in the Sunni communities in Syria and Iraq, and the local regimes find it difficult to uproot it
Even after the loss of considerable territory in Syria (and before that in Iraq) ISIS still has military networks spread throughout Iraq and Syria. Some of the networks work covertly within Sunni urban communities (such as Mosul). Some operate inside the large cities and some outside, particularly in the desert and mountain regions. In ITIC assessment, there are thousands of operatives in each of the two core countries who continue waging terrorist-guerrilla war. It can be assumed that after the loss of its enclave in the lower Euphrates Valley ISIS will make an effort to increase the operational capabilities of those networks. It will do that through a united, decentralized command and control system. At the same time, the counterterrorism activities of the Syrian and Iraqi regimes (as well as the Kurds) will continue. However, in ITIC assessment, the regimes in Syria and Iraq do not have the ability to uproot ISIS’s networks. ISIS’s continued activity in Iraq and Syria may contribute to chronic destabilization and undermine rehabilitation efforts in both countries.
The height of the Islamic Caliphate’s expansion, June 2014: the Islamic Caliphate controlled extensive areas in western Iraq and northeastern Syria. The map was uploaded to jihadist forums on August 18, 2014 (hanein.info; alplatfrommedia.com)
- After the collapse of the Islamic Caliphate ISIS kept control over several regions in Syria, all of which were conquered during 2018 by the Syrian army with the support of Russia and Iran: the area of the Yarmouk refugee camp south of Damascus (May 2018); the southern Golan Heights (July 2018); and the area of al-Safa, northeast of Suwayda (November 2018, but there are still a few ISIS fighters left). The last important area of control in the lower Euphrates Valley fell to SDF forces.
- The attack on the ISIS stronghold in the Euphrates Valley began more than half a year ago, waged by the Kurdish forces (SDF) with support from the United States and the coalition countries. After more than half a year of fighting, the village of al-Baghuz Fawqani, northeast of the city of Albukamal (the southern part of the enclave), fell to the SDF forces.
Scene from the ISIS video “ISIS’s Pocket in al-Baghuz Fawqani” (Shabakat Shumukh, March 11, 2019).
- In ITIC assessment, even after the fall of the ISIS enclave in the Euphrates Valley, thousands of ISIS operatives will remain in Syria. The most important region of operations for those operatives is now the desert region between Palmyra and Deir al-Zor. ISIS also has local and regional networks that continue operating in the area northeast of Suwayda, in the upper Euphrates Valley and the region of Idlib. However, ISIS has no control over the population in those regions in Syria and continues waging guerrilla warfare against its various enemies: the Syrian army (supported by Russia); the Kurds (supported by the United States), and the jihadist organization, Headquarters for the Liberation of al-Sham (the dominant organization in the region of Idlib).
- With the fall of the ISIS enclave in the Euphrates Valley, in Syria as well the loss of its control over territory and population was completed. In the meantime, the process of turning ISIS into a guerrilla terrorist organization has begun. In its new form ISIS will not be bound by a territorial framework and will enjoy flexibility and greater freedom of action in orchestrating hit and run attacks. In ITIC assessment, in Syria ISIS will undergo period of reorganization during 2019. ISIS will make an effort to continue its military activities and even improve them to prove it is still viable and the leading jihadist organization, while in reality, the Headquarters for the Liberation of al-Sham (the former Jabhat al-Nusra) remains the dominant organization in the Idlib region and the leading jihadist organization in Syria.
In ITIC assessment, ISIS in Syria will no longer pose a regional strategic threat. However it is liable to be a factor undermining attempts to stabilize the security situation in Syria and interfere with efforts to reconstruct Syria’s economy, politics and culture. From a military point of view, ISIS’s activities in Syria are liable to be a serious annoyance for the forces operating in the country: the Syrian army (with Russia supporting it), Iran and its Shi’ite militias, the Kurdish SDF forces and their American advisors. It is probable that in the near future the United States will seek to withdraw most of its forces from Syria, given the “defeat of ISIS” with the conquest of the lower Euphrates Valley, while ISIS will make an effort to accompany the withdrawal of the American forces from Syria with attacks and casualties.
In ITIC assessment, in the coming year the focus of ISIS’s activities will move from Syria to Iraq, the country from whence it sprang, and where it has networks numbering, in ITIC assessment, thousands of operatives. Since the fall of the Islamic Caliphate at the end of 2017, ISIS in Iraq has functioned as a guerrilla terrorist organization in every respect. As opposed to Syria, after the fall of the Caliphate no areas of control remained in ISIS’s hands and it operatives scattered to provinces in northern and western Iraq where the population was Sunni or mixed Sunni-Shi’ite. In the coming year ISIS is expected to improve its operational capabilities in Iraq by exploiting the weakness of the Iraqi regime, the sectarian tensions and the relative weakness of the United States and the West in the Iraqi arena.
- From an organizational point of view, the various provinces in Iraq were united by ISIS into an “umbrella province” that encompassed the various regions: Dijla (the Tigris), al-Anbar, Diyala, Baghdad, northern Baghdad, Saladin, Nineveh, Jazeera and the Southern Province. ISIS’s leadership has control over its networks throughout Iraq, but in ITIC assessment it is weak, and ISIS networks in the various regions enjoy a certain amount of autonomy,
- The regions where ISIS is more intensively active are Saladin, Nineveh and Mosul, Kirkuk, Diyala and al-Anbar (see map). The central objectives of ISIS’s attacks are the Iraqi security forces and Shi’ite and Sunni militias affiliated with the Iraqi regime: the Iraqi army, the “popular mobilization” (an Iranian-sponsored Shi’ite militia), the “tribal mobilization” (militias of Sunni tribesmen who collaborate with the regime), members of Iraqi intelligence and “agents” suspected of collaboration with the Iraq regime. Attacks also targeted the Shi’ite population, with the objective of deepening the sectarian schism between Shi’ites and Sunnis. It is a tactic similar to that used by the al-Qaeda branch in Iraq when it began, out of which ISIS grew. That branch, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, waged terrorist-guerrilla warfare against the United States and its allies, and at the same time against the Shi’ite population. The tactics contributed, in the final analysis, to the withdrawal of the American troops from Iraq and the fundamental weakness of the Iraqi regime.
A map of the provinces of Iraq (Wikipedia). The numbers in the north and west indicate areas of intensive ISIS military activity.
- In 2018 ISIS carried out a variety of attacks: detonating IEDs to attack security force vehicles; attacking security targets using rockets and mortar shells; ambushes; placing IEDs; attacks on Iraqi security force positions and roadblocks; sniper fire; killing security personnel and civilians who helped them, and burning their houses; abducting civilians and members of the security forces and attacking civilians and their property. In most cases the attacks were “simple” and did not require exceptional operational sophistication. However, in some instances more complex attacks were carried out, including suicide bombing attacks. The extensive terrorist activities undertaken in Iraq indicate the potential for intensive terrorist attacks ISIS may carry out in the future.
Types of ISIS Attacks in Iraq
Right: Vehicle belonging to the Iraqi security forces burns east of Tikrit after ISIS operatives detonated an IED (Shabakat Shumukh, February 14, 2019). Left: ISIS operative launces a mortar shell at a village northwest of Baqubah (Shabakat Shumukh, February 14, 2019).
Right: Rocket launched at the Iraqi security forces northeast of Baqubah (Shabakat Shumukh, February 16, 2019). Left: Truck and tractor set on fire by ISIS operatives (Iraq Province – Diyala region, December 9, 2018).
Right: Breaking into an Iraqi police post in the region of Khanaqin (pastethis.to, January 7, 2019). Left: ISIS operatives pray before leaving to ambush fighters of the “popular mobilization” in Khanaqin (Nasher News Agency, April 19, 2019).
Right: Execution of an Iraqi government “agent” taken captive west of al-Ramadi in al-Anbar Province, on August 29, 2018 (rudaw.net, August 29, 2018).
During 2018 the Iraqi security forces carried out continuous security activities against ISIS networks, accompanied by a large number of detentions, but they did not succeed in halting the increase of ISIS’s activities. In ITIC assessment, that was because first of all ISIS still has a power base within the Sunni population in Iraq, possibly the result of the built-in sectarian schism, the weakness of the Shi’ite Iraqi regime and the reduced influence of the Americans. Thus it can be assumed that in the future ISIS will become more powerful in the Iraqi arena. Its military activities will become more intense and an effort will be made to carry out showcase attacks of the types that characterized the organization during the American occupation of the country. That includes an increase in suicide bombing attacks, raids on camps of the Iraqi security forces, raids on jail cells and mass-killing attacks on the Shi’ite population. The American presence in Iraq may to turn into a preferred target for ISIS in Iraq as it becomes more powerful and improves its operational capabilities.
Strategic asset number 2: ISIS’s leader, ideology and the extensive media network
ISIS’s charismatic leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has apparently so far managed to survive all the blows ISIS received in recent years. Al-Baghdadi is dominant in the ISIS leadership which surrounds him. During all the years ISIS has been in existence, he has been the final arbiter on military, religious and governmental issues. The ISIS leadership is completely dependent on him. Killing or capturing him would hurt ISIS’s functioning, while his survival may make a significant contribution to ISIS’s rehabilitation.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gives a sermon at the Great Mosque in Mosul (YouTube, July 5, 2014).
- ISIS is a global terrorist organization which adheres to the Islamic Salafist-jihadist ideology. The ideology belongs to an extremist trend in Sunni Islam that seeks to restore what it considers the Golden Age of Islam in the 7th century AD (the era of the prophet Muhammad and the first four Caliphs who came after him). That is to be accomplished by jihad, a holy war targeting internal and external enemies, which is the personal duty of every Muslim. Al-Qaeda and ISIS grew out of that concept, but ISIS’s interpretation is different from al-Qaeda’s. The return to the Golden Age of Islam, according to ISIS’s ideology, will be accomplished by the establishment of a supranational Islamic Caliphate, which negates the concept of the nation states that were carved out of the Middle East after the First World War. The Caliphate will be based on the model of the first four Caliphs and conducted according to an extremist interpretation of Islamic religious law.
- However, the fundamental societal, religious/sectarian and political conditions that initially led to the establishment of ISIS in Iraq and Syria have not changed. The nation states established in the past in Syria and Iraq were not rehabilitated, their sectarian schisms are still strong and the security situation continues to be chronically unstable. Even in other provinces in Asia and Africa, generally speaking the regimes have a low level of governance (or have collapsed, for instance in Libya, Yemen and Somalia), and have difficulties in providing an effective response to ISIS’s activity. Thus ISIS’s Salafist-jihadist ideology may be a source of attraction for Muslims in those countries who regard themselves as deprived, even when ISIS has been militarily weakened in its core countries and even after the Islamic Caliphate it established has collapsed.
ISIS’s broad media network
ISIS has a broad network of dozens of media outlets that enable it to conduct an effective battle for hearts and minds and to spread its ideology to Muslim communities around the globe. ISIS’s media capabilities were damaged with the collapse of the Islamic Caliphate but survived. During 2018 the network showed its ability to remain firm and recover despite the strong pressure exerted on ISIS in Syria. In ITIC assessment, its survival was primarily the result of the leadership’s great awareness of the importance of the media. Therefore, high priority was given to allotting the necessary resources, with both funding and skilled manpower.
ISIS notice stressing the importance of its media campaign. The Arabic reads, “Oh, man of the media, you are a real jihad fighter. The media campaign is no less important than the [campaign] waged on the battlefield. Each of you [the media operatives] must stand guard and [act] at every opportunity to renew the intention [to act for the sake of ISIS’s Islamic State]” (archive.org, April 6, 2016).
- In ITIC assessment, ISIS’s media empire will continue to be an important strategic asset, despite the damage it suffered in recent years. It will continue to disseminate the organization’s ideology, including preserving the idea of establishing a Caliphate, the continuation of jihad against various enemies and encouraging terrorist attacks in the West. Besides its central position in the battle for hearts and minds, it will continue to fulfill operative functions as well, such as maintaining connections between the operatives around the globe and contacts between them and the ISIS leadership, as well as recruiting operatives and funds.
Strategic asset number 3: ISIS provinces in African and Asian countries
The importance of the asset rose during the past year, primarily in view of the strong pressure exerted on ISIS’s strongholds in Syria and Iraq. The provinces abroad are subordinate to the ISIS leadership but they enjoy a great degree of autonomy. The blows suffered by ISIS in its core countries, the most recent of which was fall of the enclave in the lower Euphrates Valley, may disrupt (but not cut off) the connection between the leadership and the provinces abroad and increase ISIS’s decentralized nature. In ITIC assessment the activities of the provinces abroad will continue in 2019 and increase in some of them. The highest level of danger is in Afghanistan, West Africa, Nigeria and the sub-Saharan countries, and the Sinai Peninsula. In addition, ISIS has covert networks with the potential for subversion and terrorist activity in other countries, including Russia and several Arab states (predominantly Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco).
Islamic State provinces around the world
- ISIS’s provinces around the world are:
- The Khorasan Province (Afghanistan/Pakistan/Iran): The province was established in 2014. The center of its activity is in Afghanistan, where there is ongoing instability and strengthening of the Taliban (which is hostile to ISIS). There has been a continuous rise over the years in the extent of the province’s terrorist attacks. In 2018 there was intensive activity, mainly in Afghanistan. The most conspicuous targets were the institutions affiliated with the Afghan government; the Afghan army; the Afghan intelligence and security services; the Taliban; prominent individuals and institutions affiliated with the United States and the West. In 2018 the Khorasan Province carried out showcase suicide bombing attacks in the capital city of Kabul and other cities. The attacks claimed a number of victims and were widely covered by the media. The Khorasan Province recently demonstrated its operational capabilities with two suicide bombing attacks, one near the airport in Jalalabad and the other targeting a march in Kabul attended by senior figures in the Afghan government, both carried out on March 6, 2019.
Examples of Suicide Bombing Attacks Carried Out by ISIS in Kabul
Right: The two ISIS operatives who carried out the suicide bombing attack on a march in Kabul (Shabakat Shumukh, March 8, 2019). Left: The scene of the attack (Britain Today YouTube channel, March 7, 2019).
Operatives of the Afghan security forces at the scene of the ISIS suicide bombing attack near the headquarters of the election committee in Kabul (Ariana News Twitter account, October 29, 2018).
Right: The ruins of the building after an ISIS suicide bombing attack in an educational center in Kabul (Khaama Press, August 16, 2018). Left: The ISIS suicide bombers who carried out the attack. It killed 34 people and wounded 56 (ISIS-affiliated www.k1falh.ga, August 16, 2018).
The scene of the June 4, 2018, ISIS suicide bombing attack at a conference where more than 2,000 religious figures participated. About 70 people were killed and wounded, including religious figures and operatives of the Afghan security forces (barsh.ir, June 4, 2018)
The scene of the April 20, 2018 ISIS double suicide bombing attack at a compound of the Afghanistan national directorate of security. Thirty people were killed (from a video posted to the Facebook page of Ahmad Ahmadi, April 30, 2018).
- The Sinai Province and Egypt proper:
- The year 2018 was characterized by violence in the Sinai Province, during which the Egyptian security forces exerted strong pressure in an extensive anti-ISIS campaign (“Sinai 2018”). According to the Egyptian army, during the first 11 months of 2018, 530 “terrorist operatives” (i.e., ISIS operatives) were killed. The Egyptian security forces reported that they hit ISIS’s infrastructure and located weapons, explosives, motorcycles and drugs that financed the organization’s activity (Bawabat al-Ayn, December 28, 2018). Nevertheless, the Sinai Province survived the blows and maintained a low but continuous level of offensive initiatives against the Egyptian security forces, especially in the northern Sinai Peninsula. The province is currently in the process of recovery.
- One example of the Sinai Province’s ability to carry out a complex attack was the attack on an Egyptian military post near the el-Arish airport. Fifteen Egyptian soldiers were killed and ISIS operatives seized Egyptian army weapons (February 16, 2019). The ongoing activity of ISIS operatives in the Sinai Province indicates ISIS has operational capabilities which should not be underestimated, it has a hold on part of the local population and the logistic capability necessary to maintain contact with the ISIS leadership.
- In addition, ISIS carried out showcase terrorist attacks in Egypt proper, the most prominent of which was the attack on two buses carrying Coptic Christians returning from a visit the monastery of Saint Samuel the Confessor, north of al-Minya (eight dead and 20 wounded, November 2, 2018).