By: Christian Hawkes
The so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/the Levant (ISIS/ISIL) has faced major setbacks in the past year. The twin shocks of the previous year — the loss of the group’s final territories in Syria in March 2019 and the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during a U.S. Special Operations mission in October 2019 — have left the group scattered and without any meaningful territory. Insurgency is now the main tactic of the group, as it seeks to exploit political instability and even the COVID-19 crisis to regain proper footholds in areas that were once under its control. Meanwhile, anti-ISIL coalition members, most prominently the United States, have begun drawing down troop levels as local security forces take the lead on anti-ISIL operations.
The post-Baghdadi Caliphate
Following the devastating campaigns against top leadership, culminating in the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIL has restructured itself accordingly. The new “caliph” as announced by the group in October 2019 is known as Abu Ibraham al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, whose real name according to U.S. and Iraqi intelligence is Hajj Abdallah, having also gone by Amir Muhammad Said Abdel Rahman al-Mawla and Abu-Umar al-Turkmani. Beneath al-Qurashi is a five-member Shura Council and a five-member Delegated Committee, the latter of whose members manage the administrative affairs of the organization. Leadership within Iraq is known as well, with sector administrators corresponding to eleven provinces in the nation.
ISIL in Iraq
It is estimated that there are between 3,500 and 4,000 active fighters and 8,000 ones in Iraq’s administrative sectors. A recent report by the Center for Global Policy points to pockets of fighters in so-called “triangles of death” zones in various locales. These zones, consisting of 350-450 fighters each, cover several parts of the southwestern Anbar province as well as parts of Salah al-Din, Ninewa, and Kirkuk provinces. Within major urban areas, such as Baghdad and Kirkuk, known fighters are estimated at only 50-100 individuals.
ISIL’s network has been seeking to regain a foothold in Iraq ever since the loss of its territory in the country in late 2017 and early 2018. The group has been ramping up its attacks in Iraq and hopes to use the COVID-19 crisis and the current political instability to reestablish itself. President Barham Salih has said recently that “this criminal group [ISIL] still represents a risk” to the country and called upon continued support for military operations against the terrorists.
ISIL in Syria
ISIL still represents a threat in war-torn Syria through insurgent attacks and support networks in refugee camps. In May, counter-insurgency operations conducted by the U.S. coalition in Deir al-Zor province resulted in the capture of one ISIL official and one Iraqi fighter, while two insurgents detonated suicide vests to avoid capture. In Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria, local women have formed the Community Protection Forces to guard against the threat of ISIL crop-burning attacks. Isolated attacks by insurgents seems to be the modus operandi of the organization, especially in territory currently controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
One persistent hot spot for ISIL support is the al-Hol refugee camp, located in northern Syria near the border with Iraq. The camp plays host to nearly 14,000 foreigners from 60 countries, many of whom are women and children, who have joined ISIL. Conditions inside the camp are poor, with access by humanitarian aid groups closed from time to time and women inside the camp accusing SDF guards of withholding aid as punishment. Many women and children inside the camp still sympathize with ISIL, however, creating dangers for camp guards and a source of financial and moral support for the group. Hardcore sympathizers enforce the group’s morals and rules inside the camp and declare their support for the “caliphate;” in May 2020, a large group of women and children in the camp were seen on video waving the Black Standard (the flag of ISIL) and chanting. Though the group’s territory has been lost, the support in al-Hol demonstrates the persistence of ISIL’s ideals, posing a danger for the SDF and for coalition forces in the area.
Though hotspots of activity and insurgency still remain, coalition forces, led by the United States, have shifted towards a supporting role in the fight, especially in Iraq. Recently, Task Force Iraq (TF-I) transitioned to the Military Advisory Group (MAG), which as the name suggests seeks to advise Iraqi security forces on operations and intelligence. This, along with general troop reductions in the country, comes as Iraqi and U.S. officials have agreed to reduce the number of U.S. troops in the nation, something the Iraqi government has been urging for months. Facing political pressure at home and abroad, as well as an overall reduction in the number of attacks from ISIL, coalition forces are seeking to reduce their presence in the region and let local security forces deal with the threat.
The United States and coalition forces remain committed to their counter-ISIL mission; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced in June 2020 that the U.S. would commit $100 million to counter-ISIL operations and the restoration of stability in affected areas and urged other states to pledge $700 million. “It’s been just over a year since the territorial defeat of the caliphate,” he said in his remarks, “… [But] our fight against ISIS continues and it will be here for the foreseeable future.” The reality on the ground in Iraq and Syria reflects the diminished but ongoing danger presented by the so-called Islamic State, one which is continually confronted by local and coalition forces.