Preparing for a summer of terror

This group of Islamic State fighters surrendered to Afghan government forces in April 2018, after having been defeated by the Taliban. Some who were involved in the Syrian conflict have done the same. (Photo: Mirwais Bezhan (VOA))

This group of Islamic State fighters surrendered to Afghan government forces in April 2018, after having been defeated by the Taliban. Some who were involved in the Syrian conflict have done the same. (Photo: Mirwais Bezhan (VOA))

The vestiges of the fiercely defiant Islamic State group (ISIS) in Syria are reportedly defeated. Meanwhile, the victorious American-led coalition and its hard-fighting Kurdish and coalition forces will face a new and potentially bloody phase, just forming now.
Throughout the well-phased systematic destruction of ISIS, numerous Islamist fighters have escaped, with the objective of returning to their respective nations or remaining to fight locally. Some, on the other hand, realizing their precarious personal situation, abandoned their Islamic nirvana and exfiltrated, escaping an unpleasant experience or personal demise. Many gave themselves up to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Western-supported Kurdish militia or fought to the death, seeking the rewards of martyrdom.
In a warning, U.S. Gen. Joseph Votel, responsible for the conduct of operations in the Middle East, advised a congressional committee in March 2019 that substantial numbers of ISIS fighters had dispersed across Iraq and Syria. American intelligence estimates that 15,000 to 20,000 fighters are distributed throughout the two countries; some analysts believe the numbers are higher.
Votel’s presentation clearly outlined the current truth. “What we are seeing now is not the surrender of ISIS as an organization, but a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and to preserve their capabilities by taking their chances in camps for internally displaced persons and going to ground in remote areas and waiting for the right time to resurge.” Moreover, he reported, “the ISIS population being evacuated from the remaining vestiges of the caliphate largely remains unrepentant, unbroken and radicalized.” Votel’s analysis doesn’t bode well for those hoping for a reprieve from Islamist violence. Conversely, such analytical ruminations underscore the possibility of a renewed Islamist terrorist offensive targeting Western and Middle Eastern interests.
Votel’s assessment is dramatically borne out in Great Britain, which justifies British concern for the safety and security of its citizens. The London Telegraph reported in April that 23,000 jihadists have been identified in Britain. More concerning was that 3,000 of them are believed to pose an active threat.
Sri Lanka’s Easter attack

ISIS fighters entering Raqqa, Syria, in 2014. (Photo: Denarivs)

ISIS fighters entering Raqqa, Syria, in 2014. (Photo: Denarivs)

The Easter Sunday attack in Sri Lanka in April 2019 ranks among the deadliest terrorist attacks in recent history, with a reported 253 dead and hundreds wounded. The Sri Lanka bombings were seven times deadlier than the March massacre by a white supremacist at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The Sri Lanka death toll more than doubled that of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which involved 10 Pakistani-based militants in one of the modern world’s longest-ever terrorist sieges.
Although initial analysis suggested that the Sri Lanka bombings were in revenge for the mosque attacks in New Zealand, this may not be the case. Reports released by the Islamic State described “Operation Sri Lanka” as a “victory… for the soldiers of the caliphate, to raise the flag of the Islamic State in new areas and to build up the presence of fighters in other areas.” This statement was posted on NABA, the Islamic State’s weekly newsletter, and counters the claim that ISIS has been defeated. Moreover — and most alarmingly — Sri Lanka’s bombings could be the pattern for future ISIS operations on the “periphery.” One London-based researcher monitoring ISIS proffered the notion that, “the statement was significant because it scotched the idea the Sri Lanka attack was carried out in revenge for the far-right attack on mosques… in New Zealand.”
An April 2019 London Times article noted that MI5 is looking into reports that ISIS plans to carry out a series of attacks in Britain and Europe using “crocodile cells,” essentially sleeper cells that would surface and, without warning, undertake mass casualty terrorist attacks. This latest development spurred the police and security authorities to press for churches and mosques to undertake counterterrorism measures and conduct security training.
The attacks in Sri Lanka strongly support the analysis signalled by Votel during his report to Washington that ISIS will likely continue to conduct external attacks from Iraq and Syria against regional and Western allies, including the U.S.
Some have argued this will embrace areas within the Far East and include India, the Maldives, Kenya and Tanzania, but is more likely to include any country or region that has ISIS sympathizer or operators willing to undertake such missions. Moreover, any country involved in the U.S.-led coalition represents a potential target for ISIS operators. ISIS foreign fighters have and will continue to disperse around the world, seeking out soft targets to promote the Islamist message and demonstrate that they remain a force to be reckoned with.

Money for mayhem

The ISIS leadership once controlled a fortune estimated to be in the range of US$6 billion, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, making it the richest terrorist organization in history. This wealth was derived from a number of sources including oil and gas, taxes and extortion, which added approximately $360 million in 2015. These amounts were augmented by an estimated $500 million taken by ISIS from Mosul banks looted in 2014.
According to David Kenner in The Atlantic, this enabled ISIS to raise roughly $1 million a day from taxes on its citizenry and from illegal oil sales. This, in itself, transformed the Islamic State into the world’s wealthiest terrorist organization. A February 2019 United Nations study estimated ISIS militants’ current war chest at $300 million. Astutely, some of these funds have been invested in legitimate commercial enterprises, apparently managed by middlemen who are more focused upon enlarging profit margins than an Islamist ideology. There are indications that large amounts of ISIS’s assets have been transferred to Turkey and held by certain individuals, while a portion of these funds have been invested in gold. During the existence of the ISIS caliphate, Turkey reportedly turned a blind eye to the smuggling and selling of oil to Turkish buyers.
Like AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq), ISIS will likely continue criminal activities to fund its nefarious initiatives, which include stealing goods and reselling them, kidnapping wealthy family members, trafficking in antiquities and skimming construction contracts. These criminal ventures have helped it rack up to $1 million a month and do not require an ability to hold territory, and they demonstrate that ISIS remains financially focused and shrewd in its dealings. Similar to any multinational, ISIS has diversified its finances, making it difficult for the allies to turn off the financial taps that feed the Islamist agenda.
ISIS also gathered substantial personal data from the population under caliphate control. This includes details on personal wealth, family assets and information pertaining to extended family members who may have resided elsewhere.
The loss of the caliphate resulted in a dramatic drop in ISIS expenses, as there is no responsibility to pay for the spectrum of services required of a modern “state,” such as salaries, public works, health and social services. The money saved can now be reallocated to terrorist operations and to the insurgency campaigns that apparently have commenced in Iraq and Syria, essentially just weeks after physical destruction of the last caliphate stronghold of Bagouz. This new reality enables ISIS leadership to finance its recruiting and reorganize and resupply fighters in various parts of Syria and Iraq in preparation for a renewed regional insurgency.

ISIS change of strategy

In early 2016, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, seen here, directed his followers to remain at home and orchestrate attacks using cars, knives and other improvised weapons. (Photo: U.S. Army)

In early 2016, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, seen here, directed his followers to remain at home and orchestrate attacks using cars, knives and other improvised weapons. (Photo: U.S. Army)

In early 2016, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi directed his followers to remain at home and orchestrate attacks using cars, knives and other improvised weapons. Since the demise of the ISIS caliphate, there has been a resurgence of violence in Iraq and parts of Syria. Many of these attacks have been claimed under the slogan “The campaign of vengeance for the blessed province of Syria.” This campaign appears to have already commenced; as reported in April in The Times of London, as Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime began deploying troops into eastern Syria to counter the seizure by ISIS insurgents of new territory for the first time since the fall of Bagouz.
The situation seemingly morphed when large numbers of ISIS fighters reportedly conducted a series of raids that retook territory around al-Kawm. According to pro-Assad online reports, two Syrian Army battalions were surrounded by ISIS forces, and Syrians reportedly lost 50 soldiers, including members of the Palestinian militia sent to relieve them. If true, such an event, along with other related incidents, must be taken as a grim omen for the future.
Since 2016, ISIS leadership began a strategy of seeding areas in Iraq and Syria with fighters to undertake small-scale operations when required. ISIS will likely foment an aggressive terrorist campaign that will evolve into an all-embracing insurgency and possibly engulf wider areas of the region. It should be appreciated that large tracts of Syria and Iraq are in complete ruin. Communities have been devastated, populations uprooted and the borders are porous, enabling ISIS fighters to move freely between countries. Moreover, large tracts have no governing authority, leaving jihadists able to recruit, train and regroup as they rebuild their support networks.
Although claims of victory over ISIS resonate unsettlingly through the halls of many Western capitals, this is premature. The fact remains that a large number of dedicated, combat-experienced fighters, devoted to the Islamist cause or Islamic State, remain. Although many have been taken prisoner by the Kurdish Security Forces, many foreign fighters have successfully escaped the net and have either returned to the home from whence they came or are en route. Many fighters will have nascent support networks operating in home countries. As with any terrorist or resistance organization, these foreign fighters would have been directed to develop command-and-control, recruiting and logistical cells to plan, organize and prosecute operations against targets in the Middle East, but also members of the American-led coalition.

Appreciating Mao Zedong

Large strips of Iraq and Syria experienced the destruction of the Christian and Yazidi communities that resided there for millenniums. Many Yazidi women and others were forced into slavery. Shown here are Iraqi Yazidis at northern Syria’s Newroz refugee camp. (Photo: Rachel Unkovic/International Rescue Committee)

Large strips of Iraq and Syria experienced the destruction of the Christian and Yazidi communities that resided there for millenniums. Many Yazidi women and others were forced into slavery. Shown here are Iraqi Yazidis at northern Syria’s Newroz refugee camp. (Photo: Rachel Unkovic/International Rescue Committee)

This flexible campaign strategy is reminiscent of Mao Zedong’s famed three-phase strategic model of guerrilla warfare. In Phase 1, ISIS garnered a degree of popular support through its impressive online media campaign and well-honed and diverse propaganda machine that persuasively promulgated its Islamist doctrine and ideas on the internet. In Phase 2, prior to the creation of the caliphate, ISIS escalated attacks against the Iraqi government’s military forces and its institutions, spreading fear within the government apparat while garnering popular support. Then, in Phase 3, ISIS essentially went into a conventional war phase against the Iraqi military, which subsequently fled, enabling ISIS to seize major towns and cities — overthrowing the local governments and assuming control of large tracts of Syria and Iraq.
Like Mao’s doctrine, the loss of the caliphate forced ISIS and its supporters to revert to Phase 1 — likely buttressed and enabled by the Islamic State’s effective propaganda machine that will undoubtedly espouse and glorify online the “achievements” of the caliphate during its short existence. The intent is to honour those who sought martyrdom in defending the caliphate and its Islamist agenda.
ISIS, it must be remembered, now has franchises operating in Yemen, Egypt and as far afield as Afghanistan and the Philippines. Dedicated to an Islamist agenda, these forces will continue to conduct sectarian attacks and compete with other jihadist groups for influence, resources and territory. This must now be recognized as a real global Islamist insurgency.

ISIS operational requirements

Using explosives, ISIS partially demolished the Temple of Bel, shown above, in Palmyra, Syria in 2015. (Photo: Bernard Gagnon)

Using explosives, ISIS partially demolished the Temple of Bel, shown above, in Palmyra, Syria in 2015. (Photo: Bernard Gagnon)

The Sunday Times reported that ISIS documents found on a hard drive revealed that the leadership is planning to conduct new attacks in Europe and has sleeper cells throughout parts of Syria. More chillingly, it reported that, even in the face of “defeat,” ISIS has formed assassination squads in preparation for direct action missions against specified individuals. Those persons targeted are to be named, located and scheduled for termination. And the assassinations are to be videoed and spread via the internet as ISIS propaganda.
Substantial numbers of ISIS fighters escaped the final surrender at Baghouz, many exfiltrating to the area of Palmyra in the Syrian desert. This is largely an ungoverned area where ISIS can regroup and operate “under the radar” to re-establish itself with the aim of adapting to its new operational reality of prosecuting terrorist operations regionally and globally, while conducting a low-level insurgency in Iraq and Syria. This was showcased in late March, when three terrorists ventured from Syria into Iraq, detonating suicide bombs in Sinjar. This was a site where ISIS had conducted a genocidal slaughter of Yazidis, and then kidnapped tens of thousands in August 2014.
Analysts already point to a low-level insurgency as evidenced by a sudden increase in roadside IEDs, ambushes, “flying (temporary) checkpoints” and continuing minor skirmishes.

Defeating the idea
The physical destruction of persons, places and things can be viewed as relatively simple. The eradication of a philosophy, ideology or religious inspiration is more problematic and has yet to be comprehensively addressed.
ISIS is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people, including fellow Muslims, who have been murdered or have died in this conflict. In addition, thousands have been driven into exile, compromising the stability of nations that border Syria and Iraq and the region itself, including Europe. Large strips of these two countries subsequently experienced the destruction of the Christian and Yazidi communities that resided there for millenniums. Many of the Yazidi women and others were forced into slavery.

A new, dangerous threat

government house new zealand

New Zealand Gov. Gen. Dame Patsy Reddy lays flowers for the victims of the Christchurch mosque shootngs at Hagley Park. (Photo: government house new zealand)

With the demise of the caliphate, the world is left with a group of ISIS fighters who are highly skilled in conventional and unconventional warfighting, urban warfare, weaponized drones, mass-casualty terrorist attacks, psychological operations and masterful online media propaganda. Many have returned to their respective home countries. They are well-disciplined, knowledgeable in the application of weaponry and know how to shoot, move and communicate in disciplined formations. They are experienced in the use of support weapons such as mortars and rockets. They have effectively conducted attacks using drones and suicide operations and fully exploited the propagandistic and psychological nature of such operations while understanding the importance of media and the internet and the advantages this technology brings to the fight.
The military and security forces of the West and coalitional allies will confront an army of terrorists who are hardened, better disciplined and even more focused. The randomness of yesterday will not prevail. Their operations will be well orchestrated and media-driven to maximize fear, psychological dislocation and the ensure shock and awe. Using the internet, encryption, covert communications, couriers and other discrete means of communication, dedicated and determined ISIS operators in the West and elsewhere will be directed or self-directed to undertake ”we-are-back” operations aiming for maximum casualties, and the much-desired psychological and media attention. In an audiotape provided in mid-March, ISIS spokesman Abu Hassan al-Muhajir urged his listeners to “avenge the blood of your brothers and sisters… Set up the [explosive] devices, deploy the snipers.” The images of the burned bodies of women and children killed by coalition airstrikes that are promulgated on social media today will become the martyr-motivating propaganda images used to recruit future fighters for ISIS.
The physical destruction of the caliphate, albeit complex — particularly in a political and military coalition context — has been very successful. Modern weapons technology, while not perfect, minimized collateral damage. The extremist manifestations of ISIS in the caliphate clearly showed the world the threat posed not only to Muslims, but to all communities that reject this extremist form of political Islam.

Returning sleeper cells?
While ISIS no longer governs large areas of the Arab heartland, it still has strong appeal to angry, mostly young Muslims throughout the world. The United States, other Western nations and their regional allies must face substantial challenges in stabilizing the liberated areas of the caliphate, as well as dedicating resources to identify and eradicate Islamist sleeper cells and their sympathizers. Simultaneously, rebuilding must begin to re-establish the towns, cities and residential, cultural and religious communities, to ensure the return of the diaspora that fled the region for safety. Finally, local governance, as well as effective security and law enforcement must be established and provided for in order to ensure that ISIS does not return.
Furthermore, there needs to be a well-developed and cogent counter-narrative to Islamic State’s murderous ideology, and this has not yet occurred. This is a most difficult and prickly issue, as ISIS will undoubtedly continue to raise funds through the internet, and promulgate its propaganda to agitate and recruit —sometimes without opposition. The issues and reported grievances that gave rise to ISIS must be correctly identified and addressed with a widely acceptable Islamic counter-narrative — otherwise the cost in blood and gold has or will be for naught. This in itself is problematic as the Al Azhar University in Cairo has opined that ISIS members are not apostates. Hence, there is no convincing counter-narrative coming from this leading Islamic school.

ISIS ideology is now underground
Under U.S. leadership, allies brought together an effective effort to retake lost territories while surgically wearing down ISIS fighters and supporters.
It must be fully appreciated by those concerned that the ISIS ideology has not been defeated, but rather has been driven underground. To ensure its own survival, ISIS undertook a retrograde step into the realm of terrorism and low-key insurgency.
Logically speaking, post-caliphate objectives for ISIS strategists would be to undermine the stabilization and reconstruction initiatives. However, such reconstruction also presents a financial opportunity for ISIS to extort money from officials, infiltrate ISIS operatives into the supply chain and garner intelligence and funds for its future nefarious ventures.
An important issue with which the West must come to terms, is that we are in what has been variously described as a “long war” and a “forever war.” At a terrorist symposium in Toronto, one Canadian police officer sadly acknowledged that, “my children will be dealing with this.”
At its zenith, the Islamic State covered an area half the size of Great Britain, controlling a population of up to 7.7 million people. Now that this state no longer exists, another phase is upon us. Having no territory means the ISIS leadership of this now defunct proto-state has the time and the financial wherewithal to commence the planning cycle to resurface, phoenix-like, to prepare for and initiate terror attacks whenever and wherever they deem most advantageous. The destruction of ISIS and the subsequent loss of fighters, their supporters and families will fuel revenge attacks. Moreover, these losses and their memories will feed the propaganda machine and be employed to radicalize a new generation of jihadists. It is now recognized, more than ever, that the fight on the internet must be accepted as an integral part of the “battle space.”
In turn, they will, no doubt, be willing to undertake a spectrum of terrorist operations — not only in the West, but throughout the Middle East and Africa.
Warfare is Darwinian by nature, and ISIS leaders and their foot soldiers are now well-trained, well-led, combat-experienced and potentially well-financed. The West is confronting a new set of highly-motivated and determined fighters who have experienced and waged violence at a level rarely seen or experienced since the Second World War. Disciplined and targeted operations focused on mass casualties will likely be the order of the day.
Confronted with the military power of the coalition, ISIS leadership recognized early on that their time as a caliphate, in territorial terms, would be limited. However, their Islamist belief that such defeats are tests from God, who will grant them an inevitable victory, gives them the strength to persevere. The U.S.-led coalition must now realize that, although the fire is out, the embers of the ideology still burn hot.

Col. J. Paul de B. Taillon (ret’d) is
honorary lieutenant-colonel of the Canadian Grenadier Guards and an adjunct professor at the Royal Military College of Canada.

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Category: Dispatches

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Col. J. Paul de B. Taillon (ret’d) is honorary Lieutnant Colonel of the Canadian Grenadier Guards and an adjunct professor at the Royal Military College of Canada.

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