Written by Facundo E. Saponara
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant appears to have fallen out of relevance from the international security scenario as more urgent matters clutter the international agenda. Since 2020, a year after the group's last bastion of resistance of its physical caliphate had fallen, actions against the group were reduced to a menial task, applying minimal pressure on a defeated insurgency with a small dedicated following. But, three years later, can we still say that ISIL has been defeated?
The Iraqi Case
As Iraq continues to rebuild after the war on IS, the security context in the country continues to be complicated. First, the ever-growing influence of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) is not to underestimate as a negative factor. The PMUs are an Iranian-backed group of militias that had a central role in the war against IS in Iraq, placing them in the favorable view of a considerable part of the population. Their growing influence over Iraqi politics could prove as an example of how delicate and easily fractured Iraqi sectarian relations can be. Not many years ago, al Zarqawi, the founder of what would later become ISIS, used a similar context – Iranian interference – to artificially deepen the divide between Sunni and Shia populations. This divide dragged Iraq into an even deeper state of civil war, which by 2006 had the additional obstacle of a sectarian facet that facilitated the growth of al Qaeda in Iraq (IS’s predecessor).
The growing role of the PMUs in Iraq’s public sphere presents Daesh with the opportunity to use the group's social engineering skills. If ISIL was to pursue a terror campaign on the Shia, PMUs and other Shia armed groups would retaliate on Sunni minorities with little to no opposition from the overstretched and underequipped national security apparatus. If this course of action materializes, new individuals would boost the Islamic State's lines following ideological or religious ideals or merely as means of protection from a numerically superior enemy.
Second, the lack of State control over large swaths of the territory is another variable that has allowed IS to feed its wish for territorial expansion within Iraqi borders. Baghdad continues to lack the necessary resources to achieve a meaningful presence in the more deserted regions of Iraq unless it relies on the assistance of non-state actors like the PMUs to provide security – which are not welcomed in Sunni predominant areas. Such state absence, combined with the now restricted role of US troops in Iraq and their partial withdrawal from the country, has allowed ISIS to create safe zones from which to launch progressively more complex offensive operations. This has enabled the group to attack a larger array of targets. Recently, ISIL began targeting the energy infrastructure in central and northern Iraq, showing their strategic approach to wear down the Iraqi government’s ability to provide basic services and debilitate its governance.
The Syrian Case
In Syria, ISIS finds itself in a less mature state than its Iraqi counterpart, unable to devote the same amount of resources to its operations. The limited number and the generally low complexity and lethality of their attacks exemplify such limitations. However, the US Defense Intelligence Agency has stated that the current downward trend in the number of attacks claimed in Syria could prelude the group's launch of the next stage of its local insurgency.
On a territorial level, ISIL is constrained by a plethora of actors that identify Daesh as an enemy, making it difficult to expand its holdings. However, the group's survival in the country is not being threatened by its lack of resources nor by the pressure applied by its rivals. Rather, limited coordination and conflicting interests between opposing factions have and will continue to enhance ISIS's chances of survival in Syria. As rebel and regime forces continue to face each other on the battlefield and neglect Daesh’s threat, the Islamic State will be given the space needed to regain some of its lost strength.
Since the fall of the caliphate, ISIL has focused on signaling that it still is a functioning organization through the continuity of its attacks. Daesh’s targets have mainly been regime-aligned forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). ISIS has exploited gaps within the regime’s territorial holdings (particularly in the desert) in two ways. First, to reinstate some of its previous border crossings to Iraq to provide safe passage for its fighters and collect taxes from trade and oil routes. And second, it allowed ISIS to gain a safe foothold from where to launch small-scale attacks, as the group's Iraqi counterpart.
ISIS’s campaign in Syria is not restricted to the military field, but it also focuses on civilian propaganda campaigns. In July 2021, the UN highlighted the Islamic State’s penetration of the al Hol camp in northern Syria. The camp currently holds over 55,000 individuals, 42% of whom are between 5 and 17 years old, making them a prime target for ISIS’s indoctrination and radicalization programs, intended to replace the non-existent education these children receive. If Daesh’s operations in the camp continue to go improperly counterbalanced, al Hol may produce the next generation of ISIL militants. Moreover, the group made clear its desire to liberate thousands of its fighters from Kurdish prisons in northern Syria. If ISIL manages to successfully free prisoners, or if they were to be freed under other circumstances, the group’s capabilities could increase significantly, bringing it back at the center of international attention.
Daesh in Europe
Daesh’s limited resources mean that it is still incapable of sponsoring terrorist attacks on the West. This has made the group rely heavily on individuals vulnerable to radicalization – inspired by the group’s online propaganda – to take up arms and attack Western societies from within. The ingress of over a million refugees to Europe from Syria alone may have paved the way for what’s known as Battlefield Migration. Through this process, ISIS-trained and battle-hardened combatants may now be settled within Western societies, bringing with them the possibility of a new series of attacks, the radicalization of more individuals, and the creation of underground networks.
Forecast: where to go from here?
Overall, ISIL should be considered as a persistent multifaceted threat that is still emerging from Iraq and Syria, as the group finds itself in a healing and recovery phase accelerated by the local context. The continuity of the Syrian Civil War, lack of State resources, easily exploitable sectarian tensions, and disillusionment with local governments will continue to facilitate the survival of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Despite the organization’s inability to capture and hold vast areas of territory, if such context continues to favor the group's growth, in a few years Daesh may be capable of a new substantial offensive, particularly if major players continue to withdraw from the Middle East. Whether it be through the reconstruction of the physical caliphate, the enflaming of a new jihadist insurgency, or successful social engineering, the ISIL threat should be tackled as a matter of regional stability and (inter)national security for the members of NATO.
The North Atlantic alliance should prioritize avoiding an influx of new fighters from entering Syria and Iraq, alleviating sectarian tensions in both countries, pursuing an active policy regarding ISIS penetration of refugee camps, limiting external meddling in Iraq, staying on the lookout for any indicators of IS activities in Europe, and searching and destroying the group's financial assets, weapons depots, and leadership. NATO should tackle these issues simultaneously to successfully reach Operation Inherent Resolve's foundational objectives: degrade and destroy Daesh through a sustained and comprehensive counterterrorism strategy.
About the author: Facundo E. Saponara
Facundo E. Saponara, originally from Argentina, is currently enrolled in the master’s degree in Strategy and Geopolitics at the Escuela Superior de Ejército. Counting with a background in international relations, he has specialized in the analysis of interstate and intrastate conflicts and terrorism.