Dangerous ISIS messages in Iraq and Syria
Hassan Abu Hanieh
ISIS has not disappeared from the Iraqi and Syrian scenes, as well as from the regional and international scenes, Since the end of its de facto caliphate in Iraq and Syria in 2019, the organization has launched about 5,000 attacks in Iraq and Syria, ISIS attacks relied on low-cost, simple and easy-to-implement military tactics, but these attacks began to take a complex and complicated pattern in recent times, the recent attacks of the “Islamic State” organization (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria indicate the beginning of a new phase that is more violent, more complex and broader as well.
Despite all this, the organization’s recent attacks in Diyala, Iraq, and Al-Hasakah, Syria, do not indicate a fundamental change in ISIS’s combat strategy, but it indicates an important rehearsal to prepare for new plans, as they are attacks that aim to examine and estimate the extent of capabilities and potencies of the organization’s fighters on the one hand, and an experiment to learn about the capabilities of the Iraqi forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces on the other hand, in order to know the limits of the response of the international coalition forces with the launch of a new, more complex and broader pattern of attacks, ISIS usually carries out complex test attacks before the change to adopting new plans as part of a long-term attrition strategy.
Since the loss of the last areas of its spatial control by ISIS in Al-Baghouz, northeastern Syria, in March 2019, the organization has worked on restructuring and adapting to the new reality, ISIS returned to work as a decentralized organization based on the logic of guerrilla warfare and attrition based on maintaining a low level of insurgency based on stability and strategic patience by sustaining attacks and escalating them slowly, the recent attacks indicate that ISIS will adopt new tactics that are not fundamentally different from the old plan by toppling cities temporarily, but they will be more comprehensive in scope, in its future attacks, the organization will rely more on the pattern of suicide operations, indulgences and incursions, while the tactics of assassination, bombs, snipers, and so on.
The recent attacks of ISIS are in the context of testing its offensive capabilities and examining the capabilities of the Iraqi and Kurdish forces, ISIS launched an attack at dawn on Friday, January 21, on an Iraqi army headquarters in the eastern province of Diyala, in which 11 soldiers were killed, one of whom was a lieutenant, then the organization withdrew without losing any of its fighters, on the other hand, members of the “ISIS” organization attacked a Kurdish-run prison in Al-Hasakah Governorate in northeastern Syria on the night of Thursday-Friday 20/21 January, the area turned into a war zone after an internal rebellion and an external attack initiated by cells affiliated with the organization in the industrial prison in the Ghweran district, the prison includes about 3,500 prisoners from the elements and leaders of the “Islamic State” organization, and the prison has witnessed during the past years several “rebellion” movements and attempts to break into.
In the last attack on the prison in Al-Hasakah, the organization relied on the pattern of suicide and indulgences operations, incursions, and direct clashes, the attacker detonated a car bomb near the prison, and the prisoners began a rebellion inside the dormitories in which they are being held, and the “Amaq” agency, affiliated with ISIS, quoted a security source, as saying that the organization’s fighters have launched a wide attack on “Ghweran” prison since Thursday evening, with the aim of “liberating the prisoners held inside.”, and that clashes are continuing in nearby places and other districts, and preliminary estimates indicate that the attack resulted in the death of more than 90 people and the injury of hundreds of others.
ISIS attacks on Ghweran prison in al-Hasakah bring to mind the expression that it proclaimed 2012 and 2013, which is called the “Break the Walls” plan, during which it was able to storm the Taji and Abu Ghraib prisons, and the release of about 800 members, which paved the way for the control of Mosul and the declaration of the caliphate, this was repeated last August, when ISIS militants stormed Jalalabad prison in the Afghan province of Nangarhar and released about 1,000 prisoners, this event contributed to the re-establishment of ISIS-affiliated Khorasan Province in Afghanistan.
The nightmare scenario is represented by the success of ISIS in liberating its fighters from prisons and camps, the number of ISIS detainees is about 80,000, distributed over 20 detention centers in Syria and Iraq, including between 10 and 20 thousand former fighters, including 2,000 foreigners, as well as an unknown number of prisoners held in secret Iraqi prisons, while their wives, children, and widows of Ex-combatants have turned to displaced people in detention camps, families of ISIS fighters constitute the largest number of detainees in prisons, detention and displacement camps. For example, 68,000 displaced persons and detainees are in the Al-Hol camp in Syria, including 43,000 children who are qualified to receive fundamentalist (radicalistic) ideas, and thus the graduation of a new generation of terrorists presents the international community with a clear challenge, the main crisis facing the detainees’ crisis is the lack of seriousness of their countries in taking them back, in addition to the inability to prove their crimes in Syria and Iraq by the competent courts in the countries from which they come, the Syrian Democratic Forces exert a great effort to maintain security in prisons and displacement camps, amid growing fears that ISIS fighters might organize a campaign to “destroy walls”, the outcome of which would be the escape of hundreds of them out of prisons.
The attacks of ISIS in Iraq and Syria did not come as a surprise to observers, as all assessments indicate that the threat of the organization in Iraq and Syria has not ended, the claim of eliminating the “Islamic State” and inflicting a complete defeat on the organization is still far from being achieved, what has been accomplished in Iraq and Syria is certainly the elimination of the geographical caliphate of ISIS and the end of its spatial control only, as the organization quickly adapted to the defeats and returned to work as an organization, it retained its ability to launch surprise and semi-regular attacks, ISIS shifted from the approach of classic wars, spatial control and empowerment, to the approach of attrition, guerrilla warfare and vexation, and moved to work flexibly from a state of centralization to decentralization, Estimates of the strength of the “Islamic State” organization and the possibility of its return are based on several ideological, structural and financial indicators, including maintaining a good operational capacity by increasing the volume and diversity of attacks in Iraq and Syria, the infographic, titled by ISIS-affiliated Al-Naba newspaper, “The Harvest of Soldiers 1442”, shows that the number of ISIS attacks reached about three thousand, resulting in the killing and wounding of more than eight thousand people.
Various intelligence reports and research studies indicate that the return of the “Islamic State” organization in Iraq and Syria is possible, as stability is still elusive, Iraq witnessed an escalation of ISIS attacks in light of the persistence of Sunni grievances, the growth of sectarian feelings towards Shiite and Iranian influence, and the difficult social, economic and political conditions, as well as the prevalence of corruption and the failure of local government policies, the main pillars of ISIS rhetoric are rooted in the advocacy of the Sunni population in Iraq and Syria, and the failure to address severe governance failures.
In light of the doubts about the continuation of the efforts of the United States of America in Iraq and Syria, which played a key role in defeating the “ISIS” organization in Iraq and Syria, and the absence of a clear strategy, thus efforts to combat terrorism may suffer a major setback, as the United States withdrew its forces stationed in Syria and Iraq, as it did in Afghanistan, within the framework of the American review of the war on terrorism, by restoring balance and competition between countries, the American interest in the file of cross-border terrorism has declined, as part of the US strategic review, Anthony Kodsman asked, “What if the United States and allied forces leave now?”, after reviewing official US reports and independent research studies, he stressed that “all claims about the defeat of ISIS are unrealistic, and it is clear that ISIS remains a major threat in both countries.”
Despite ISIS losing thousands of fighters, estimates vary about the number of ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria, due to counting the active cells alongside the sleeper cells, various sources estimate the total number to be around 30,000, as for the active members, the United Nations counter-terrorism official, Vladimir Voronkov, announced on August 25, 2020, that it is estimated that more than 10,000 ISIS fighters are still active in Iraq and Syria and that their attacks have increased significantly this year, Voronkov told the UN Security Council that ISIS fighters move freely in small cells between the two countries, and emphasized that ISIS has reorganized its ranks and increased its activity not only in conflict areas such as Iraq and Syria but also in some regional branches.
The recent attacks of ISIS in Iraq and Syria were the culmination of the organization’s patience strategy, ISIS does not seem to be in a hurry while seizing the opportunities, it builds its strategy according to considerations based on the changing international environment in dealing with the issue of cross-border terrorism, Washington and its European partners have changed their priorities toward new issues in an era of great powers competing, the coronavirus spreading, the climate crisis worsening, and right-wing domestic terrorism on the rise as cross-border counterterrorism priority has been receded. In addition, the countries that have suffered from the rise of jihadist groups have not made any progress in addressing the deep causes that drive violent extremism and terrorism, which are rooted in political, economic, and social causes that are exacerbated without serious treatment, in light of changing international priorities, local forces will bear the burdens of facing the upcoming rise of ISIS and global jihadism, local governments in many regions in Asia, Africa and the Middle East have proved the difficulty of their task without international cooperation, the region seems vulnerable to a new wave of violence in light of the political blockage, economic difficulties and social problems, this is what jihadist groups excel in exploiting through an attractive ideology that focuses on multiple grievances in an authoritarian, undemocratic environment which is hostile to freedom and pluralism.