The coronavirus pandemic has taken over our screens and news feeds for months, but here in the Middle East another insidious threat has taken advantage of the crisis to grow in the shadows. Security experts have warned that ISIS is regrouping in Syria and Iraq, where the terror organisation once ruled over vast swathes of land, and that it is preparing for a resurgence.
The group has ramped up attacks in the past couple of months. Earlier this month, ISIS killed 10 Iraqi militiamen, making the most out of the confusion created by the coronavirus pandemic and the country’s volatile political situation, attempting to slowly regroup and rearm.
In addition to ramping up recruitment, especially within Syria and Iraq’s camps for internally displaced persons, ISIS is now using cryptocurrency platforms to hide their capital. The group’s digital stash includes illegal donations and possibly $300 million worth of war profits, according to security experts.
Cryptocurrency was used to fund ISIS’s 2019 Sri Lanka Easter Sunday attacks, which killed more than 250 people. If it is not tracked down and confiscated, this money could be used to fund more attacks in the future.
When the US decided to cut down on troop presence in Syria late last year, the symbolic gesture was seen to take pressure off extremist groups. Today, this tendency to disengage is only likely to increase. The world continues to look inward as each country struggles to cope with its own coronavirus health crisis and the economic downturn of the pandemic.
Despite these setbacks, there have been some victories in the fight against a resurgent ISIS. Iraq’s new Prime Minister, Mustafa Al Kadhimi, has announced that the army, aided by a number of militia groups, is set to launch an offensive against the extremists. In the last month, several ISIS targets were also struck down, including the killing of the group’s so-called “governor of Iraq” in a US-led coalition raid in Syria. And the leader of ISIS in South Asia and the Far East has been arrested in Kabul along with two other senior figures.
"They are resurgent. They're not at their high point by any means, but their trajectory is going up," a western security source recently told The National. While ISIS represents a threat that should not be minimised, the group is still weak, suffering from past defeats that destroyed its territorial caliphate. In the words of Yehia Rasool, military spokesperson for Mr Al Kadhimi, "ISIS is attempting a media comeback" but in reality its forces have largely been depleted. From this perspective, increased attacks are a desperate attempt to remain relevant, project strength and attract more recruits.
Where civilian lives are at risk, it is the international community's responsibility to take steps to save them. Local authorities must be able to count on international support to curb extremist threats. The coronavirus pandemic is likely to create even more economic distress in already-fragile nations, a factor that could push disenfranchised, financially struggling youth into the arms of extremists. We cannot afford to let our collective guard down at a time of global crisis. Extremism is a worldwide problem, and ISIS has already proven it will not remain within the borders of both Iraq and Syria. ISIS must be dealt with by maintaining the global coalition to counter it and strengthening international resolve against all forms of terrorism.