ISIS quest for landmark territory resumes despite coalition attacks

Analysis: When conditions are ripe, ISIS escalates its actions to seize new footholds

ISIS has sought to form a new order from the chaos of Covid. The National
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ISIS has spent the last year seeking to regenerate. In this four-part special, The National investigates how the extremist group has gained a foothold in Africa, explores its use of obscure social media platforms, and reveals its profiteering from elephant poaching and the gems trade. Here, Thomas Harding analyses ISIS's strategy for global growth.

This time next year a new scenario could confront global leaders – the appearance of not one ISIS-held bastion but many.

Numerous ungoverned spaces in a world made more chaotic by the ravages of Covid-19 are not unlikely. That a swathe could have succumbed to the cruel discipline and warped ideology of ISIS is something increasingly in its grasp.

The list of vulnerable states includes some familiar and some new names: Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan are already contending with ISIS insurgencies.

As rich countries cope with domestic economic woes, its hard to believe there would be much appetite to turn the tide.

An investigation into the terror group by The National is that it has embarked on a strategy of global growth after dispersal as it lost territory in Iraq and Syria. The last bastion in Syria fell last year but there and elsewhere it is resurgent again.

"You've got examples on three different continents that its groups are demonstrating a high level of effectiveness and resilience on the battlefield

There is increased coordination from the centre. Its calls for 10 day-long ‘Raids of Attrition’ show an organising principle at work.

Its leaders instigate attacks in Africa, the Middle East and East Asia. “You've got examples on three different continents that its groups are demonstrating a high level of effectiveness and resilience on the battlefield,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a terrorism specialist at the Royal United Services Institute.

“One of the fundamental issues that underpins why ISIS is able to thrive is anger at the local government,” said Mr Pantucci.

“At a certain point, these conflicts develop a kind of momentum of their own because revenge becomes a motive and that gives the space in which an adept group like ISIS can take advantage of and operate within, really making a statement.”

Dr Francesco Milan, of King’s College London, calls ISIS a “predatory organisation” that pounces on favourable conditions to seize opportunities to expand .

“These conditions have to do with local instability and weak governance, coupled with access to weapons, financial resources, and manpower. Once these staples are in place, ISIS can escalate its actions.”

Afghan security officials inspect seized weapons near a damaged residential house from where a group of Islamic State (IS) gunmen were firing mortar shells while another group was raiding a prison, in Jalalabad on August 4, 2020. - At least 29 people were killed when gunmen attacked a jail in the eastern city of Jalalabad on August 3, shattering the relative calm of the final day of a three-day ceasefire between the Taliban and Afghan forces. (Photo by NOORULLAH SHIRZADA / AFP)
Afghan security officials inspect seized ISIS weapons. The terror group has been able to procure ordnance readily. AFP

Although lockdown saw fewer ISIS attacks earlier in the year, the Covid-19 pandemic has seen a reduction of American and British-dominated coalition security operations, resulting in "vital breathing space once more".

“As the Covid crisis has created immense socio-economic and governance problems, ISIS-affiliated groups have also stepped up their game in other continents – particularly so in parts of Africa.

Attacks in Western and Central Africa have increased in number and significance, with the Sahel and Mozambique being hit particularly hard."

Having lost the oil revenue and taxation levied on local residents, ISIS is targeting Africa's mineral wealth and has moved into money laundering and cryptocurrencies, according to Dr Milan.

In August, the US Treasury seized $2m of cryptocurrencies from ISIS and Al Qaeda accounts, but it is estimated the group has a treasury of as much as $200 million hidden in various pots.

Covid’s international travel difficulties have hampered recruitment. The battle losses have taken away ‘landmark’ territory for recruits to assemble.

Military analysts now believe that the number of ISIS extremists that remain in Iraq and Syria is 10,000 while there is a large contingent of 3,500 in West Africa and 1,000 in the centre and east of the country.

Unseen operations, as well as the G5 French-led coalition in the Sahel and the Global Coalition in Iraq and Syria, continue to combat the re-emergence of the group.

The ability to cut off the group as it reappears in different places is being degraded.

If the coalition operations fail, are discontinued or the problem becomes too large for them to contain, the world could once again see ISIS raising its flag and posing a challenge too big to ignore.