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The Will to Return: Implications of the Recrudescence of IS’ Qualitative Operations

In March 2019, the month that marked the Islamic State’s (IS) defeat in the battle of Baghuz Fawqani, the International Coalition (IC) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDFs) announced notching up a definitive victory over IS, capturing the majority of its elements on Syrian territory. Al-Baghuz –a small town located in Deir Ez-Zor Governorate– was IS’ last remaining enclave after years of tightening its grip on the lands of three Syrian governorates and other lands of similar size in Iraq under the flag of what came to be known as the “Caliphate State”.

This geographical domination was demonstrative of the new “doctrine” that IS embraced and applied, enabling it to be at the forefront of the “jihadist movement”, as it terms its armed activity. Prior to this announcement, in December 2017, the then Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi declared the Iraqi Armed Forces’ complete control over the Syrian-Iraqi borders, underscoring that the war against IS was over after Iraq’s restoration of all the lands that IS controlled since 2014. While the security scene in Iraq differs greatly from that in Syria, the Iraqi–Syrian border –which was IS’ most important theater of operation– remained a connecting point between the two countries. Perhaps this explains why Al-Abadi regarded controlling the Iraqi–Syrian border as a prominent sign of victory over IS. Aside from these two dates, there remains 27 October 2019, a significant date that witnessed the killing of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, leader of IS, at the hands of the US Army Delta Force, with valuable intelligence assistance from the Iraqi intelligence and the help of security elements of the SDFs, in the Syrian outskirts of Idlib.

Breaking Down Walls and the Viability of IS’ Qualitative Operations

The three aforementioned dates are engraved in the memory of IS, marking a dividing line between two phases of the organization’s life, i.e. a four-year phase of empowerment and taking full control and management of land and a new phase that began nearly two years ago. Over these past two years, about 12,000 IS’ fighters fell in the grip of the IC and SDFs, the latter was entrusted with the task of overseeing the detention of those fighters –who hold about 50 nationalities– until their fate is decided. Those detained fighters were placed in several prisons spread throughout northern Syria, primarily the Ghweran prison located in the city of Al-Hasakah in northeastern Syria, which houses 5,000 people including particularly dangerous leaders and elements. Families of those fighters are held in camps, the largest and most famous of which is Al-Hol Camp, which houses about 60,000 Syrians and foreigners and is being described as a human time bomb that has been partially exploding all the time over the past two years. Alongside these developments over the past two years, there has been a change in IS’ tactic aimed at ensuring IS maintains its minimum capabilities and ability to influence events. This tactic was exemplified by the IS carrying out a number of qualitative operations through 10,000 fighters affiliated with it, who, according to a UN report in February 2021, managed to escape after defeats of IS to split up on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi borders. The report, then, made reference to hundreds of operations that took place in the center and north of Iraq, sometimes extending to the heart of Baghdad, with IS revisiting its hit-and-hide assaults, launching lightning strikes à la guerrilla warfare.

This, very briefly, provides a glimpse into IS’ current capabilities, in a time the organization is “breaking down the walls” to restore its fighters and liberate its leaders. An official narrative of the Kurdish forces controlling the area in which the Ghweran prison is located indicated that 200 attackers were involved in the assault on the prison and that preparations for this assault started probably six months earlier as attackers came mainly from Iraq or Ras Al-Ain and Tal Abyad cities controlled by Turkey. The attack was carried out by eight IS’ car bombs. One of the cars attempted to break into the main gate of the prison but was stopped; however, another one attacked another gate and seemingly managed to break in, notwithstanding statements of the Kurdish forces of eliminating it. Following the second attack, fighting moved inside the prison’s premises, which indicates that a breakthrough had happened. According to this narrative, clashes lasted for over four days and claimed the lives of 175 IS’ fighters, 150 of whom were attackers and 15 prisoners who clashed with the security forces while trying to escape, whereas, on the Kurdish side, 27 guards and backup troops were killed. 

The Syrian Observatory speaks of 120 deaths among the SDFs, including civilians living in the nearby neighborhood of Az-Zohour. These estimations sound closer to reality, particularly with the Syrian forces announcing launching a campaign to hound terrorist cells in Az-Zohour neighborhood. Following this, violent clashes took place, resulting in casualties and the displacement of 4,000 civilians. Additionally, US aircraft of the IC flew air support flights, supporting the Kurdish forces (10,000 soldiers) trapped in clashes that it failed to settle for its favor after four days, after IS’ fighters barricaded themselves inside buildings adjacent to the prison, from which they managed to engage in an extended clash with the Kurdish forces.   

As clashes in Al-Hasakah continued, a qualitative lightning operation was carried out by IS against a military unit of the Iraqi army in Diyala Governorate, in which 12 soldiers were killed, before the unit’s elements were able to leave the place safely. At large, these are some signs indicative of capabilities of IS, which seems to have recently managed to regain its capacities in Syria and Iraq, portending more that is to come, extending beyond the borders of the two countries, which requires an in-depth investigation of implications of IS’ restoration of these capabilities.

IS’ Transformations: Between Adaptation and Confusion Management

A look at IS’ current capabilities in this phase of its development would reveal numerous transformations at the strategic and operational levels, the most prominent of which can be summarized as follows:

1. Flexibility and Regaining Momentum: At the beginning of this year, IS regained significant momentum as has been evidenced by the realignment of its ranks, careful target selection, along with the relative readiness of its free elements to move flexibly between Syria and Iraq. Following the Baghuz 2019 Battle, readiness of IS’ elements –represented in their logistical capacity– has been severely affected. Today, IS restores some of its capabilities where it had the ability to equip dozens of its affiliated fighters with weapons, ammunition, and booby-trap and transport them to target points, enabling them to either carry out hit-and-run attacks as has been the case with the attack on the military point in Diyala, Iraq, or engage in complex and relatively long operations, as has been the case with the attack on the Ghweran prison in Al-Hasakah.

2. Growing Qualitative Operations: Considering implications of recent developments, it becomes increasingly clear that these implications may go far beyond Al-Hasakah borders. Indeed, several precursors predicted this defining scene. Over the past six months, the pace of IS’ qualitative operations in Syria and Iraq has seen an upward trend, suggesting the organization is striving to come back again. This is an indication that cannot be ignored. At earlier stages, IS’ willingness wasn’t as relentless as this, which reveals IS’ outstanding adaptability, despite the complete collapse of its leadership structure which, naturally, extended to affect its combat formations, a considerable force of which reside in prisons of northern Syria. This adaptation was first formulated by IS’ new leader, who seems to have abandoned the propaganda tool which IS has long used to confirm that the murder of his predecessor, Al-Baghdadi, isn’t the end and that it was yet another round that will give rise to new ideas and increase the ability to introduce suicide bombers so that the organization can overcome the disparity in capabilities between it and the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service and the SDFs.

3. Confusion Management and Intelligent Targeting: When analyzing IS’ current media activity, it becomes clear that the organization has abandoned its old practices, in which it used media to overestimate its capabilities and celebrate its combat operations, to adopt a more intelligent approach, focusing on discrediting IC forces and penetrating its allies in Syria and Iraq, by taking advantage of any disagreements between IC components and spreading rumors, on a large scale, that promotes the slackness of the coalition. Perhaps capitalizing on such disagreements within the IC proved effective in stimulating the recruitment process and inflaming IS followers’ passions as some of these disputes already have realities on the ground supporting them and several indications proving their validity. It is sufficient to refer to the slackness that has crept into anti-terrorism efforts in these areas, despite dozens of intelligence reports and composed analyzes that continue to confirm that IS is still alive. Some even speak of the possibility and severity of the comeback of IS, given the confusion that is sweeping the two confrontation fronts as well as the border area. 

Signs of confusion and loss of resolute will to confront IS are too numerous to list, but the danger lies in IS’ ability to read and use them to carry out high-impact strikes. This has been so evident in the assault on the Ghweran prison where IS managed to mobilize 200 fighters equipped with weapons, ammunition and car bombs, in plain sight of the US and Russian forces spread in several areas of Al-Hasakah and other areas controlled by forces loyal to Turkey and administered by Turkish soldiers and reach the Ghweran prison, located in the heart of the most fortified area by the SDFs.

4. Ability to Infiltrate: Obfuscation and conflicting reports on the Ghweran assault unveils exceptional penetration capabilities of IS, given the greater coordination between the attackers and prisoners who managed to escape and join the fight with the attackers for four days in neighborhoods surrounding the prison, a situation that obfuscation failed to hide, unfolding coordinated role distribution between two groups of fighters. The only explanation for this breakthrough is that the magnitude of corruption that played for IS was not so little. Perhaps there is ideological recruitment that contributed to making the attack work in a way that made the battle take that long and proceed in a manner that necessitated intervention of the US forces by direct bombardment of the vicinity of the prison. This pattern of confrontation could be only seen as either a rescue of an imminent breakdown or a rehabilitation of catastrophic consequences that were about to happen.

Usually in such incidents shrouded in mystery –as has been the case in Al-Hasakah and when the real scenario seems unlikely to be revealed soon, it seems logical to look for the beneficiary of the situation who allowed this to happen and the agenda the attack serves. 

In North Syria, which is teeming with competitors, it may seem rather difficult to establish the truth of the hostility equation, in a way that helps get a clear and integrated interpretation. While it may seem of good reason that Turkey allowed the passage of IS fighters from the areas it controls to get revenge on the Kurdish forces that caused its defeat and detained its powerful force in its prisons, Russia, which deploys its forces near the northern theater of operations and is supposed to be supported by Syrian forces, shouldn’t have lost sight of the fighters’ movements. So, what advantage could either party gain by pushing the attackers or, at least, turning a blind eye to them to reach this area and carry out an attack that efficiency (which would definitely play in the hands of IS)? 

These are preliminary questions leading us to indications that may bring some more light into the scene but are not definitely enough to predict the remaining repercussions that would give rise to similar scenarios, which are likely to take place in the not-so-distant future.  

Khaled Okasha
General Manager

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