The killing of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi (former ISIS leader) in October 2019, which bore the name Kayla Mueller, represented a great challenge facing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) organization. Expectations escalated confirming the end and disintegration of the organization. Nevertheless, it was able to overcome this and others challenges related to targeting its leaders, due to its flexibility and adaptability in maintaining its activity, as well as exploiting the crises and challenges facing countries in order to enhance its influence. ISIS declared responsibility for about 2,959 operations in 2020, compared to about 2,700 operations in 2021, and about 2,015 operations in 2022.
Although the number of operations adopted by the organization decreased between 2020 and 2022, this does not indicate a decrease in its threat. While its main strongholds witnessed a decline in its influence, it was able to expand its activity in other arenas. Hence, this calls for dismantling its features by reviewing ISIS activity in the post-Baghdadi phase in the period 2020-2022 in order to provide a reading of its work paths in the next stage.
ISIS Activity between 2020 and 2022
The most prominent features of ISIS activity between 2020 and 2022 can be identified by reviewing its operations in various areas of influence as follows:
- The Middle East:
ISIS announced that it had adopted approximately 1,424 operations in Iraq in 2020, most of which were concentrated in Diyala province which endured about 493 operations, followed by Kirkuk province which saw about 239 operations, Anbar province which witnessed about 169 operations, and Salah Al-Din province which witnessed about 126 operations.
This compares to about 1,113 operations adopted by the organization in 2021 in Iraq, where they were concentrated in Kirkuk province with about 305 operations, Diyala province which witnessed about 292 operations, Salah Al-Din province which saw about 145 operations, and Anbar province which witnessed about 124 operations.
About 487 operations were adopted in 2022, most of which were concentrated in Kirkuk governorate that endured about 193 operations, followed by Diyala governorate which witnessed about 122 operations, Anbar governorate which witnessed about 53 operations, then Salah Al-Din governorate which witnessed about 29 operations (see Figure 1). In general, most of the group’s operations in Iraq in 2020-2022 targeted the Iraqi army forces, the Popular Mobilization Forces, and the Tribal Mobilization, along with a number of government officials.
The 31st report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team on ISIS and Al-Qaida issued by the United Nations in February 2023 stated that although the frequency of attacks in Iraq in 2022 decreased from the past two years, it maintained its ability to carry out attacks there. The report pointed out that the current organization leader in Iraq, Abu Khadija Al-Iraqi (Abdullah Makki Musleh Al-Rafii), pursues a strategy of relative disappearance with the aim of rebuilding and recovering from the losses he suffered.
As for Syria, the organization adopted approximately 581 operations in 2020, most of them were concentrated in Deir Ezzor governorate which witnessed about 385 operations, followed by Al-Raqqa governorate which witnessed about 52 operations, then Al-Hasakah governorate which witnessed about 38 operations, and Homs governorate which witnessed about 37 operations. This is compared to approximately 366 operations adopted in Syria in 2021, most of which were concentrated in Deir Ezzor governorate which witnessed about 193 operations, followed by Al-Raqqa governorate which saw about 54 operations, then Homs governorate which witnessed about 42 operations, and Al-Hasakah governorate, which also witnessed about 42 operations.
About 277 operations were adopted in 2022, most of them were concentrated in Deir Ezzor governorate which witnessed about 161 operations, followed by Al-Raqqa governorate which witnessed about 58 operations, then Al-Hasakah governorate which saw about 38 operations, and Houran governorate, which witnessed about 15 operations (see Figure 2).
Most of ISIS operations in 2020-2022 targeted the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian regime forces, as well as a number of civilians cooperating with the security forces. The aforementioned report pointed out that there is a proliferation of cells affiliated with the organization in various parts of Syria, including southern Syria. The report stressed the continued importance of the Syrian desert for the organization, as it is a ground for training and the reunification of its ranks.
In Libya, the organization adopted about nine operations in 2020, compared to about four operations in 2021, and about three operations in 2022. ISIS is currently facing challenges in Libya against the background of the strikes directed at its positions in southern Libya, resulting in the elimination of a number of its leaders. The Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team report pointed out that its current leader in Libya Abdul Salam Darkarallah changed the organization’s deployment strategy in southern Libya, and divided its elements into 6 main cells consisting of of 30 or 40 individuals, spread in cities in the south including Fezzan, Sabha, Murzuq, Um Al-Arnab, Ubari, Ghadwa and Fuqaha, as well as in some mountainous areas such as Al-Gabal Al-Aswad and Akakos Mountains in an effort to adapt to the current context.
In Yemen, the organization adopted about 66 operations in 2020, while it was unable to carry out any operation in Yemen in 2021, and only one operation there in 2022 (see Figure 3). In general, the organization’s situation in Yemen is declining against the backdrop of the continued influence of Al-Qaeda. The former’s elements are present in the form of sleeper cells in the governorates of Al-Bayda and Aden, while its leaders are present in safe havens in Shabwa and Marib.
ISIS has stepped up its operations in Africa in light of its strategic direction to reposition itself in new arenas. It strengthened the activity of the West Africa Province by adopting a number of operations in countries located in the Sahel region, including Mali, Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad. It adopted about 393 operations in 2020, compared to about 483 operations in 2021, and about 544 operations in 2022. The organization also announced the establishment of the Sahel Province in March 2022, which adopted about 19 in the same year. The UN report notes that the group has increased its strength and resilience in West Africa, not to mention expanding its attacks to the Gao region, the west bank of the Niger River, and other areas towards northern Burkina Faso.
In a related context, the organization worked to prove the existence of the Central Africa Province by increasing the threat to Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It adopted about 91 operations in 2020, compared to about 185 operations in 2021, and about 189 operations in 2022, in addition to announcing the establishment of the State of Mozambique in May 2022, which adopted about 127 operations in the same year. This represents a threat to Mozambique’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) resources, Africa’s third-largest reserves, as it gained new significance aue to the disruption of Ukrainian natural gas exports as a result to the Russian invasion.
The organization also aimed to continue the activity of the Somalia Province by adopting about 30 operations in 2020, compared to about 40 operations in 2021, and about 33 operations in Somalia in 2022 (see Figure 4). In general, the group is based in Somalia in Puntland, but does not have the ability to control large areas due to the influence of Somalia’s Al-Shabaab group.
Afghanistan is considered a major arena of ISIS influence, presenting itself as the main enemy of the Taliban. Accordingly, the Khorasan Province adopted about 88 operations in 2020, compared to 365 operations in 2021, and about 220 operations in 2022. It has recently expanded its operations towards Russian and Chinese targets with the aim of portraying the Taliban as unable to provide security. Its core cells are generally based in Afghanistan’s Kunar, Nangarhar and Nuristan Eastern provinces, with a large cell in Kabul. In parallel, the organization continued to seek to establish a presence in Pakistan, where it adopted about 13 operations in 2020, compared to about 15 operations in 2021, and about 18 operations in 2022 (see Figure 5).
ISIS Speeches between 2020-2022
During the period 2020-2022, ISIS issued 6 major speeches by its official spokespersons: Abu Hamza Al-Qurashi and Abu Omar Al-Muhajir. Three speeches were released in 2020. The first titled “May God destroy them and the disbelievers” on 27 January 2020, coinciding with the announcement of the “American Peace Plan”. It focused on asserting the continuation of its so-called “caliphate” despite the challenges it has been facing recently (referring to the killing of Baghdadi), as well as announcing the inauguration of a new phase of terrorism by calling on his supporters to target Israel. It sought to legitimize the terrorist act by employing an important issue in the Islamic world, Jerusalem.
The second 2020 speech was titled “And the infidels will know who will win” on 28 May 2020, in which the organization tried to present the features of its next steps at a time when its operations escalated in its various states. It addressed 3 main topics: showing jubilation and gloating about the spread of the Corona virus in the West and portraying it as “revenge from God”, the second is to threaten the government of Mustafa Al-Kadhimi in Iraq, promising an “open confrontation” after the withdrawal of US forces, and the third relates to the conflict between ISIS and al-Qaeda, particularly in the West African region.
The third was titled “Tell stories so they may ponder” on 18 October 2020, coinciding with the anniversary of the killing of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, focusing on three main points: calling on the organization supporters to target economic interests in the Gulf countries and of European countries in Africa, send messages of support to its various branches in Africa and Asia, and the new pledges made by terrorist groups to the new leader of the organization, Ibrahim Al-Hashemi Al-Qurashi.
While in 2021 the organization released one speech entitled “You are the Highest, if You are Believers” on 22 June 2021 focusing on three main points, asserting the survival of the caliphate despite the military campaigns targeting its elements, praising its members in various regions such as Iraq, Syria, Khorasan, Somalia and Libya, and appealing to all its branches to work on the liberation of its members languishing in prisons.
While 2022 witnessed the release of two speeches, the first titled “Fight them, may God torture them with your hands” on 17 April 2022 and focused on three main points: the continuation of the organization’s strategic direction related to positioning in Africa, calling on its elements to target prisons with the aim of freeing its followers, and inciting its followers to exploit the preoccupation of European countries with the war in Ukraine and expand “lone wolf” operations there.
The second 2022 speech was entitled “And hold fast to the rope of God all“, on 13 September 2022. It addressed two main points: asserting the organization’s priority at the moment is to free its prisoners, and send invitations to join its ranks, focusing on some areas where it has a strong presence, including Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and a number of countries in East Asia and Africa.
Analyzing the six aforementioned speeches, it can be said that there are a number of key messages: emphasizing the survival of its so-called state even with the security and military pressure it is subjected to. It continues to promote the slogan “remaining and expanding”, which it launched since its establishment. Second, it sends messages to its operatives, whether for the purpose of praising their activity or directing them to target specific countries. Third, it focused on the issue of the liberation of prisoners, which is one of his priorities, and all six speeches referred to it. Fourth, it exploited the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic to enhance its activity, taking advantage of security and health pressure, in addition to calling on its elements to target European countries which are preoccupation with the war in Ukraine.
In light of the above, there are a number of primary observations, as follows:
1- The decrease in the leadership period of ISIS leaders. The organization witnessed a number of strikes targeting its central leadership, starting with Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in October 2019, Ibrahim Al-Hashemi Al-Qurashi in February 2022, and Abu Al-Hassan Al-Hashemi Al-Qurashi in November 2022.
Al-Baghdadi continued to lead the organization from June 2014 to October 2019, nearly five years, then Abu Ibrahim Al-Qurashi was appointed from October 2019 to February 2022, about 2 years, then Abul-Hassan Al-Qurashi came to lead the organization from March 2022 to November 2022 to remain in the position for about nine months only, as the shortest period spent by the leader of the organization in office. This reflects the group’s current weak security capabilities and its inability to provide the necessary protection to its leaders.
2- The ambiguity surrounding the central ISIS leadership. Since the inauguration of Ibrahim Al-Hashemi Al-Qurashi, the organization has followed a strategy based on concealing the identity of its leaders in order to protect them from any attack or targeting. This approach continued as a permanent tactic with both Abul-Hassan Al-Hashemi Al-Qurashi, the former leader, and Abul-Hussayn Al-Hashemi Al-Qurashi, the current leader. The Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team report indicated that the former leader of the organization has two pseudonyms, Abdul Rahman Al-Iraqi and Saif Baghdad, and that his real identity is Noureddine Abdul-Ilah Matny. As for the current leader, the report stressed the absence of any available information about his real identity except for being an Iraqi national.
3- ISIS internal cohesion. Despite the succession of three leaders in a short period of time, not to mention the state of ambiguity surrounding them, but allegiance by most of its branches show that the organization’s network is still cohesive and able to maintain its internal cohesion, against the background of its flexibility and adaptation. No signs of divisions or disintegration have been detected within most of its branches and networks. However, this does not negate the existence of internal disputes in some states.
4- ISIS’ focus on the strategy of freeing prisoners. This issue is one of its priorities, none of its main speeches between 2020 and 2022 was without this reference. The organization seeks to compensate for the decline in its ranks in order to restore its influence, in addition to increasing its propaganda balance by implementing its promises related to the liberation of its elements and followers. One of the most prominent operations carried out by the organization in the aforementioned period was its attack on Kangbay Central Prison in Beni district in eastern Congo in October 2020, and Nangarhar Central Prison in eastern Afghanistan in August 2020, as well as targeting Ghuiran prison in the Syrian city of Hasakah in January 2022, Koji prison in the outskirts of the Nigerian capital in July 2022, and Kakwangura prison northeastern DRC in August 2022.
5- The military categories that make up ISIS. General Michael Corella (commander of the US Central Command) revealed on 22 December 2022 that the organization currently consists of 3 military categories: the “free leaders”, the current generation of leaders and elements that has freedom of movement and is still able to launch attacks; the “detained leaders”, the leaders and elements present in the prisons of Iraq and Syria – there are about 10,000 members in Iraqi prisons, and a similar figure in Syria; and the “next generation”, namely the children in Al-Hol camp (northeastern Syria), whose number exceeds 25,000. They are at risk of embracing the ISIS ideology, and are therefore considered the ideological and biological guarantee of the organization’s continued influence. Hence, the international community needs to address the issue of Al-Hol camp, exert more efforts, activate policies, provide humanitarian aid, and put forward visions and solutions that can be implemented on the ground.
6- The geography of ISIS’ future work. Despite the decrease in its operations in its main strongholds, this does not mean that its threat has decreased. It is estimated that the organization in Iraq is pursuing a strategy of temporary latency in order to build its structures. On the other hand, the escalation of the group’s operations in Syria by the beginning of 2023 is an indication of its desire to assert its presence. Therefore, the main strongholds of the organization are likely to witness a level of average activity compared to previous years.
As for the African Sahel, the organization’s strategic goal in Africa is not only its presence but also its operational and geographical expansion, against the backdrop of the continuing political, security and environmental complicated issues in the Sahel countries, thus providing incubating contexts for the activity of terrorist organizations. In light of this proposal, the Sahel countries are expected to witness an escalation in ISIS threat in 2023, especially since the West Africa Province adopted the largest number of ISIS operations with approximately 544 operations in the past year, in order to strengthen its jihadist influence in the region.
With regard to the organization’s presence in Asia, its central leadership views Afghanistan as a base for expanding to wider geographical areas through which it can threaten neighboring countries in Central and South Asia. With the Taliban taking control of power, the organization has escalated its operations in Afghanistan with the aim of proving the Taliban’s failure to achieve stability. Despite the decline in its operations in Afghanistan in 2022 compared to 2021, this does not mean that its threat has decreased, as it is likely to continue to escalate its operations in 2023 within Afghan territory.
7- The jihadist conflict between Al-Qaeda and ISIS in the Sahel. The relationship between them in the Sahel region was exceptional, with coexistence and expansion without conflict, in contrast to the rivalry prevailing between them in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. However, at the beginning of 2020, the Sahel region witnessed several clashes between them, which developed into fighting, then turned into a full-fledged war, and this scene continued until the end of 2022, against the backdrop of the struggle over influence, resources and fighters. It is likely that the jihadist conflict between them will continue in 2023, as each adheres to its goals and interests.
Some argue that the conflict between terrorist organizations is a positive counterterrorism scene, but it is possible that the two groups will engage in a process called “bidding”, each aimed at demonstrating a greater ability to fight rivals by escalating terrorist attacks. The repercussions will be reflected in the volatile security situation in the Sahel region through increased levels of violence.
8- ISIS exploitation of disasters. The organization’s handling of the Corona virus was characterized by extreme pragmatism, as it worked to employ the pandemic at the media, operational and logistical levels. It sought to attack its opponents by portraying the outbreak of the virus as anger from God. At the operational level, it called on his elements to exploit the spread of the virus to carry out terrorist operations. At the logistical level, Murat Çakkar (a supporter of the group in Turkey) founded a website to sell face masks and other health equipment, then transferred sales profits to the organization. The epidemic thus turned into a source of money for the organization.
With regard to the earthquake in Syria on 6 February 2023, the organization took advantage of the shift of state resources to face the repercussions of the earthquake by smuggling its elements, in addition to strengthening its activity. About 20 of its members escaped from a prison in northwestern Syria on 7 February after fabricating civil disobedience after the earthquake. The organization also carried out an attack in the city of Palmyra in the eastern countryside of Homs in central Syria on 12 February, killing 53 people. Terrorist organizations in general and ISIS in particular adopt the “jurisprudence of exploiting crises” as they seek to employ various crises in order to expand their activity, strengthen their influence, and escalate their operations.
In short, ISIS was able to adapt to the challenges it faced, at the level of losing leaders and the military strikes it was subjected to. Its flexible organizational structure allowed it to absorb the pressure exerted on it and move to a new geography that incubates its activity. Unlike the decline in its influence in Iraq and Syria, its other branches are still strong, especially in the Sahel region of Africa and South Asia. Thus, political instability, along with the spread of social grievances in countries which have seen rise in previous periods, as well as the shift of strategies of major countries to focus on security threats different from terrorist threats, all provide the organization with the opportunity to strengthen its mandate and rebuild its organizational structures.