MS Risk Blog

The Islamic State’s Presence in Syria Today

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Syria’s yearlong civil war has plunged the country into instability and insecurity, providing  a fertile ground for the Islamic State not only to grow, but also to last and maintain its existence, despite its degradation dated back in 2019. ISIS has successfully continued recruiting fighters, by propagating the establishment of an Islamic caliphate, enticing a global audience, including youths and women, while it has secured the funding of its operations through illegal means. In recent months, the risk of an ISIS insurgence has been acknowledged by the majority of the international community, actively involved in the Syrian affairs. This, coupled with the lessons learned from the past, have led them to be considerably cautious and pro-active, particularly during the month of Ramadan, carrying out simultaneous and occasionally coordinated operations against the Islamic threat. By no means, should the international community be complacent, by underestimating the IS capabilities and the possibility of a storming revival across the Syrian territory.

The fear of a possible ISIS break-out attempt during Ramadan between April 12 and May 22, led all the forces operating in the Syrian terrain to preempt such strikes and to eventually achieve decisive blows against ISIS during April, halting its hopes for a comeback. For instance, the Syrian Democratic Forces conducted the “Humanitarian and Security Operation” against the Islamic State cells at the al-Hol camp from March 27 to April 12. At least 150 ISIS affiliates were arrested during the raids, who were deemed to be responsible for a number of residents’ beheadings, shootings, or injuries by grenades in early 2021. On April 4, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) conducted at least four strikes on ISIS cells in Syria, at least one of which hit targeted cells 50 km west of Hasakah City, likely in the Abdul Aziz or Bayda mountains, Hasakah Province. About two weeks later, Russian-backed forces launch coordinated ground and air assault on ISIS hideouts in Jabal Bishri. As admiral Alexander Karpov, leader of the Russian Reconciliation Center in Syria, reported, the Russian Air Force killed 200 ISIS militants and destroyed 24 trucks and a IED production facility between April 17 and 18. The uptick in ground operations and airstrikes marks a move intended to stem ISIS’s Ramadan campaign in the Central Syrian Desert, which last year reached some 260 attacks, killing or wounding hundreds of people. Furthermore, just two months ago, in February, ISIS carried out the deadliest reported surprise attack in recent years, claiming the lives of 19 Syrian regime personnel and allied militia forces, sounding the alarm for Syrian authorities.

The reason ISIS is still capable of infrequently performing such attacks, is that despite the loss of most of its territories, as well as several leading figures, it features considerable experience that allows it to do so. Since the fall of the caliphate in 2019, the group has adapted its recruitment tactics and it has preserved the ability to self-finance its operations through three different sources: the sale of natural resources, the taxation of local communities and criminal activities. Oil sales was the prevalent income resource up until 2014, when the coalition forces launched a series of air strikes, destroying about half of the group’s refineries. Within the next three years, it is estimated that the U.S-led international coalition managed to cut the group’s monthly oil revenues by nearly 90%. Therefore, the leadership soon realized that alternative resources should be employed, with criminal activities and taxation of local communities currently covering a much greater portion of the group’s revenue. Ad hoc criminal activities, particularly kidnapping for ransom,  extortions and thefts constitute the most common tactics for the group. A great deal of reports have revealed that ISIS generates revenue worth of $800 million each year, from taxes imposed on agricultural products, such as wheat and barley crops, collected by civilians. This is an attainable tactic on Daesh’ ends, since its presence is more significant in the government-held areas of Syria, especially in the Badiya desert south of the Euphrates and east of Palmyra, where it intermittently holds some terrain there and is frequently able to cut off local communications. In this region, terrorist are used to intimidate and shake local merchants and farmers down financially. ISIS has also been engaged in other criminal activities, such as trafficking migrants from Libya into Europe, drug smuggling across the Middle East, and illegally selling antiquities from archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria.

In terms of recruitment methods, the Islamic State has highly sophisticated social media platforms and networks. In fact, undergoing investigations carried out by Turkish security teams have shown that there are individuals who are actively organizing the trade of arms, as well as the making of ammunition transfers for Daesh/ISIS members in conflict zones in Syria and Iraq, indicating the group’s efforts to climb back. On top of that, Turkey’s Ministry of National Defence announced on April 27, that its security forces arrested a Daesh terror suspect, while trying to infiltrate into Turkey through illegal means, over charges of making propaganda for the group. ISIS’s strategic use of social media demonstrates the resourcefulness of the Islamic State, which mobilized an estimated 40,000 foreign nationals from 110 countries to join the group. It is noteworthy, that the Islamic State has largely focused on appealing youths and men from around the globe, invoking them to join the group and contribute to its vision. The use of social media platforms, as well as slick and well equipped videos, has turned out to be few easy tools to be employed in order to achieve this goal. The group can successfully communicate its messages to a wider global audience, and eventually entice those, who are the most vulnerable to the extremist ideology.

Surprisingly, one of the most popular demographics that ISIS recruits, are women, particularly young Muslim-American females, who are marginalized by their environment and who are eventually recruited by other women. ISIS’ propaganda magazines, Dabiq and Rumiyah, are circulated in various languages worldwide, and have a separate section that is aimed at women, consisting of articles written by other women attempting to incite them to join the terrorist group. A primary point of these articles is the woman’s “duty” to give birth to the next generation of fighters and then raise them to be good mujahideen. Additionally, increasing internet access in the African region and the Middle East means has allowed ISIS to acquire supporters despite its territorial losses and the loss of power over the past years. Being partly a byproduct of Arab Spring in 2011 and populations’ dissatisfaction with their nations’ politics, along with nowadays’ increased social media access, the Islamic State has employed information and communication technologies (ICTs) to regain support and territory among the region’s politically aggrieved domestic audiences.

Undoubtably, the Islamic State is still present, even after its deconstruction in 2019, and following the recent operations conducted by national, regional, or international forces. Led by intelligent figures, the terrorist group has managed to survive all-out strikes, to come up with all the necessary means to continue financing its activities, as well as to maintain a respectful number of supporters across the globe. Young people, as well as people from poor, unshaped backgrounds constitute an easy target, while in the age of Internet they might be extremely prone to the propagating tactics employed by ISIS. These people should be the first to be protected. Therefore, both international and regional forces need to remain vigilant, as it is likely that ISIS will keep ramping up its efforts to reclaim its power in countries such as Syria, which could be better described as vulnerable and a breeding ground for terrorism.