Terrorism

Pushed into the shadows, ISIS still has global reach

ISIS expanded in Africa’s Sahel region last year and the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan may open up opportunities to strengthen its presence there.

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Since the peak of its power seven years ago, when it ruled millions of people in the Middle East and struck fear across the world with deadly bombings and shootings, ISIS has slipped back into the shadows.

Its self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria folded under a sustained military campaign by a US-led coalition, and it has suffered other setbacks in the Middle East.

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This week it lost its second leader in two years when Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi detonated explosives during a US military raid in northwest Syria, killing himself and family members.

But ISIS expanded in Africa’s Sahel region last year and the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan may open up opportunities to strengthen its presence there.

In the core area of its insurgency, Iraq and Syria, it claimed hundreds of attacks last year. In January it launched an attempted jail-break in northeast Syria in which more than 100 prison guards and security forces were killed.

Here is a summary of the group’s presence around the world.

Middle East

Iraq, where the group originated, and neighboring Syria remain the epicenter of Islamic State operations.

Once based in the Syrian city of Raqqa and Iraqi city of Mosul, from which it sought to rule like a centralized government, ISIS now takes refuge in the hinterlands of the two fractured countries.

Its fighters are scattered in autonomous cells, its leadership is clandestine and its overall size hard to quantify, although the United Nations estimates it at 10,000 fighters in the heartlands.

Last month’s attack on the jail in Hasaka holding hundreds of jihadist detainees was its largest operation since the collapse of the caliphate, showing ISIS can still carry out large-scale and lethal operations.

While links between the leadership and offshoots in other countries may be tenuous, groups from Sinai to Somalia pledged allegiance to Quraishi when he succeeded ISIS founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in late 2019.

A United Nations report last year estimated that in Egypt’s Sinai province there may be between 800 to 1,200 fighters loyal to ISIS.

In Libya, where it once held a strip of territory on the Mediterranean coast, the group is weaker, but could still exploit the country’s ongoing conflict. In Yemen it has also been in decline.

Africa

Groups affiliated operationally or by name to ISIS are only a part of the militant threat across Africa. Others include al Qaeda-linked groups, Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab, which is active in East Africa.

ISIS has two known affiliates in the West and Central Africa region.

The Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) formally split from Boko Haram in 2016, after a faction pledged allegiance to Islamic State the previous year.

GlobalSecurity.org estimated the group had some 3,500 members in 2021.

ISWAP operates mostly around the Lake Chad area bordering Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

The other affiliate, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), operates around the border area of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. Crisis Group says ISWAP has links to ISGS.

The publication in March 2019 by ISIS media of a picture of ISGS fighters under an ISWAP caption appeared to confirm a connection.

The Africa Center for Strategic Studies linked 524 violent events to ISGS in 2020, more than double the numbers of 2019, and they resulted in more than 2,000 fatalities across Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.

The ongoing militant threat posed by various groups has been one of the main factors behind a series of military coups in West Africa over the last 18 months.

One of the deadliest groups in Eastern Congo, the Allied Democratic Forces, has been linked to Islamic State by the US State Department, who refer to them as IS-DRC.

Although the extent of the ADF’s links to the movement are murky, the United States attributed the deaths of 849 civilians to the group in 2020.

ADF killings surged by almost 50 percent in 2021, according to figures from the United Nations. More than 1,200 people were killed in such attacks.

South Asia

Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K) - the movement’s chapter in Afghanistan and surrounding areas - has emerged as the principal militant threat in the region since the Taliban took over the country in August last year.

Experts say that its main areas of operation are Central and South Asian states, and that it has been led by an “ambitious” though lesser-known leader named Shahab al-Muhajir since 2020.

ISIS-K was first formed in 2015 with the blessing of Baghdadi, according to Western think-tanks, and was a formidable adversary to the US-backed government and Taliban insurgents, even as the two fought each other.

Without international and US-trained forces to contend with, ISIS-K activities have grown, stoking fears that Afghanistan could again become a haven for militant groups just as it was when al Qaeda attacked the United States in 2001.

“It’s just about the biggest concern at the moment for everyone, in the region and in the West,” a senior Western diplomat told Reuters late last year.

Moscow has voiced concern about ISIS-K increasing its footprint in Central Asian states.

The group has carried out a number of audacious attacks recently, most notably a complex raid on Afghanistan’s biggest military hospital in November last year that killed at least 25 people and wounded more than 50.

That followed a string of bombings by the group, including a suicide attack outside the gates of Kabul airport during a chaotic US evacuation operation that killed close to 200 people, including US military personnel.

Figures on ISIS-K’s strength vary. A committee of the UN Security Council put the number of ISIS-K fighters at between 1,500 and 2,200, but that was just before the fall of Kabul.

There have been reports of disaffected Taliban fighters and some Pakistani Taliban members joining ISIS-K in recent months. A spiraling economic crisis has pushed millions into poverty and left former Afghan Taliban fighters with no employment.

There is little to suggest direct material coordination between ISIS-K and ISIS in the Middle East, but some claims of attacks carried out in Afghanistan and neighboring areas are posted on the group’s central information channels.

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