The rebirth of ISIS, which should scare us

Five years ago, the last remnants of the Islamic State's so-called caliphate were annihilated by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish militia supported by the United States and its allies, which was instrumental in defeating the terrorist group. What is still called “the final battle against ISIS” took place in the Syrian city of Al-Baghuz Fawqani, located in the desert district of Abu Kamal, Deir ez-Zor district. The battle against the last ISIS diehards, among whom there were many foreign fighters (including European ones), began on 9 February 2019 and ended on 23 March 2019. Thousands of jihadists died and just as many were on the run. In the context of inefficiency in the fight against ISIS, a striking example emerges from Iraq and Syria. Currently, around 46,500 women and children are in desperate conditions inside refugee camps in northeast Syria, while at least another 9,000 ISIS fighters are detained in centers run by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Repeatedly, ISIS members attempted to free their fellow prisoners, launching offensive campaigns such as “Breaking the Walls,” which aimed to attack prisons and incite riots within. In January 2022, ISIS attacked a prison in Hasakah, Syria, starting a ten-day battle that allowed thousands of jihadist prisoners to escape.

ISIS has at least 20,000 fighters

In the period between 2015 and 2017, the territory controlled by ISIS was larger than Great Britain. The organization, according to a 2019 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), composed of around 40,000 foreign fighters (around 6,000 Europeans), joined ISIS in Iraq and Syria. How many are there today? Current estimates are around 20,000 foreign fighters still active, of which around 10,000 in Iraq and Syria and 10,000 in other countries. Those who believe that ISIS has disappeared from “Siraq” should look at this data: in March alone its militiamen carried out at least 69 attacks in the governorates of Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Raqqa and Deir Ez Zor which killed at least 84 pro-Assad regime soldiers and 44 civilians and wounded at least 51 other soldiers and civilians. Numerous branches of ISIS are now active, especially in Africa, where they carry out brutal attacks every day in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Egypt, Mozambique and Nigeria. Thanks to the military training received from former Iraqi army officers and intelligence officers who passed under the caliph of the time Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi (+2019), ISIS was able to terrorize Europe with a series of spectacular terrorist attacks, for example those which occurred in Paris in November 2015 and in Brussels in March 2016. The extraordinary capacity of the ISIS media apparatus did not only serve to recruit people to go and die in “Siraq”, where they perpetrated every kind of violence, see the beheadings of Western hostages complete with videos and images to recruit radicalized individuals, but it has pushed “lone wolves” to carry out terrorist acts all over the world and to use vehicles to attack crowds.

What is the Islamic State today

At the beginning of 2024, ISIS is very different compared to five years ago, for example in its command structure which has seen four caliphs succeed one another and die, see Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (+2019), Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi (+2022), Abu al Hasan al Hashimi al Qurashi (+2022), Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurashi (+2023). Since August 3, 2023, the fifth caliph of the Islamic State is the mysterious Abu Hafs al-Hashimi al-Quraishi who has managed to stabilize the organization which has seen a succession of local leaders and chiefs who died in battle. According to Colin P. Clark, director of policy and research at The Soufan Group, “ISIS and its affiliates have demonstrated remarkable ability to adapt and survive. Having suffered significant territorial losses in the Middle East, substantial reductions in its ranks, and the elimination of key leaders, ISIS has nevertheless managed to transform itself into a decentralized network of regional branches, many of which retain the ability to launch terrorist attacks of high profile. Built around its core extremist Salafi-jihadist ideology that has continued to resonate among would-be extremists, ISIS has exploited social media, Internet forums, and a sophisticated propaganda apparatus to promote its violent and virulently sectarian messages to populations vulnerable and deprived of civil rights. ISIS's ability to recruit, inspire, radicalize, and mobilize its supporters to violence is directly linked to its effectiveness in exploiting historical grievances and its deliberate strategy to create franchise groups in regions characterized by political corruption, vast socioeconomic disparities, and weak governance”. The extraordinary resilience capacity of the terrorist group and its adaptability to every context have led to the birth of local branches affiliated through the so-called baya't (act of allegiance) in Afghanistan, in the Egyptian peninsula of Sinai, in Somalia and in Mozambique only for name a few. Groups that are sometimes obscure in their leadership such as Ansar Al Sunna (ISIS Mozambique) or ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K), which, as Colin P. Clark recalls in a recent report, represent a constant danger: «The decentralized structure of the organization allows its affiliates to operate semi-autonomously, outside of traditional rigid command and control schemes. This, however, facilitates the embedding of their activities within the group's broader global terrorist enterprise, helping to strengthen its overall objectives.”

After Moscow, football stadiums are a target of ISIS

As seen in the attack on Crocus City Hall, the concert hall on the outskirts of Moscow last March 22 which caused over 140 deaths, the Islamic State can move its branch into Afghanistan, ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) (which has around 6,000 fighters), to carry out spectacular operations outside traditional borders and it is certainly no coincidence that during 2023 in Europe many of the foiled attacks and the consequent arrests featured individuals from Central Asia, a true infinite reservoir of fighters see Chechnya, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Ingushetia. All the signs collected in recent months tell us that ISIS has Europe increasingly in its sights where events such as the Paris Olympics and the European Football Championships will soon be held which are possible targets of terrorist actions in which the men of the 'ISIS-K. But that's not all because in the last few hours a graphic representation has appeared on the official channels of the Islamic State in which it is asked to carry out attacks in stadiums with these words: «Launch, o Muwahhid, towards your new objective. The stands and matches in the stadiums are filled with large numbers of crusaders. The goals are easy to achieve, the results are enormous, Allah willing, and the reward is many times greater. This will kill them, blood their days, ruin their lives and make pain their punishment. The Prophet said: A kaffir and his murderer will never be reunited in hell. (Ahmad).”