The United Nations just released a new report on the Islamic State and other jihadist groups. It warned that while IS has been defeated militarily in Syria and Iraq it is reverting back to an insurgency to make a comeback. That involves rebuilding its cadres and finances, dispersing its leadership so that they can survive, and adapting to its new situation.
The Islamic State faced its final defeat as a “state” in March 2019 when it lost Baghuz in eastern Syria. The group suffered heavy losses, but at the same time there were far more IS fighters than expected in Baghuz when it fell. IS is now trying to rebuild its networks in the provinces. That also includes spreading out its leadership to protect it. Some senior IS leaders are said to have gone to Idlib for example. That’s the priority over saving its rank and file. This effort has led to increased attacks in the country. These are important points. First, estimates of IS fighters are basically guessing games. The latest U.S. inspector generals report to Congress believed there were 14,000-18,000 members in Iraq and Syria. The large numbers found in Baghuz could support these figures. On the other hand, the fact that it is willing to sacrifice its fighters to save its leaders could mean these numbers are too high or could be on the decline. Second, the increased operations in Syria could account for why there are so few in Iraq this year.
IS lost in Iraq two years earlier than Syria which has given it more time to rebuild there. The U.N. believes this has led to more progress in that country than Syria. IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and most of the top IS cadre are now believed to be in Iraq. If IS is more advanced in Iraq than Syria it’s not being expressed in terms of attacks. Carrying out operations however is only one part of what IS does so it might be spending more time on training, collecting intelligence, raising money, etc.
Overall, the U.N. said that this is a period of reorganization for IS. It has to re-establish its communications because the group is now so spread out. The threat of messages being intercepted has also led the leadership to delegate powers to its commanders, and told them they have to become self-sufficient. It is also focusing upon preserving its core Iraqi and Syrian fighters. That means the foreign fighters are considered expendable. IS still wants to inspire international attacks even though it is no state to carry them out itself. It’s hoping that its message and example will still be powerful enough to bring people in from around the world and create acts of terrorism. This is the second time the group is trying to rebuild in around a decades time. It can draw upon that previous experience for this current effort. Overall, IS’s focus appears to be upon conserving the resources it has, and hoping that its core is enough to make a second comeback. This is helped by the continued chaos in Syria and the lack of government presence in Iraq’s rural and desert areas.
The last issue the report dealt with was the Islamic State’s finances. The U.N. estimated that the organization still has around $50-$300 million. This is enough to run operations. It is seeking to expand this by its usual tactics of a mix of crime such as smuggling, extortion, and kidnapping for money, as well as running legitimate businesses. It might have a stash of stolen artifacts it can sell too. It’s still able to move its cash around and distribute it to its cells via couriers and money exchanges. Money is even more important than its cadres right now because without sufficient funds there’s no way they can do anything. The fact that they still have tens of millions of dollars is a large stash from which it can build upon. It has plenty of experience in mixing crime with business. Again, the situations in Iraq and Syria facilitate this type of activity because governance is weak and corruption is rampant.
Lots has been made of the Islamic State’s rebuilding effort. The U.N. report was important because it provided lots of details like how much money the group might have, its focus upon its core, etc. The fact that the group has already gone through this before gives it the confidence that it can do this once again. One of its catchphrases is to endure. The question now is what can the Iraqi and Syrian governments and the international coalition do about this? All three emphasize military means to counter IS. The U.S. is providing intelligence to Baghdad, which is extremely important, but there is little on countering the group’s financing. Right now the future of IS is up in the air. It’s so early in its rebuilding effort there’s no clear signs upon which way it will go. Attacks in Iraq for example have gone down to an all time low. Does this mean it is having problems with its cadres or is it focusing upon Syria or simply emphasizing other tasks for now hoping to ramp up operations in the future? Only time will tell what will happen.
Lead Inspector General, “Operation Inherent Resolve, Lead Inspector General Report To The United States Congress,” 8/2/19
United Nations Security Council, “Twenty-fourth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted in pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” 7/15/19