STRATEGIC ASSESSMENT. Exactly one year ago to the day, United States Special Operations Forces (SOF) hunted down the leader of the so-called Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who died after detonating a suicide vest in a town in northern Syria near Turkey.
Prior to his death, the group’s longtime leader was in hiding for seven months following the loss of the Islamic State’s last physical territory, the town of Baghouz, located near the Euphrates River in eastern Syria. Baghdadi was succeeded by Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla, aka Haji Abdallah aka Abu Ibrahim al Hashimi al Qurayshi.
Little is known about al-Qurayshi and at least to date, he has not proven nearly as charismatic and appealing as his predecessor in attracting new recruits to the organization. Of course, the decline in the Islamic State’s ability to recruit is also due to its loss of physical territory and the aggressive military campaign of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
Moreover, a number of Western states devised and implemented new policies to deny their citizens the opportunity to travel abroad to join groups that have been legally designated as terrorist organizations. ISIS will likely continue to encourage its followers to launch attacks on Western soil, relying on homegrown violent extremists radicalized online.
With the physical caliphate destroyed, ISIS has begun rebuilding its organization, operating as a low-level insurgency in both Iraq and Syria. Central or core ISIS still has access to hundreds of millions of dollars, according to several estimates, and maintains connections to middlemen and front companies that function as part of its broader network, with linkages spanning across the region and into Europe and Asia. ISIS fighters have gone to ground, but resurface frequently to launch attacks, including political assassinations, ambushes, and deadly hit-and-run attacks. With the United States drawing down its presence in Iraq, many close observers have been tracking Iran’s growing influence, and wondering whether that could serve to drive Iraqi Sunnis back into the arms of a reconstituted Islamic State.
Over the course of the past year, the Islamic State’s media operations have been a shadow of what they were during the peak of the caliphate. However, recent propaganda called for ISIS followers to launch attacks against Saudi infrastructure, including its oil facilities, as revenge for the Kingdom’s warming relations with Israel.
The squalid conditions at detention centers like al-Hol also provide ISIS with significant fodder for its propaganda.
Outside of Iraq and Syria, ISIS continues to focus on the expansion of its affiliates and franchise groups. Affiliates remain active in West Africa and the broader Sahel, South and Southeast Asia, and are making a concerted push for prominence in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, including the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique.
There were recently ISIS-linked attacks in Tanzania as well, signaling a worrisome trend. The Islamic State is actively seeking to put roots down in a range of fragile and failed states with porous borders, high levels of corruption, and weak security forces. In Afghanistan, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) has maintained the ability to launch spectacular attacks and could very well play spoiler in an attempt to derail ongoing peace talks between the United States, the Afghan Taliban, and the Afghan government.
As the United States continues to draw down forces from a number of global hotspots, the Islamic State, and a range of other violent non-state actors, will move to fill the void. On numerous occasions, President Trump has declared the group defeated. But no serious counterterrorism analysts believe this to be true. On the contrary, there is growing concern that as the United States shifts from prioritizing global counterterrorism efforts to a focus on great power competition, it could provide the Islamic State and its affiliates around the world with the space necessary to rebuild core competencies, including the ability to launch terrorist attacks in Europe and the West. But even if the West moves on from the fight against the Islamic State, ISIS will continue to rely on fissures in Western society to reinforce its message that the West is at war with Islam.
The recent beheading of a teacher in Paris and the stabbing several days later of two Arab women near the Eiffel Tower, apparently in response to the teacher’s beheading, has put France front and center in a debate over the identity of the country. Jihadist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda will look to exploit the situation in France to recruit new followers and incite further attacks in an attempt to destabilize Western countries (TSC).