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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Is ISIS Really a Defeated Terrorist Organization?

The world has failed so far to predict and prevent notable attacks from terrorist organizations. The list includes many but is not limited to Hamas’s brutal massacre on October 7, 2023, in which Hamas conducted a complex coordinated terrorist attack and killed 1,300 Israeli civilians, military, and law enforcement. The Israeli government receives harsh criticisms for missing the attacks despite the firm footsteps of the group’s increasing operational capacity in the region. Other attacks in this list are the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States (US), the March 2004 Madrid bombings, the July 2005 London bombings, the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, and the November 2015 Paris attacks.

Every notable terrorist attack by Salafi-jihadist groups has recorded debates and comments on intelligence weakness, and the governments were accused of failing to prevent these attacks. These debates have faded over the years, and the low-profile attacks of jihadist organizations have sent a message to the Western governments that these groups are no more threats to global security. Today, the narrative in the Western world is that these groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have been nailed down and are local threats. This article, using the Global Terrorism and Trends Analysis Center (GTTAC) Records of Incidents Database (GRID), examines whether ISIS is a defeated organization.

ISIS is unique in the history of terrorism from various perspectives: First, it was Al-Qaeda’s regional branch in Iraq in the early 2000s, but it evolved into today’s ISIS in the Middle East. The terrorist group controlled territory in Iraq and Syria, acted like a de facto state and ruled more than six million people. At its peak in 2014 and 2015, the organization recruited more than 30,000 militants from more than 90 countries. Second, it is considered a role-model organization in which other groups emulate its violent tactics, such as beheadings, burning people alive, and suicide bombings. Third, the group actively uses social media and recruits militants. Fourth, its ideology is more inspirational to European- or US-born individuals. Today, lone actors who are inspired by ISIS ideology are more than any other Salafi-jihadist terrorist group. Fourth, ISIS was able to generate two billion dollars yearly in revenue from charities and donations, as well as its involvement in illicit trade such as oil smuggling and antiquities trafficking. Fifth, ISIS has a regional-level representation with its affiliated regional organizations. The affiliated group is defined as pledging allegiance, declaring loyalty, breaking away from the group but still being linked by finance, communications, technical work, recruitment, or being a splinter/offshoot organization. ISIS’s growing popularity has led other jihadist groups to convene under its flag to benefit from its fame and become a well-known terrorist organization, given the fact that they are aware of how this strategy brings them more recruits and funds. For example, the Ansar al-Sunna group, which operated in northern Cabo Delgado, pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2017 and changed its name to ISIS-Mozambique (ISIS-M). Later years recorded brutality of ISIS-M and involvement in beheading attacks and ending up in the Department of State’s Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list.

The narrative of ISIS’s defeat is based on several arguments. The Western world believes that ISIS and its affiliated organizations are confined to the regions and are primarily regional threats. Moreover, these groups have recently failed to make notable attacks and are the perpetrators of low-profile attacks, mainly targeting local military forces and state institutions. Additionally, the Western world is overconfident in the results of decapitation strategies that target the leader of a Salafi-jihadist terrorist organization. For example, two of ISIS’s successive leaders were killed in US military operations in 2019 and 2021. However, these strategies have little impact on jihadist groups as it takes only several hours to replace the decapitated leader.

Contrary to the common belief about ISIS’s defeat, the GRID recorded a rising number of attacks by ISIS and its affiliated organizations from 2018 to 2022, as seen in Figure 1 below. Its attacks steadily grew in this period, with 1,313 attacks in 2022.

Figure 1: ISIS and Its affiliated Organizations’ Attacks from 2018 to 2022

Figure 2 below indicates the most active six ISIS groups. The ISIS-Core is still based in Syria and Iraq, and it is the leading group with the most incidents. The group was the perpetrator of 2,885 attacks from 2018 to 2022. International reports underline that ISIS militants left Iraq and Syria and moved to other conflict zones, including the countries in the Sahel. ISIS is far from its former prominence and operational capacity of 2014 and 2015; however, the group maintains its presence in the region, mainly the Deir ez-Zur province of Syria. Whereas most of its attacks are low-profile and recorded several people killed or wounded in Iraq and Syria, the steadily increasing attacks over the years seem to be alarming and require a close approach to ISIS-Core in the Middle East.

Figure 2: Top Six ISIS and Its Affiliated Groups with the Most Incidents from 2018 to 2022

ISIS-DRC, also known as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), is responsible for many attacks across North Kivu and Ituri provinces. The group was designated as a terrorist organization by the Department of State in 2021. The group is notorious for its deadly violence against Congolese citizens and regional military forces. ISIS-DRC conducted 1,050 attacks from 2018 to 2022. ISIS-West Africa is based in Nigeria and has competed with the Boko Haram terrorist organization to be the regional hegemon in Western Africa. In 2023, ISIS-West Africa continued its attacks in the region and used Katyusha rockets in several of its attacks, targeting the military in Niger on November 2023. Iran has supplied these rockets to organizations in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. It was the first use of these rockets by ISIS-West Africa. It is a question of how ISIS-West Africa procures these rockets, but the records of Katyusha rockets in the Middle East make Iran the biggest suspect as a supplier. ISIS-Mozambique (ISIS-M) is another organization that committed 281 attacks from 2018 to 2022. Designated as a terrorist organization in 2021, ISIS-M is one of the deadliest ISIS regional affiliates due to its use of beheadings as a terrorist tactic. Another ISIS group on the list is its affiliate in Afghanistan. ISIS-K has become a regional threat and expanded its operational capacity in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

In 2023, ISIS and its affiliated organizations have continued its attacks. In the first nine months of 2023, GRID recorded 813 attacks. ISIS-Core was the leading organization with 392 attacks in Syria and Iraq, followed by ISIS-DRC with 204 attacks, ISIS-West Africa with 57, ISIS-M with 49, and ISIS-K with 39 attacks. Also, ISIS affiliates in the Philippines garner special attention due to their increasing attacks in the region. For example, ISIS claimed responsibility for a deadly explosion that ripped through a Catholic mass service, killing four and wounding dozens of others on November 2023.

Figure 3 below shows the top ten terrorist tactics that ISIS and its affiliated organizations deployed from 2018 to 2022. These tactics have been strong indicators of ISIS’s operational capacity. The groups’ most used tactic was shooting, followed by planting mines/IEDs, bombing, kidnapping, ambush, executions, and suicide bombings. Similarly, the first nine months of 2023 recorded the same tactics used by ISIS, such as shooting in 397 incidents, planting mines/IEDs in 105 incidents, bombing in 50, kidnapping in 102, ambush in 43, executions in 44, suicide bombing in 19, and assassinations in 5 incidents. These complex tactics made ISIS one of the deadliest terrorist organizations. The Department of State’s top ten deadliest terror groups listed ISIS-Core, ISIS-K, ISIS-West Africa, and ISIS-M in 2021.

Figure 3: The Top Ten ISIS Tactics from 2018 to 2022

Figure 4 below shows the number of casualties by ISIS from 2018 to 2022. ISIS killed 24,770 people in this period, which accounted for 28 percent of total killings worldwide. The first nine months of 2023 recorded 3,467 killings by ISIS and its affiliated organizations. ISIS-DRC seems to be the deadliest ISIS branch in 2023, which killed 1,232 people, followed by ISIS-West Africa, which killed 863, which is more than ISIS-Core, with 787 killings. ISIS branch in the Sahel killed 213 people in its attacks in the same period.

Figure 4: Casualties (Killed, Wounded, and Kidnapped) by ISIS from 2018 to 2022

To conclude, ISIS and its affiliated organizations have continued their brutal attacks in 2023. It seems that ISIS has kept its operational capacity and threatened regional and global security. More specifically, ISIS affiliates in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Nigeria, the Philippines, and the Sahel region receive special attention in terms of their increasing threat levels. These groups procured similar weapons and explosives in 2023, but ISIS-West Africa’s using Katyusha rockets in several attacks in Niger has brought to mind the likely connections of Iran with global jihadist groups. Based on global terrorism databases that track and record terrorist incidents, it is crucial to review counterterrorism strategies and specify likely hot spots of ISIS and its affiliated groups. The current governments that register ISIS activities in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia lack the resources and capacity to fight against these groups. Nonetheless, the intelligence communities in the Western world need to focus on these organizations’ elevated threat levels.

author avatar
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University (GMU). Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He has also been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, the European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, many articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the illicit economy. Since 2018, Dr. Cengiz has been working on the launch and development of the Global Terrorist Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) and currently serves as Academic Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the GMU component. He teaches Terrorism, American Security Policy, and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.
Mahmut Cengiz
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University (GMU). Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He has also been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, the European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, many articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the illicit economy. Since 2018, Dr. Cengiz has been working on the launch and development of the Global Terrorist Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) and currently serves as Academic Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the GMU component. He teaches Terrorism, American Security Policy, and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.

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