The capabilities of the Islamic State in Syria “remained the same” after the death of self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, according to a Defense Department Office of Inspector General report.
The quarterly report to Congress on Operation Inherent Resolve covers the months of October, November and December; al-Baghdadi detonated his explosive vest during a raid in Syria’s Idlib Province on Oct. 27, 2019.
“USCENTCOM said that ISIS remained cohesive, with an intact command and control structure, urban clandestine networks, and an insurgent presence in much of rural Syria,” states the report. “USCENTCOM and the DIA both assessed that the October death of al Baghdadi did not result in any immediate degradation to ISIS’s capabilities.”
U.S. Central Command reported in December, the OIG added, that “ISIS maintained the pace, scope, and complexity of its operations in SDF-controlled areas, but did not significantly advance its insurgency.”
The Treasury Department also reported to the OIG that ISIS “continues to generate revenue by extorting oil smuggling networks in northeastern Syria” and makes most of the terror group’s money from kidnapping for ransom, extortion, looting, and the use of front companies. “The Treasury said that ISIS continues to have access to financial reserves in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and that it continued to rebuild fundraising networks,” the report added.
The Syrian Democratic Forces are holding some 10,000 ISIS prisoners, including 2,000 foreign fighters, and the report reflected concerns that “the longer ISIS prisoners are held in SDF prisons, the greater the potential for them to organize breakouts.”
The facilities to hold ISIS family members contain about 13,500 women and children, and the Defense Intelligence Agency told the OIG that “ISIS remains able to move people and resources in and out of camps by relying on smugglers.”
“The DIA said that security is tenuous in some areas of the Al Hol camp, where approximately 400 guards have struggled to secure the camp. It said that security personnel fear patrolling some areas of the camp due to previous attacks against guards and the limited number of security personnel,” the report added. “The DIA said that ISIS members have stepped up efforts at Al Hol to intimidate and enforce ISIS ideology through self-appointed morality police and Islamic Sharia law courts, and by imposing religious classes on women.”
In Iraq, ISIS “continued to reconstitute”; OIG cited DIA’s November assessment that al-Baghdadi’s death would have little effect on ISIS’s ability to “maintain continuity of operations, global cohesion, and at least its current trajectory.”
In December, ISIS in Iraq “continued with a pattern of low-level attacks concentrated in the provinces north and west of Baghdad, but did not appear either to grow stronger or to lose its footholds in Iraq’s deserts and mountainous areas,” said the report. CJTF-OIR also reported to the DoD OIG that “ISIS maintained both freedom of movement and the ability to hide and transport fighters and materiel in rural areas where ISF presence is less intense and ISIS can more easily avoid detection and capture.”
“ISIS also occasionally infiltrates urban centers to conduct attacks, but has not tried to hold territory or succeeded in attacking strategic targets or damaging critical infrastructure, CJTF-OIR said. ISIS also has been unable to conduct major attacks in Baghdad, which USCENTCOM characterized as a “difficult operating environment for ISIS.’”
A key challenge for ISIS in Iraq is unsympathetic Iraqis. “CJTF-OIR reported that in terms of popular support, ISIS may receive passive support due to ideological or tribal ties, but that the vast majority of the Iraqi population, including in Sunni areas, remains hostile to ISIS,” the OIG report said. “In some instances, intimidation by ISIS members had become so intense in Diyala that village residents temporarily left their homes this quarter. CJTFOIR said Sunni hostility toward ISIS also likely limited ISIS’s ability to conduct large-scale recruiting.”