ISIS retains global influence

Despite major setbacks, the Islamic State continues to wield influence worldwide.

By Erin Viner

The terror group, also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh, lost its second leader in 2 years when Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi detonated explosives during a United States military raid in northwest Syria last, killing himself and family members.

Its self-declared “Caliphate” in Iraq and Syria was dismantled during a sustained military campaign by a US-led  coalition, leaving the group in the shadows since the peak of its power 7 years ago, when it ruled millions of people in the Middle East and struck fear across the world with deadly terror attacks.

The group nevertheless remains a lethal force, claiming hundreds of attacks in Iraq and Syria last year, including Just last month, over an attempted jail break in northeast Syria that killed over 100 prison guards and security forces.

ISIS also expanded into Africa’s Sahel region this past year.

The following is a current summary of the radical Islamist group’s presence around the world as compiled by Reuters:

MIDDLE EAST

Iraq, where the group originated, and neighboring Syria remain the epicenter of Islamic State operations.

Once based in the Syrian city of Raqqa and Iraqi city of Mosul, from which it sought to rule like a centralized government, Islamic State now takes refuge in the hinterlands of the two fractured countries.

Its fighters are scattered in autonomous cells, its leadership is clandestine and its overall size hard to quantify, although the United Nations estimates it at 10,000 fighters in the heartlands.

Last month’s attack on the jail in Hasaka holding hundreds of Jihadist detainees was its largest operation since the collapse of the Caliphate, showing Islamic State can still carry out large-scale and lethal operations.

While links between the leadership and offshoots in other countries may be tenuous, groups from Sinai to Somalia pledged allegiance to Quraishi when he succeeded Islamic State’s founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in late 2019.

A United Nations report last year estimated that in Egypt’s Sinai province there may be between 800 to 1,200 fighters loyal to Islamic State.

In Libya, where it once held a strip of territory on the Mediterranean coast, the group is weaker, but could still exploit the country’s ongoing conflict. In Yemen it has also been in decline.

AFRICA

Groups affiliated operationally or by name to Islamic State are only a part of the militant threat across Africa. Others include al Qaeda-linked groups like al-Shabaab active in East Africa, and Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Islamic State has two known branches in the West and Central Africa region, which include multiple affiliates.

Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) formally split from Boko Haram in 2016, after a faction pledged allegiance to Islamic State the previous year. GlobalSecurity.org estimated the group had some 3,500 members in 2021.

ISWAP operates mostly around the Lake Chad area bordering Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger. It also includes Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), an operationally independent sub-group in the border area between Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.

The publication in March 2019 by Islamic State media of a picture of ISGS fighters under an ISWAP caption appeared to confirm a connection.

The Africa Center for Strategic Studies linked 524 violent events to ISGS in 2020, more than double the numbers of 2019, and they resulted in more than 2,000 fatalities across Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.

The ongoing militant threat posed by various groups has been one of the main factors behind a series of military coups in West Africa over the last 18 months.

One of the deadliest groups in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), has been linked to Islamic State Central Africa Province by the US State Department.

Although the extent of the ADF’s links to the movement are murky, the United States attributed the deaths of 849 civilians to the group in 2020.

ADF killings surged by almost 50% in 2021, according to figures from the United Nations. More than 1,200 people were killed in such attacks.

SOUTH ASIA

Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) – the movement’s chapter in Afghanistan and surrounding areas – has emerged as the principal militant threat in the region since the Taliban took over the country in August last year.

Experts say that its main areas of operation are Central and South Asian states, and that it has been led by an “ambitious” though lesser-known leader named Shahab al-Muhajir since 2020.

IS-K was first formed in 2015 with the blessing of Baghdadi, according to Western think-tanks, and was a formidable adversary to the US-backed government and Taliban insurgents, even as the two fought each other.

Without international and US-trained forces to contend with, IS-K activities have grown, stoking fears that Afghanistan could again become a haven for militant groups just as it was when al Qaeda attacked the United States in 2001.

“It’s just about the biggest concern at the moment for everyone, in the region and in the West,” a senior Western diplomat told Reuters late last year.

Moscow has voiced concern about IS-K increasing its footprint in Central Asian states.

The group has carried out a number of audacious attacks recently, most notably a complex raid on Afghanistan’s biggest military hospital in November last year that killed at least 25 people and wounded more than 50.

That followed a string of bombings by the group, including a suicide attack outside the gates of Kabul airport during a chaotic US evacuation operation that killed close to 200 people, including US military personnel.

Figures on IS-K’s strength vary. A committee of the UN Security Council put the number of IS-K fighters at between 1,500 and 2,200, but that was just before the fall of Kabul.

There have been reports of disaffected Taliban fighters and some Pakistani Taliban members joining IS-K in recent months. A spiraling economic crisis has pushed millions into poverty and left former Afghan Taliban fighters with no employment.

There is little to suggest direct material coordination between IS-K and Islamic State in the Middle East, but some claims of attacks carried out in Afghanistan and neighboring areas are posted on the group’s central information channels.