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Back with a bang: Islamic State rears its head in Syria again

Five years after its decimation in the Middle East, the terrorist group that once proclaimed a ‘state’ has used Africa and Central Asia to regroup, and is now resurgent in its former heartlands.

Syrian Kurdish Asayish security forces guard a house during a raid against suspected IS fighters in Raqqa, the jihadist group's former de facto capital in Syria, on January 29, 2023.
Syrian Kurdish Asayish security forces guard a house during a raid against suspected IS fighters in Raqqa, the jihadist group's former de facto capital in Syria, on January 29, 2023.

In the aftermath of the Islamic State (IS) attack in Moscow on 22 March, media and policy attention focused squarely on the threat posed by IS’s branch in Afghanistan, known as IS Khorasan Province (ISKP).

In many ways, this was entirely understandable.

Days earlier, Commander of US Central Command Gen. Erik Kurilla told Congress that ISKP has “the capability and will to attack US and Western interests in as little as six months, with little or no warning.”

In fact, in the run-up to the Moscow attack, the US State Department issued several public alerts regarding a possible terrorist threat inside Russia.

Meanwhile, the US intelligence community informed their Russian counterparts of an impending IS threat.

Beyond ISKP, considerable recent attention has also been paid to IS’s significant expansion in Africa, where the group is now active in more than 20 countries.

It is from Africa more than anywhere else that IS has begun to impose territorial control and severe forms of governance, and from there, lines of recruitment, logistics, and finance that stretch into Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia.

IS finance bodies based in West and East Africa have transferred large and repeated sums of funds to ISKP in Afghanistan, to support their operations there and abroad.

Back in IS heartlands

Since the territorial defeat of IS’s self-proclaimed ‘state’ in early-2019, little attention has been paid to the terror group’s original and long-standing heartland in Syria and Iraq. To some extent, this is understandable.

The concerted international campaign to counter IS from 2014-19 did render it a shadow of its former self. From 2019, IS attacks declined steadily, to the lowest levels seen since 2010.

This remains the case in Iraq, where a successful coalition campaign and the rebuilding of Iraq’s security apparatus has seen IS almost disappear.

In the past 12 months, IS has conducted a total of just 108 attacks on Iraqi soil, averaging less than ten a month.

In the 12 months before that, it was responsible for 347 attacks, averaging almost 30 a month.

In the past year, IS conducted on average around ten attacks a month on Iraqi soil. In the 12 months before, it averaged almost 30 a month.

While the situation in Iraq is justifiably encouraging, recent developments next door in Syria are extremely alarming.

In both the regime-held Syrian badiya and the SDF-administered north-east, IS attacks have surged of late.

A Syrian surge

According to SDF authorities, there were 30-40% increases consecutively each month from January, more than 115 attacks recorded in total.

In the badiya meanwhile, IS launched at least 135 attacks in the first three months of 2024, representing a 170% increase from the three months before.

In March alone, IS was responsible for at least 69 attacks in the SDF-held northeast, the highest monthly tally seen since it was still a territorial entity.

IS attacks in Syria have ebbed and flowed on a monthly basis in recent years, but the group has not achieved such dramatic and consecutive month-on-month increases at such a scale and in all regions of operation since 2017.

Iraqi members of the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation units) carry an upsidedown Islamic State (IS) group flag in the city of al-Qaim, in Iraq's western Anbar province near the Syrian border as they fight against IS.

Mounting evidence of an IS recovery also goes far beyond attack numbers alone. The nature of its attacks has grown increasingly bold and sophisticated.

While isolated IED attacks were a dominant feature in recent years, 2024 has seen more complex amassed assaults, coordinated ambushes, armed raids, and even the use of fake checkpoints to capture, interrogate and execute enemies.

Targeted assassinations of local officials have also become far more common.

Change and recovery

IS's clear and more recent willingness to risk its own fighters in battle suggests that a previous shortage of manpower is no longer an issue.

The increasingly audacious and deadly nature of its attacks works to rebuild internal morale and challenge enemy confidence.

There have been increasing accounts of IS shadow influence and occasional territorial control in rural regions of northeastern, eastern, and central Syria since mid-2023.

IS has also begun to shift away from a purely rural insurgency and is now conducting attacks in towns and cities—a clear investment in urban penetration.

Reports have emerged of limited IS night-time control in parts of Deir ez Zour, a city, and covert armed activity in al-Mayadin, both situated in the heart of multiple lines of control and ongoing conflict.

IS's notorious extortion and intimidation networks are also back in full swing, the group 'taxing' everyone from doctors and shopkeepers to farmers and truck drivers.

The group is increasingly issuing bespoke extortion demands tailored according to its detailed knowledge of local business revenue streams.

IS's notorious extortion and intimidation network is back in full swing, now issuing bespoke extortion demands tailored to local businesses.

IS-branded receipts are even being issued, and when required, threats are sent directly via personal phones or relatives.

In SDF-held areas, such threats are also a routine part of life for local commanders, prison and camp guards, and civilian officials.

Worrying trajectories

Should IS continue along its newfound trajectory, the impact of its extortion, intimidation and threats will grow exponentially.

That process began in Iraq and later in Syria from 2011, setting the stage for IS's dramatic territorial expansion three years later.

The fact that Syria offers IS opportunities not just to survive but to recover should not come as a surprise. This surge in attacks has not come out of nowhere.

There have been signs for months, with the root causes and drivers fueling the likes of IS persisting, if not worsening with time.

What is most concerning is that IS's apparent recovery is no longer restricted to a specific part of Syria—the trend-lines are now virtually uniform across the regime-held centre, east, and the SDF-administered northeast.

It will take a concerted effort from all actors to stem the newfound momentum that now appears to be in play.

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