Middle East – The resurgence of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq

Middle East – The resurgence of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq

Islamic State (IS) rarely makes the mainstream media headlines these days. After losing the last of their territory during the Battle of Baghuz Fawqani in early 2019, the “caliphate was declared “defeated”. However, 2020 saw a significant growth in IS attacks in their traditional heartlands of Syria and Iraq, as well as a growing presence in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and across large parts of the African continent. Despite the loss of territory, the ideology of ISIS was not defeated, and although it’s difficult to put a precise number on their manpower, there is evidence that they are re-establishing themselves in the Middle East.

An Islamic State resurgence in the Middle East?

On 21 January 2021, two suicide bombers mounted an attack in a crowded marketplace in Baghdad killing 32 people and injuring many more. Less than 24 hours later, IS claimed responsibility. While attacks in the Iraqi capital have been rare in recent years, across the region more generally, 2020 saw a sharp upturn in IS activities. A report from the Middle East Institute claimed that IS are “demonstrating both a capacity and a willingness […] to retake territory, populations, and resources” in both Syria and Iraq. And according to Iraqi military officials, attacks are becoming more complex and sophisticated. As well as a resurgence in attacks, the group have increased their online recruitment and retain large reserves of funds. 


The site of the suicide bomb attack in a central market in Baghdad, January 2021 [Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/1/22/islamic-state-claims-deadly-baghdad-twin-suicide-bombing 

Popularity, pandemonium, policies and pandemics

There are a number of supply-and-demand factors contributing to the resurgence of IS: The popularity of the group’s ideology, the pandemonium of the regions in which it operates, the sometimes incoherent and inconsistent policies enacted to counter it, and of course, the Coronavirus pandemic currently disrupting the globe. The necessary brevity of this risk analysis precludes a deep-dive of these issues and so the reader will forgive the cursory nature of these overviews.


While the territorial losses in 2019 looked promising, groups like IS operate on a different timescale to much of the rest of the world. With “success measured in decades”, loss of land is seen as temporary in the wider jihad, and small gains will be seen as great victories. In the short-term at least, tangible assets matter less than the spread of the salafi-jihadist ideology.

To be clear, for the rank-and-file of IS, this ideology is not necessarily religious in nature. Fighters are motivated by a range of factors including security, identity, justice, adventure and even the prospect of death. IS are popular because they offer the young, the disenfranchised and the disillusioned, an alternative. They offer belonging, direction, status, and reward, and do this through highly sophisticated public relations and recruitment strategies. This enables ISIS to tap into local grievances around the world and inspire revolutionary fervour amongst disparate identity groups. For every fighter killed, another can be recruited and for every inch of land lost, another can be recovered later. As long as the ideology survives, so too does the movement, biding its time.


The very conditions that allowed for the establishment of IS in Iraq and Syria, persist. Arising from the security vacuum left behind by the US invasion of Iraq, and seeing massive growth through exploitation of the conflict in Syria, IS have been able to take advantage of the lack of security apparatus, ethno-religious grievances and porous borders of the Middle East. 

In early 2021, Iraq continues to see civil unrest over high unemployment, corruption, and the lack of basic services provided by the government. Additionally, Iranian influence and the presence of proxy militias, which were initially intended to fight IS, are also creating tensions between Sunni and Shia groups in Iraq. In Syria, which shortly enters its tenth year of civil war, the situation remains unstable and increasingly protracted owing to the number of internal and external actors involved. With neither a political nor military settlement in sight, the state remains highly fragile and susceptible to IS using the rapidly changing dynamics to re-establish a foothold.

Basra Protest

Anti-government protestors throw stones towards security forces in Basra, Iraq – November 2020 (AP) https://thearabweekly.com/unrest-erupts-anew-iraqs-anniversary-protests


Perhaps the most contentious of the causes identified in this article, are the strategies and policies enacted to combat IS and the wider War on Terror. On the ground, punitive measures such as drone warfare and prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, have amplified the rhetoric of the ‘aggressive west’ in IS propaganda. Likewise, western domestic counterterrorism measures, such as the UK’s Prevent strategy, have further marginalised young Muslims, and grotesquely, may have led some towards extremism. As well as questionable content, the lack of a consistent and cohesive strategy, such as former US president Trump’s surprise abandonment of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a key ally in the fight against IS – has created instability and conditions ripe for manipulation by IS. Notwithstanding the conflation of these disparate responses and oversimplification of a complex situation, the lack of a clear and rational ‘joined-up’ strategy has arguably caused more harm than good in the fight against IS.

Perhaps the most concerning policy-related factor though, is the discernable lack of one in relation to the prisons and displacement camps in former IS territory. Camps such as Al-Hawl, near the Syria-Iraq border, which houses the families of IS fighters, is vastly overcrowded, violent and has become a “cauldron of radicalization” for the estimated 70,000 individuals, predominantly children, within. The responsibility for the rapidly-declining security of the camps has been left to a small contingent of the SDF, who are powerless to stymie the spread of IS ideology. In the prisons, many foreign fighters wait in limbo, while their home governments decline to repatriate them for retribution and/or reintegration. All entailed, this is a time bomb of individuals suffering, surrounded by violence and with extremely limited options for the future, other than to succumb to the relative security and sway of IS or similar non-state entities. 


A woman and child walking in al-Hawl. Photograph: Achilleas Zavallis/Guardian/The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/31/inside-al-hawl-camp-the-incubator-for-islamic-states-resurgence


The coronavirus pandemic has left its mark on almost every corner of the globe and on every industry and human activity. For IS, it has provided ample opportunity for exploitation. As the governments of both Iraq and Syria struggle to tackle the pandemic, they have limited resources left for the fight against IS. For many analysts, the increase in IS attacks in 2020 was a direct result of the security gaps left behind by the distraction of Covid-19; so too for the rest of the world. With attention diverted to the public health and economic crises brought on by the disease, nation-states (not least the United States) are increasingly looking inward, with foreign policy taking a back seat to more pressing domestic issues.

IS have also found more novel ways to exploit the presence of the pandemic. Early in 2020, IS called on its followers already located in western countries, to actively catch and spread the disease amongst the “Crusader nations”. At the same time, IS leaders made claims that devout Muslims would be spared the disease, asserting it to be the work of God – a punishment for unbelievers and enemies of their version of Islam. These claims have also spurred the groups recruitment efforts by drawing attention to government failures to protect their publics and offering (false) hope of protection through affiliation to the group.


Despite claims that the caliphate of the Islamic State had been defeated, territorial loss has weakened but not destroyed the group and it is showing clear signs of resurgence.

In the short-term, this re-growth is likely to be slow and gradual. Like the rest of the world, the Covid pandemic has put practical obstacles in the way for IS. Stricter border controls, travel suspensions and restrictions on the use of public space, hinder their ability to operate. However, the instability and ever-shifting power dynamics in Iraq and Syria create a distinct advantage for the group. With local security and governance structures unable or unwilling to tackle the problem, and international stakeholders distracted by their own health, economic or political crises, IS will continue to grow. In 2021, Iraq and Syria are highly likely to continue seeing an upward trend in attacks on their institutions, infrastructure and public. Those security services that do exist will face a game of cat and mouse, with the group taking and retaking small chunks of territory in the region.

In the longer term, the pandemic presents a secondary risk of leaving a sea of marginalised and disenfranchised people in its wake. Around the world, those sections of society who feel abandoned by their governments’ pandemic response will be left feeling angry and insecure. If this is coupled with economic hardship and especially, discrimination against a clearly-defined identity group, it risks leaving the door wide open for IS to tap into these localised grievances through slick targeting and recruitment campaigns, as it has done in Africa and South Asia. As well as localised violence, this also offers IS a swell of recruits who, in the post-pandemic world, will likely be encouraged to travel to the Middle East. When combined with the displaced and de facto stateless individuals already located in the region, this presents a dangerous scenario of rapid growth and an opportunity for IS to attempt the re-establishment of a physical caliphate.

Of course, these eventualities hinge on a series of policy responses at the national, regional and international level. For example, if states, especially those deemed fragile, can mitigate against the real or perceived unfair distribution of resources in their pandemic responses, it may shrink the pool of individuals available to IS. In the Middle East, if regional efforts to establish the conditions for peace are clearly defined, well coordinated, and centered on human security rather than national interest, it may reduce insecurity and increase the security sectors ability to actively tackle IS. And internationally, a global rethink about the paradigms that have shaped the larger War on Terror, and a clarification of laws relating to foreign terrorist fighters, which balances justice with human rights, may turn the tide in the long-term battle with IS and other extremist groups.

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