ISIL: Dissolving or Winding Up?

A United Nations (U.N.) report issued on August 13 has estimated that up to 30,000 fighters for the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) remain active in Iraq and Syria. Despite the military defeats suffered by the self-proclaimed caliphate in late 2017 and early 2018, it remains a force in the region, and has partially recovered from its recent setbacks. The report warns that the group still poses a threat both in the immediate combat region and in the home countries of returning ISIL fighters.

The end of 2017 saw a concerted effort by U.S.-backed armed forces to drive ISIL from the regions of Syria and Iraq. In October, ISIL’s last stronghold in Syria, the town of Raqqa, was captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group formed from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), and Arab militias. Raqqa had been the capital of ISIL’s caliphate, and its loss was a decisive blow to their grasp on the region. In Iraq, the loss of Al-Qua’im and Rawah to the Iraqi army on November 17 further solidified the change in ISIL’s fortunes.

A weakening of initiative by forces combating ISIL in the east of the Syrian Democratic Republic allowed ISIL to rally in early 2018. However, by June, the SDF managed to turn the momentum of the war against ISIL forces, and ISIL’s territory in Syria was confined to isolated pockets on the border with Iraq. Although ISIL no longer holds any territory in Iraq, it has sleeper cells active within Iraqi territory, and has been able to conduct operations from across the Syria-Iraq border.  

The U.N. report estimates that between 20,000 and 30,000 members of ISIL are still operational in Syria and Iraq. Many of its leaders have been killed in the fighting, and it has seen its financial capabilities severely reduced due to loss of territory and damage to its system of bureaucracy. Despite this, it still reportedly possesses reserves of hundreds of millions of dollars, and has been able to rely on extortion and the “taxation” of those in its zone of control to bolster its funds. The sale of hydrocarbons has also remained the primary source of income for the organization, though the loss of oil fields has necessarily entailed a weakening of revenue.

ISIL’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is reportedly injured. Though he remains in control of the organization, the decentralization of the ISIL power structure has increasingly delegated leadership to regional commanders.

The number of foreign fighters returning to Europe from Syria has been lower than expected. Many have either remained fighting, or are hidden among the general population, according to the report. ISIL’s current status reflects the transition from a “proto-state” into “covert networks” operating in the territories formerly held by its forces. A consequence of this is likely to be increased difficulty in conducting military operations against ISIL forces, and a growing focus by ISIL on acts of terrorism and propaganda rather than armed conflict.

The danger posed to regions outside the immediate combat zone is not clear. Though the threat level remains high, the number of terrorist attacks in Europe is low in comparison with the same period last year. Combatants returning to Europe pose a growing danger, however. These individuals may unite ISIL sympathizers in their home countries, and serve to radicalize even further certain segments of the population. Veteran ISIL combatants also possess the capability to build explosives and improvise the construction of weapons from easily obtained commercial items.

ISIL’s use of propaganda in efforts to radicalize the population, though reduced due to financial difficulties, remains a significant threat to Europe. ISIL’s members have proven adept at using social media to reach potential sympathizers, and thereby encourage them to carry out terrorist attacks in their countries of residence. ISIL has also disseminated guides online that outline how to create bombs and carry out terrorist attacks on selected targets.

The report describes the group’s increasing reliance on “inspired attacks” — attacks perpetrated in the name of ISIL, but not planned or coordinated by the group — over “directed attacks” as a symptom of its increasing decentralization and the degeneration of its logistical and operational capabilities. The core of the organization is likely to persist in Syria and Iraq in a devolved, hidden form, while splinter cells may grow their influence in other countries. It remains to be seen how much of its current power and organizational ability it will retain as it continues to lose territory and military relevance.

It is evident that the wholesale defeat of ISIL is not as definite or as near as it seemed in late 2017. The danger posed by the organization is shifting from military aggression to the more subtle threat of terrorism, both within its former territory and abroad. The ideology and conditions that first spawned the organization have not been eradicated, and as long as this remains the case, the possibility of an ISIL resurgence still looms large.