Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 August 2019

ISIS is the reason Iraq and Syria suffer more terror attacks than anywhere else

The panel of experts said ISIS “has not yet been defeated” in Syria

A man drives his motorbike next to damaged buildings in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq. Reuters
A man drives his motorbike next to damaged buildings in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq. Reuters

The last six months of 2018 saw Iraq and Syria hit with more attacks by international terrorist organisations than anywhere else on earth and ISIS was the main perpetrator.

Despite Donald Trump declaring on Wednesday that the extremist militant group that once controlled thousands of kilometres of territory across the two countries would lose its last ground within a week, they remain a potent insurgent force capable of carryout out devastating attacks.

A UN report for the Security Council compiled by terrorism experts, released on Wednesday, found that ISIS and its affiliate groups “continue to pose the main and best-resourced international terrorist threat, while Al Qaida remains resilient and active in many regions and retains the ambition to project itself more internationally”.

Representatives of the 79 countries in the counter ISIS campaign gathered in Washington this week to discuss the future of the campaign to permanently eradicate the group and its ideology. With its territorial control gone but the continuation of hit and run attacks, new techniques are needed to prevent the extremists from regrouping and spreading.

A report released by Operation Inherent Resolve, the military mission against ISIS led by the US on Monday warned that ISIS was already spreading and regrouping and that this was happening at a faster rate in Iraq than Syria.

Festering sectarian tensions and poor government control and service provision were helping ISIS recruit new fighters.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS meeting at the State Department in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. Trump said the U.S. military and its allies will probably control all territory once held by Islamic State by next week. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg
US President Donald Trump speaks during the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS meeting at the State Department in Washington. Bloomberg

In Syria, ISIS fighters remain under “intense military pressure” as they cling to their last strongholds in eastern Syria, the UN experts said. However, ISIS’s “determination to resist and the capability to counter-attack” is of great concern.

Unidentified UN member states quoted in the report placed the estimate of ISIS militants still active across Iraq and Syria at more than 14,000. Their deep resources and ongoing attacks show that the group retains the ability to strike out and will continue to pose a significate risk.

This includes between 3,000 and 4,000 in the only remaining ISIS-held territory in Syria in the Middle Euphrates River valley near the Iraqi border, around the town of Hajin, they said.

The experts said the Al Qaida affiliated group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham – estimated by one UN member state to have approximately 20,000 fighters in Idlib province which is the last major opposition-held stronghold – “remains the largest terrorist group in the country.” But another Al Qaida affiliated group, Hurras Al-Deen, “is steadily growing and attracting fighters disillusioned with HTS,” they said.

In Iraq, the experts said member states report that the threat comes not only from ISIS remnants in the country but from its fighters crossing the border from Syria.

In mid-2018, they said ISIS successfully operated checkpoints in northern Iraq from which it ambushed Iraqi forces operating in the area.

ISIS cells in Iraq “engage in activities aimed at undermining government authority, creating a sense of lawlessness, hampering societal reconciliation and increasing the financial burden of reconstruction and counter-terrorism,” the experts said. “Such activities include kidnapping for ransom, targeted assassinations of local leaders and attacks against government utilities and services.”

MOSUL, IRAQ - JUNE 16: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) In this handout image provided by United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie visits the Old City in West Mosul during a visit to Iraq, on June 16, 2018. According to local residents, beneath the rubble in the background are the bodies of several ISIS fighters and also unexploded ordnance. Less than a year after its liberation, much of West Mosul still lies in ruins. (Photo by Andrew McConnell / UNHCR via Getty Images)
UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie visits the Old City in West Mosul during a visit to Iraq, on June 16, 2018. UNHCR via Getty Images

Globally, the experts monitoring UN sanctions against ISIS and Al Qaida said UN members remain concerned about the terrorist threat in Afghanistan, the southern Philippines, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Africa's Lake Chad basin and the Sahel.

In addition, they said, the issue of foreigners fighting for ISIS and Al Qaida “remains acute,” though the number of ISIS combatants returning home or relocating has been slower than expected.

Here are the experts' assessments of threats posed by ISIS and Al Qaida in other regions:

Arabian Peninsula

“Member states assess that Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is confined to Yemen, where it is under sustained pressure from military strikes against many of its leaders.” Despite the pressure, the extremist group “remains resilient” and “is assessed to have recovered from the losses, reorganised and managed to shelter its elements among local communities.”

North Africa

In the last six months of 2018, ISIS expanded its area of operations in Libya and “continues to represent a substantial threat, both locally and to neighbouring countries.” ISIS increasingly resorts to “hit-and-run operations” out of several points of concentration and “frequently raided and held inner-town police stations in shows of strength and to secure arms.” ISIS also carried out attacks against the National Oil Corporation headquarters in Libya's capital Tripoli in September and against the Mabruk oil field in November.

West Africa

An Al Qaida-linked coalition known as JNIM “remains the leading and most dangerous terrorist group in the Sahel” as well as one of the extremist group's “most successful” affiliates. “JNIM maintains an asymmetric strategy” involving three types of attacks: frequent simple attacks using small arms or improvised explosive devices; more elaborate attacks combining small arms and IEDs, which are less frequent; and complex attacks with many combatants, indirect fire and several IEDs.

East Africa

The militant group Al Shabab based in Somalia “remains a strategic Al Qaida affiliate, demonstrating resilience” and cooperating with Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. “It retains a large number of fighters with the capability to conduct high-impact attacks resulting in a large number of casualties and destruction of infrastructure.”


ISIS still poses “a significant threat in Europe despite its diminished ability to direct attacks.” There have been fewer “lone actor” attacks in Europe recently, which suggests ISIS' “ability even to inspire such attacks may be declining.” But communications have recently restarted between ISIS command and individuals in Europe. While the number of foreign fighters returning home in the last half of 2018 “was relatively low,” they remain a threat as does the “radicalization of criminals within the prison system.”

Central and South Asia

ISIS “is seeking to expand its area of activity in Central Asia and has called for terrorist attacks targeting public gatherings, primarily in the Ferghana valley” which spreads across eastern Uzbekistan, southern Kyrgyzstan and northern Tajikistan. ISIS claimed responsibility for killing four foreign cyclists in Tajikistan last July. In Afghanistan, ISIS strongholds are in the east and its strength is estimated at between 2,500 and 4,000 militants.

Southeast Asia

While the last six months of 2018 “saw relatively few successful attacks,” Southeast Asian countries “assess the ongoing terrorist threat to be high,” particularly from ISIS and al-Qaida affiliated groups.

Updated: February 7, 2019 01:36 PM