The looming resurgence of IS?

Hany Ghoraba
Tuesday 31 Jan 2023

Despite the international campaigns against it, there is every sign that the Islamic State terrorist group may be experiencing a resurgence in the Middle East and Europe, writes Hany Ghoraba


Some political observers in Europe and the West believe that the threat posed by the notorious terrorist group known as the Islamic State (IS), particularly its branch in the Levant known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has been contained. However, sadly this could not be further from the truth. 

Indeed, while the threat of this terrorist group has diminished thanks to intensive counter-terrorism operations by the international coalitions against ISIS whether in the Middle East, Africa, North America or Europe, it is still very much alive. This is the case despite the major blow the group received when its founder and leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, was killed in a US operation in Syria in 2019. 

After the death of Al-Baghdadi, the group disintegrated to a large extent and operated on either a small scale or a lone-wolf basis in various regions of the world with the exception of Africa where the group found an environment to host it in the West African and Sahel regions. 

The past few weeks and months have seen a surge in the activities of IS in Europe, a major target for the group over the past decade. The group executed some of the bloodiest terrorist operations since World War II in countries such as France, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria. In January this year, the German authorities foiled a chemical attack using ricin by an Iranian citizen believed to be linked to IS. Investigations are still ongoing. 

Moreover, more arrests of members of IS cells have been filling the news headlines this month, with individuals arrested in Germany, Holland, Spain and Morocco.

In the latter two countries, a joint operation led to the arrest of a three-member cell that had pledged allegiance to IS in the Moroccan Chtouka Ait Baha Province and the Spanish city of Almeria. The cell, active in promoting IS ideology, had attempted to join other IS elements in the African Sahel region. 

The Moroccan Central Bureau of Judicial Investigations (BCIJ) has been actively coordinating with the Spanish authorities and others to curb growing IS activities in the region. The African Sahel remains one of the most attractive regions for the group, due to the lack of political stability and the lax security measures in some African countries. 

The Dutch authorities arrested a Syrian refugee last week on charges of committing war crimes as a security official for IS between 2015 and 2018. He had had the audacity to seek refuge in the Netherlands after the tables were turned against the group during bombardments by the International Coalition as well as the Russians against IS targets in Syria. 

Meanwhile, the trials of IS-affiliated individuals are ongoing in different countries across Europe, including of those accused of participating in crimes against humanity such as the enslavement of Yazidi women in Iraq. One German woman is on trial in the southwestern German city of Koblenz for capturing a Yazidi woman and enslaving her during her stay with her husband in Syria when the terrorist group occupied significant areas of the country a few years ago. 

A more ominous warning has come from the US Pentagon, which has warned of a strong resurgence of IS in 2023 as a result of intelligence gathered in the past period. Security analysts have warned that the group is organising a lethal campaign of revenge against the US and its partners because of these countries’ role in destroying the IS group in Syria and killing its self-proclaimed “caliph” Al-Baghdadi along with some of his heirs.

 It is a fact that the group’s hierarchy is not the same as it was between 2013 and 2016, and it does not work on the orders of its “caliph” as it did in the past decade. Nevertheless, its new lone-wolf or small-cell operations could be as lethal as the ones earlier ordered directly by group leaders as they are harder to trace and thwart by security measures. 

As a result, vigilance will be extremely important in the upcoming months for all the indications of a major restructuring of the group are unfortunately there. 

Given the rising pace of arrests, which suggests that the threat is far from gone, dropping their guard now would be fatal mistake for security apparatuses across the world. IS is still operational in Iraq and Syria even if it has diminished in size and currently has no known leader.  

Ignoring the looming terrorist threat of IS while focusing on other global issues such as environmental challenges and the economic crisis that have occupied the top priority for most governments over the past couple of years will only make the threat stronger.

The fact that there have been no major terrorist attacks executed in Europe, the US, or major capitals in the Middle East over the last few years does not mean the danger is over. It only means that the security apparatuses are doing their jobs. Meanwhile, IS remains active in many areas including the Middle East, Africa, and even Afghanistan

At the same time, the security services must be fully supported by the politicians, who seem not very interested in this issue and in many cases have shifted their focus to issues that they feel should receive more priority, such as the energy crisis. But this kind of complacency is what led to the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, leading to the two decades of the war on terrorism that is still ongoing. 

That complacency also led to the emergence of the IS group, which went on to wreak havoc across the region. There is thus no room for ignoring the Pentagon warning. 

The global economic crisis along with the economic and security ramifications of the Russian invasion of Ukraine have been at the top agenda of almost every government over the last year. But it can be stated without any doubt that older elements are being joined by new recruits in IS and that these are planning to carry on activities in the Middle East and Europe where the group has found sympathisers among extremists from the younger generations. 

Elements from the group and its sympathisers can be found in all European states, and many of them are willing to act in the name of their vile cause against the very countries that have opened their doors to them. 

Ignoring this threat or even considering it to be a secondary priority will lead to the kind of tragedies the world saw over the last decade when armed terrorists opened fire in European capitals or carried out the massive bombing of strategic targets or human groups without any warning.  

* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

A version of this article appears in print in the 2 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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