Under cover of COVID, ISIS is seeking a comeback

Under cover of COVID, ISIS is seeking a comeback

Why We Wrote This

Can countries battle two scourges at once? For ISIS, the world’s preoccupation with the global coronavirus pandemic and neglect of the battle against extremism have created opportunities it is poised to seize.

Khalid Mohammed/Reuters

Iraqi security forces are deployed in Tarmiyah, Iraq, north of Baghdad, July 20, 2020, as they conduct a search in the region for ISIS insurgents.

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July 28, 2020

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Three years after the destruction of its so-called caliphate by a United States-led coalition, and with the world distracted by a pandemic, the Islamic State has shown renewed strength, staging dozens of attacks since March in Arab countries and West Africa.

Its ranks boast around 10,000 fighters, according to U.N. and analysts’ estimates. Alarming experts is its ability to move freely between eastern Syria and western Iraq, entering villages with relative ease.

With health sectors and economies crumbling, analysts are highlighting what they call a “symmetry” between ISIS and the vicious coronavirus. The pandemic amplifies, they say, what ISIS attempts to achieve through its attacks and propaganda.

“ISIS focuses on exposing the same failures in a country that the coronavirus is now exposing: collapse of the nation-state, weak security, and deep economic, political, cultural, and sectarian crises,” says Hassan Abu Haniya, an expert in Islamist and extremist movements.

“Although the U.S.-led coalition focused on containing and dismantling ISIS, they never addressed the root grievances in Arab countries that allowed its rise in the first place,” he says. “Coronavirus is now laying these bare once again and exacerbating them.”

AMMAN, Jordan

The Islamic State is eyeing a comeback on the battlefield and the world stage, testing a fragile global community that is combating the coronavirus and distracted from its fight against extremism.

ISIS is taking advantage of the pandemic’s burden on local governments and world powers’ inward focus to step up attacks and pitch to new recruits, the United Nations and experts warn, and reemerge from the hinterlands to strike in the Arab world and Africa.

The reawakening of ISIS exposes not only the fragility of the status quo, but the extremist group’s evolution as a movement.  

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Three years after the destruction of its so-called caliphate and the dismantling of its organizational leadership by an American-led coalition, ISIS has since March shown renewed strength, staging dozens of attacks in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and West Africa.


This Georgia city beat back COVID-19. It wishes states would pay attention.

“From approximately March 2020, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic became a factor in ISIL operational, propaganda, and fundraising activities,” the U.N. Security Council was warned last week.  

ISIS is “consolidating in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic,” said a U.N. report to the Council, “and showing confidence in its ability to increasingly operate in a brazen manner in its core area.”

Alarming experts is ISIS’s ability to move freely between eastern Syria and western Iraq – territory that once fell under its “caliphate” – entering towns and villages with relative ease. Its ranks boast around 10,000 fighters, according to U.N. and analysts’ estimates.

“The pandemic came at a time with preexisting conditions on the ground in Iraq and Syria that allowed ISIS to benefit,” says Hassan Hassan, director of the Non-State Actors and Geopolitics program at the Washington-based Center for Global Policy.

“Namely, the pandemic came amid already existing political and security issues in Iraq and Syria and a vacuum left behind by the Trump administration,” he adds. “Add to this the fact that with the pandemic, the last thing on people’s minds was ISIS.”

COVID as catalyst

Iraq has struggled with a surge in coronavirus cases. And across Syria, despite government statistics claiming the contrary, the virus is ravaging communities, according to citizens, the U.N., and health officials in neighboring states.

Syria and Lebanon are also witnessing economic collapse, and in much of the Arab world, populations are struggling under lockdown-imposed economic costs and rising joblessness.

With health sectors and economies crumbling, experts are highlighting what they call a “symmetry” between the militant group and the vicious virus.

COVID-19 amplifies, they say, what ISIS attempts to achieve through its attacks and propaganda, exposing inequality, communities’ disenfranchisement, and the failures of the state.

“ISIS focuses on exposing the same failures in a country that the coronavirus is now exposing: collapse of the nation-state, weak security, and deep economic, political, cultural, and sectarian crises,” says Hassan Abu Haniya, an Amman-based Jordanian expert in Islamist and extremist movements.

“Although the U.S.-led coalition focused on containing and dismantling ISIS, they never addressed the root grievances in Arab countries that allowed its rise in the first place,” he says. “Coronavirus is now laying these bare once again and exacerbating them.”

Divisions in Iraq

In Iraq, political and security setbacks are lowering the resistance to ISIS.

Sectarian infighting among and between Shiite, Kurdish, and Sunni militias has created local power vacuums, allowing ISIS to fill back in, including north of Baghdad and in the disputed areas near Iraqi Kurdistan, experts and analysts say.

And the Iraqi government, under a new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, is consumed with an uphill battle against powerful Shiite militias unwilling to lay down their arms or accept central government authority.

In Baghdad, protests against corruption and militias’ influence continue.

Meanwhile, joint operations against ISIS with U.S. forces have largely come to a standstill amid the tensions with Iran-backed militias following the January assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad.

Not only did the U.S. strike disrupt America’s fragile common cause with Shiite militias against ISIS, but it triggered a wave of revenge attacks that prompted U.S. forces to retreat to non-frontline bases, crucially forcing a halt to U.S.-Iraqi and U.S.-Kurdish operations. The U.S. expertise in counter-insurgency operations is needed now to stem ISIS’s resurgence and is especially missed, analysts note.

“The fact that ISIS can operate almost freely in a massive and expansive space in Iraq and Syria without popular support says a lot about how Iraq cannot secure itself … without current American involvement,” says Mr. Hassan at the Center for Global Policy.

Mr. Abu Haniya, the Jordanian expert, takes a longer view.

“The West and the world shouldn’t forget that ISIS has gone through this phase and metamorphosis before,” he says.

“In 2009, after the U.S. surge and the Sunni ‘Sahwa’ awakening movements drove Al Qaeda in Iraq to the desert in the hinterlands, it reorganized, adapted and waited to stage a comeback as ISIS in 2014,” he notes.

“This is history repeating itself.”

Ludovic Marin/AP

French President Emmanuel Macron, second left, listens as Mauritania President Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani, third right, speaks during the G5 Sahel summit on June 30, 2020, in Nouakchott, Mauritania. The five countries of the Sahel region south of the Sahara – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger – have formed a joint military force that is working with France to battle Islamic extremists as jihadist attacks mount.

Africa push

ISIS has also used the pandemic as a diversion to expand further into West Africa and the Sahel, using a network of surrogate groups and affiliates to connect cross-border territories and overwhelm local forces in a way that experts say mirrors the rise of the caliphate in Iraq and Syria in 2014.

ISIS affiliate Boko Haram, under the umbrella Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), is expanding territory in Nigeria, Niger, and Chad; ISIS affiliate Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) is extending in Niger and Mali.

March 23 saw twin attacks by ISIS affiliates killing a combined 160 soldiers on both sides of the Nigerian-Chad border.

This April saw the bloody arrival of ISIS’s “central African province,” with affiliates waging their first large-scale attack in Mozambique, massacring 50 villagers on April 7, and the same day killing seven civilians in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

With the global preoccupation with COVID-19, West and Sub-Saharan Africa has seen ISIS strategy evolve from “filling the gaps” where international presence was weak to creating connected territories and a public presence in communities and villages.

“West African states show much more potential because the conditions are ripe for a bigger presence,” says Mr. Hassan, who chronicled ISIS’s rise in Syria.

“It almost looks like 2013 in Iraq and Syria. ISIS can move freely, control territory, and they can work with locals who do not have the knowledge of their brutality that Iraqis and Syrians have.”

Combined with its activities in the Arab world, ISIS’s Africa presence has given it a new hybrid model: an ever-shifting insurgency on the move in Syria and Iraq, and held territory in Africa where militias are able to extract resources, funds, and recruits.

“These are opportunities for these terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State to step in and provide alternative services and gain legitimacy in some of these populations,” says Nikita Malik, director of the Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism at the Henry Jackson Society, a trans-Atlantic think tank based in London.

Battle for ideas

ISIS’s bold re-emergence is not only taking place on the battlefield.

In a world consumed with the coronavirus, with economies crumbling, lives halted, and people losing hope for the future, groups such as ISIS are making a pitch for followers, experts say.

“You have people out of work, you have isolation, people staying at home and going on the internet and searching for a rationale why this has happened,” says Ms. Malik, noting that “conspiracy theories are increasing [that are] blaming groups and communities for the pandemic.”

“It is a toxic mix, and what we might be seeing in the long term are spikes in both extremism and terrorism,” she says.

ISIS’s online propaganda has depicted the coronavirus as “divine retribution” against the West and highlighted states’ failures.

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“What we are seeing is not COVID replacing terrorism concerns, but adding to terrorism concerns,” Ms. Malik says.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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