How Dead is ISIS? The Group’s Activity in 2020

File photo: US Artillery Forces firing at ISIS in Iraq, 2017. Photo by Cpl. F. Cordoba, US Marine Corps
File photo: US Artillery Forces firing at ISIS in Iraq, 2017. Photo by Cpl. F. Cordoba, US Marine Corps

In December, 2018 President Trump proudly informed the world, and first of all, his voters: “We have won against ISIS”; and probably many of us really believed him at that time. However, after analyzing some data, such as the latest news, reports, maps, and important officials’ words, more and more doubts start to arise. The text focuses on ISIS activity since the beginning of 2020, in the Middle East and the Sahel – as writes Ewa Fronczak, a PhD student from National Security Department of the War Studies University in Warsaw.

The first opinion to be cited is that of Masrour Barzani,  Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan. Taking into account the fact that he is a practitioner, a person at the theatre of operations, directly involved in combating ISIS, it is hard to doubt credibility of his insight. In February this year in an interview with The Atlantic magazine[1] he stated that ISIS not only does exist, but is even more capable to fight now than years ago: “ISIS is still very much intact. Yes, they have lost much of their leadership. They have lost many of their capable men. But they’ve also managed to gain more experience and to recruit more people around them. So they should not be taken lightly.” More importantly, Barzani also mentioned two very warning figures, one of 20,000, meaning the current number of ISIS fighters, and the second of 60 meaning monthly ISIS attacks,  in Iraq only.

Moving on to official documents and reports, there are two reports that stand out as a credible and comprehensive source of information on ISIS activity around the world. The first one was prepared by the Pentagon’s Lead Inspector General and revealed in the first months of 2020, and its main message to the public seems to be – do not declare a victory over an organization which is still alive and in a pretty good condition. In the report we can read that despite of a territorial victory over ISIS, they continue information warfare and recruitment of followers in a virtual world:  “ISIS has continued to disseminate its propaganda on Twitter, Facebook, and Telegram, and U.S. Central Command reported that this propaganda revolved around two main themes: ISIS’s persistence in the face of adversity, and retaliation through a global insurgency.” Although the frequency of ISIS attacks in Iraq and Syria decreased within the last quarter of 2019, the Department of Defense analysts highlight the fact that the group has “continued to carry out attacks and operations” in that region[2].

The second report was submitted to the UN Security Council by the UN Monitoring Team in February this year[3]. Similarly to the DoD report, the UN report leaves no doubts as for ISIS vitality: “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), following its loss of territory, has begun to reassert itself in both the Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq, mounting increasingly bold insurgent attacks, calling and planning for the breakout of ISIL fighters in detention facilities and exploiting weaknesses in the security environment of both countries.” The report also addresses an issue of the security vacuum that developed after a recent partial withdrawal of U.S. forces. Unfortunately, it led to an inadequate level of security at the Iraq-Syria border, which allowed for an easy flow of ISIS fighters between those two fragile states. As for the regions with increased ISIS activity within the last months, the report focuses on the Euphrates river area - Dayr al-Zawr and Hasakah Governorates. The document also points out the present “spike in attacks targeting the United States led coalition and local non-state armed groups".

For some people, there is nothing more convincing than maps and figures. So, the one to be analyzed comes from the Middle East Institute, Washington D.C. and it clearly shows that the first four months of 2020 was the time of intensified ISIS activity. According to that map[4] in Central Syria the group was able to conduct several attacks over a span of just seven April days (!). Not to forget, it is the group over which the American president declared victory over a year ago…

As for the most recent news, the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre portal informs[5], especially in the Euphrates valley the Islamic State has been taking advantage of the current COVID epidemic and it is being actively involved in the operations against SAA and SDF forces. A range of fighting techniques used seems to be quite wide: IEDs, shooting attacks, targeted killings, ambushes, attacks against military camps. One of such attacks took place on January 13, 2020, when terrorists carried out a deadly attack on an Iraqi security post at the Syrian border, killing one serviceman[6]. What is more, several days later, they attempted a similar attack in the same area. The timing of these incidents was not accidental of course, as they happened in the atmosphere of high tensions between Iran and America caused by the General Soleimani killing. The terrorists perfectly exploited the period of a suspension of ant-ISIS operations in the region. Even today, on April 26, 2020, the fight in Syria is still going on, as the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), alongside the National Defense Forces (NDF), are involved in an anti-ISIS large scale campaign in desert areas in the east of the country where ISIS underground cells have found a perfect refuge and built new strongholds[7].

At the same time, ISIS have been attacking and establishing its strongholds across whole Iraq; for example, in Hamrin and Makhmour, the mountainous regions west of Kirkuk, where fighters can find perfect conditions to train and regroup. In that area, during an Iraqi forces-led air assault operation on March 9, 2020 two US servicemen were killed[8]. The Iraqi special operations forces, backed by the international coalition forces, have been trying to track and eliminate the ISIS militants who took refuge in the country’s hardly penetrable mountain ranges, since their physical caliphate was definitely put to an end. 

Not only military members are on a list of ISIS’s targets. The same month, on 6 March, 2020 gunmen and suicide bombers killed about 30 civilians and injured dozens of others in a Sikh temple in Kabul, Afghanistan[9]. This deadly assault took place “amid widening competition with the Taliban, fractures in the Afghan government and growing political chaos in Kabul”[10]. In the reality of a drawdown of the American mission in Afghanistan, the Afghan branch of the Islamic State, known as the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, has been trying to expand its presence. Undoubtedly, a continuous feud among factional political elites or ethnic and religious enmity, is nothing else but perfect ground for an extremist ideology to prosper among more and more disappointed civilians. 

As for the Sahel, as a region characterized by extreme climate shifts, droughts, swaths of underdeveloped and ungoverned territories, religious and ethnic divisions, it seems to be especially vulnerable to the jihadist ideology. To make it worse, a potential terrain for terrorists to spread their malign ideology, and a size of a population to brainwash, is incomparably bigger that in the Middle East. So, it should not be surprising that ISIS is not only doing well there, but it is thriving and developing its structures and modus operandi.

A perfect example of such development is the latest fusion of Al-Qaida and ISIS affiliated groups in West Africa, a phenomenon broadly reported by worldwide press in April 2020. General Dagvin Anderson, the head of the US military’s Special Operations arm in Africa, emphasizes a local aspect of that collaboration and says about some aspects that make it possible. Firstly, it a “is a result of ethnic/tribal ties in the region that includes Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso”[11]. Secondly, terrorists’ allegiances in the Sahel are more fluid than those in the Middle East, and they are strengthened by practical concerns rather than ideological matters. Finally, nothing consolidates better than a common foe – the West and local governments[12].

Summing up, the examples presented here are only some of those tens or hundreds which concern ISIS activity around the world, and which have been appearing in the news every single day. This terrorist organization, whose existence does not depend on having a territory or not, has proved its resilience and amazing adaptable capabilities. Moreover, to a disbelief of many American decision makers, it does not seem to be retreating from a battlefield, but rather restructuring and getting ready to the next phase of the conflict.

Ewa Fronczak, a PhD student from National Security Department of the War Studies University in Warsaw.

[1] The Atlantic, The inconvenient truth about ISIS, [access: 19.04.2020].

[2] US Department of Defence,  [access: 20.04.2020].

[3] United Nations, [access: 20.04.2020].

[4] Middle East Institute, [access: 26.04.2020]

[5] Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre, Spotlight on Global Jihad, [access: 26.04.2020].

[6] CNN Politics, [access: 26.04.2020]. 

[7] Global Research Centre, [access: 26.04.2020].

[8] Reuters, World News, [access: 26.04.2020].

[9] The Guardian, World, [access: 26.04.2020].

[10] The Independent, [access: 2.05.2020].

[11] The Military Times, [access: 2.05.2020].

[12] [access: 2.05.2020].