Is the Islamic State staging a comeback?

The terrorist organizations has been operating covertly since it faced significant setbacks from a coalition led by the United States.

People gather at the scene of explosions during a ceremony held to mark the death of late Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, in Kerman, Iran, January 3, 2024. WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

The Sunni Muslim militant organization known as the Islamic State, responsible for two recent deadly explosions in predominantly Shi’ite Iran, shows that the militants have lost neither their will to fight nor their ability to do so. The terrorist organizations has been operating covertly since it faced significant setbacks from a coalition led by the United States.

The arguments

At its zenith, the Islamic State instilled fear over millions of people and asserted dominance over extensive regions spanning Iraq and Syria. Its militants consistently defeated the armed forces of both countries and carried out or inspired attacks in numerous cities worldwide. Those who opposed its interpretation of Islam were subjected to torture and death.

In 2014, the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed a cross-border caliphate from Iraq’s historic al-Nuri mosque, pledging to govern it. Five years later, he was killed during a raid by U.S. special forces in northwest Syria. The caliphate crumbled in Iraq, where it had a stronghold just a 30-minute drive from Baghdad, and in Syria, following a sustained military campaign by a coalition led by the United States.

Since the collapse of its caliphate and a series of setbacks in the Middle East, the Islamic State has adopted a shift in tactics. Formerly headquartered in the Syrian city of Raqqa and the Iraqi city of Mosul, where it aimed to govern as a centralized authority, the group has now sought refuge in the remote regions of these fragmented nations.

Its fighters are dispersed in self-governing cells, operating with a clandestine leadership, and presenting challenges in determining its overall size. While the United Nations estimates its strength at 10,000 fighters in its core regions, the group’s true extent remains unknown.

The organization has adopted an underground approach, establishing sleeper cells that engage in hit-and-run attacks, as reported by the Iraqi government.

The facts

The recent attack in Iran indicates the group’s attempt to regain strength and significance. The group’s objectives remain unchanged: conducting jihad against all of its adversaries to establish a territorial caliphate that ultimately seeks global dominion. Islamic State has now active branches in Iran, Egypt, West Africa and Sahel region of Africa.

Many key foreign fighters have left Iraq, relocating to countries like Afghanistan, Syria, and Pakistan. A significant number have joined the Islamic State’s Khorasan branch, active along the borders of Iran with Afghanistan and Pakistan. The size of its Iran forces are unknown,

A UN report from the previous year suggested that in Egypt’s Sinai province, there might be between 800 to 1,200 fighters loyal to the Islamic State. In Libya, where it once controlled a coastal strip, the group is weaker but could exploit the ongoing conflict in the country. Meanwhile, in Yemen, the Islamic State has experienced a decline.

The group has extended its influence into parts of Africa. In Uganda, militants affiliated with the Islamic State, particularly the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebel group, have carried out multiple attacks, including a boarding school massacre, the murder of a honeymooning couple, and a recent raid on a village resulting in at least three deaths. Originally an uprising in Uganda, the ADF has shifted much of its operations to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Several groups in West Africa and the Sahel region have pledged allegiance to Islamic State, controlling significant rural areas in Mali, Niger, northern Burkina Faso, and parts of North Africa. The U.S. military conducted an operation in January 2023 that targeted a senior Islamic State leader in northern Somalia. Concerns have been raised about the potential exploitation of political instability and violence in Sudan by groups like Islamic State, according to a United Nations report.

While a report from the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center stated that the overall threat from Islamic State and Al Qaeda is at a low point, it warned that half of Islamic State’s branches are active in insurgencies across Africa and may be poised for further expansion. Despite a decline in attacks globally, Africa remains an area where Islamic State affiliates are still growing, with a notable decrease in claimed attacks globally over the past year.

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