After decline in Syria, Islamic State “rejuvenates” with new generation of fighters

Islamic State (IS) fighters in Syria, including children and teenagers, performing their Bay’ah (pledge of allegiance) to the new leader of the organization (Amaq News Agency)

Islamic State (IS) fighters in Syria, including children and teenagers, performing their Bay’ah (pledge of allegiance) to the new leader of the organization (Amaq News Agency)

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Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

The activity of the Islamic State (IS) organization in Syria and Iraq has decreased, according to US official data, and the IS’ data on the other side, reflecting the small losses resulting from its operations. However, IS is using this period to prepare a new generation of fighters and strengthen its networks, which cannot be underestimated.

The US Central Command (CENTCOM) announced on February 2 that the US-led International Coalition Forces (ICF) conducted 43 operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria during the month of January 2023.

These operations led to the arrest of more than 198 members of the organization and the killing of 2 others, according to the CENTCOM.

The US announcement was followed a few hours later by IS announcing the weekly statistics of its operations in the areas where its cells are spread around the world during the week between January 27 and February 2.

The organization’s statistics are among the indications of the fluctuation of the activity of its cells in Syria since the end of its effective control over the Syrian and Iraqi territories. In addition to US estimates, the losses resulting from the organization’s strikes in 2022 decreased by about half compared to 2021.

In this report, Enab Baladi discusses this fluctuation in IS operations and the method of its media dealing with the adoption of operations based on the studies and opinions of researchers.

Fluctuation in operations

Early last January, the American Counter-Terrorism Project released a study that monitored the disparity in the organization’s operations in Syria and Iraq and compared it with its counterparts in previous years.

IS killed more than 147 soldiers and 31 civilians in 2022, and its operations wounded more than 136 people in central Syria in 2022.

The study indicated that the losses caused by IS operations in 2022 accounted for about 47% of the total losses caused by the organization’s operations in 2021.

Commenting on these figures, the researcher specialized in jihadist groups affairs, Pr. Abdul Rahman al-Haj said that they demonstrated a decline in the organization’s ability to launch attacks. But we must not rush to the conclusion that IS is underfunded and under-recruited.

During an interview with Enab Baladi, al-Haj added that IS is currently working on levies and fund-raising in various ways and that it still has a recruitment network that should not be underestimated.

At the same time, al-Haj believes that the decline in attacks indicates the success of the International Coalition and its allies on the ground in narrowing IS’ scope of movement.

“It is clear that IS is looking for ways to return to unstable places and areas witnessing security disturbances, that is, southern Syria in particular,” he added.

Outburst after leader death, “propaganda” purposes

Unlike the decline in operations over the past year, IS’ operations increased for a limited period following the announcement that the leader of the organization was killed on November 30, 2022, during a security campaign launched by local factions (remains of opposition factions) in southern Syria. Operations of its security cells increased throughout Syrian territory.

Between 9 and 16 December 2022, the Islamic State (IS) carried out 19 operations in areas where its forces were deployed. Syria ranked first with five of the said attacks, leaving more than a dozen dead and wounded.

Researcher Abdul Rahman al-Haj told Enab Baladi that the surge in operations after the killing of IS leader Abu al-Hassan al-Qurashi was primarily for propaganda purposes.

During this period, IS was trying to regain control of matters, especially as its new IS leader, Abu Hussein al-Qurashi, managed to maintain cohesion within the organization and rebuilt its structures, and sought to build a recruitment network and search for financial resources.

Previous data also prompted IS groups to start “levies and imposing royalties by threat,” as well as intensifying their activity in the form of surprise military operations.

Pr. Abdul Rahman al-Haj pointed out that the daring of IS groups to enter cities has become “remarkable,” in particular those operations, one of which targeted the Ghweran prison in al-Hasakah, or the attack on a military post in the city of Raqqa.

A new generation of recruits

The study published by the Counter-Terrorism Project reported that the IS cells in the Syrian Badia were reinforced with a new batch of young recruits.

The study noted that the said area had long been the home of an IS training center for new recruits, particularly children from Syria and Iraq.

The study was based on images published by IS identifiers of fighters in Syria during their performance of Bay’ah (pledge of allegiance) to the new IS leader, Abu al-Hussein al-Qurashi, in which fighters appeared to be children and adolescents.

The geographical features of the area shown in the pictures show that they were taken in the Syrian Badia.

During the past years, nothing of this kind has been seen in pictures usually published by the organization’s media, according to the study, which noted that a “new generation” of recruits began to integrate into the organization’s active cells in central Syria.

Researcher Abdul Rahman al-Haj told Enab Baladi that the purpose of IS intensifying its announcements regarding targeting operations in southern Syria, in particular, is propaganda for recruitment and drawing attention to the fact that the organization is active in Daraa.

IS wished to restore its network in that region, as demonstrated by the investigations conducted by the opposition factions with IS affiliates at the end of 2022, he added.

The organization’s desire to intensify recruitment is due to the losses it has suffered over the past years at the level of fighters and personnel in its media sector.

In 2021, an IS official in the Syrian Badia nicknamed Abu Ali al-Iraqi was killed, causing the IS media wing to cease operations for a while, according to the study released by the American Counter-Terrorism Project.

As part of the “propaganda” campaigns referred to by the researcher, the study reported that IS executed soldiers affiliated with the Syrian regime once in September 2022 and twice in December of the same year, which are the first executions of this kind since mid-2021.

The south, A “tempting geography”

During the year 2022, the Islamic State (IS) claimed only three targeting operations in southern Syria, although this type of targeting did not stop in the governorate. Then, at the beginning of this year, it returned to claim 34 operations at once, which IS said that it resulted in the death of 50 people.

According to Abdul Rahman al-Haj, Daraa is a “strategic and tempting” place for the Islamic State (IS). The southern governorates of Syria are a wealth for the IS ideology, given its proximity to Palestine, Damascus, the Golan Heights, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel.

He added that the “instability” in southern Syria was a suitable environment for the functioning of IS cells, especially with the facilities provided to the organization by the regime, as revealed by previous investigations.

The organization prefers to stay and be stationed in areas where funding is easily secured, which it collects through local resources, as IS no longer receives funding campaigns coming from abroad, al-Haj explained.

One of the most prerequisites that facilitate IS’ positioning is the absence of a “major power”; that is why it has been able to survive in the Syrian Badia for a long time, and it can still do so today, according to al-Haj.

The Syrian Badia area between the Homs and Deir Ezzor governorates has, for the past years, been regarded as one of the areas where IS cells are most active, targeting Syrian regime forces’ convoys and elements on an almost daily basis.

IS’ influence ended in Iraq, where thousands of people were killed and executed in Mosul when Iraqi and international forces defeated the organization there in 2017, coinciding with its defeat in Syria and the end of its effective control.

The remaining thousands of armed IS fighters have hid in recent years in remote areas but are still able to carry out large-scale attacks.

 

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