ISIS Exploiting Coronavirus Pandemic, Counter-Terror Experts Warn

Islamic State insurgency reaping successes in Iraq, Syria as global network grows

A boy looks out from inside a tent in al-Roj camp, Syria, January 10, 2020. (photo credit: GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS)
A boy looks out from inside a tent in al-Roj camp, Syria, January 10, 2020.
Counter-terrorism experts interviewed by The Media Line say that Islamic State is exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to plan and carry out attacks against Western targets.
The Salafi-Jihadist trans-national terrorist organization is taking advantage of the massive distraction caused by the pandemic as governments commit time and resources to containment efforts, and media coverage centers on the illness, analysts warn.
“ISIS is not in crisis. The opposite. It’s on the rise,” Dr. Michael Barak, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at IDC Herzliya, told The Media Line.
Barak recommended reading Al-Naba, an official weekly newspaper issued by ISIS’s Central Media Office, to understand the group’s intentions.
“The main narrative during the coronavirus is to increase attacks against Western groups on Western soil and also to focus on Western targets in the Middle East… to exploit the fact that Middle Eastern governments aren’t able to control the situation because they invest a lot of effort and money in coping with the coronavirus,” he said.
While ISIS’s caliphate collapsed last year in Iraq and Syria with the group’s territorial defeat by a US-led coalition, the organization was not eradicated, analysts say, adding that it is currently leading a growing insurgency in territories it previously controlled and, via regional affiliates, across the world.
“They’ve been probing places in Syria in particular, and in Iraq, trying to basically exploit the attention on the coronavirus by security services and government forces to mount more attacks,” Thomas Joscelyn, a jihad expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Media Line.
As an example of the threat ISIS continues to pose, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported that last Friday, two civilians were killed and two injured in separate ISIS attacks in the Iraqi governorates of Diyala, in the East, and Kirkuk, in the North.
David P. Fidler, adjunct senior fellow for cybersecurity and global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Media Line that the pandemic had created a “distraction trifecta” for anti-ISIS forces, with counter-terrorism having been moved down the list of priorities and economic resources have been allocated to fighting the pandemic – including in the US, the leader of the anti-ISIS coalition.
“The distractions caused by the pandemic will not necessarily tip ISIS, at this inflection point, into resurgence, but, as in so many areas of policy, this health crisis makes effective counter terrorism harder to sustain,” he said.
Counter-terrorism experts are concerned not only about ISIS, but also its rival, al-Qaida.
“Al-Qaida is also a growing threat to the West and to the international community, especially in the Middle East,” Barak said, noting that it is trying to encourage lone-wolf attacks.
He cited as an example the recent stabbing outside the former Paris headquarters of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Both ISIS supporters and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula had called for attacks on Charlie Hebdo before the stabbings.
Barak says the two groups are in competition, with al-Qaida perceiving ISIS’s success in the field as a mortal threat.
“Al-Qaida is… having a narrative war against ISIS, trying to portray [it] as a very extremist jihadist organization that is not serving the jihadist cause well,” he stated. “And on the other side, al-Qaida is fighting ISIS members in Yemen and also in Mali.”
ISIS has branches in Africa and Asia, and is on the rise in these regions, analysts say.
“Unfortunately, ISIS is still growing outside the Middle East, particularly in Africa and Asia, where [it] has surged in Mozambique, Nigeria, [the] Philippines and Afghanistan,” Jim Phillips, a Middle Eastern affairs expert at the Heritage Foundation’s Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, told The Media Line.
According to the US National Strategy for Counter-terrorism issued in October 2018, ISIS was already increasing its global operations even while physically losing ground in Iraq and Syria, and had eight official branches and more than two dozen networks.
Since then, it has expanded to Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad, Sri Lanka and, most recently, Mozambique, says Bruce Hoffman, a counter terrorism and homeland security analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Media Line.
“ISIS has rapidly expanded in southern Africa, having acquired an affiliate, Ansar al-Sunna, in Mozambique, which has killed over 1,400 persons in the past three years,” he said.
The UN World Food Program estimates that more than 300,000 people have been displaced in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province because of the conflict.
Hoffman says the number of ISIS fighters worldwide is higher than the conservative estimate of 12,000, and that the organization has considerable financial reserves, with the US Treasury Department putting the figure at more than $300 million in cash. He adds that donors continue to provide support and are one of the keys to the group’s continued vitality.
Thomas Renard, senior research fellow at Brussels-based EGMONT, the Royal Institute for International Relations, says ISIS is less active in Europe, although the threat remains.
“In a nutshell, the threat is certainly lower than it was four or five years ago, clearly because the caliphate is gone,” he told The Media Line. “The coronavirus phenomenon has stopped propaganda. ISIS propaganda has gone more underground as well.”
Renard says the key concern for European security services stems from lone actors inspired by ISIS propaganda. While he adds that lone wolves are tougher to spot, there is a lower chance for spectacular attacks of the type that have taken place in Paris and Brussels.
“We no longer have a group that is physically present, training fighters [and] sending [them] to commit attacks across Europe,” he said.
The caliphate’s legacy is still a concern for security services, though, and Renard cites the 3,000 individuals in European prisons with links to terrorism or radicalization.  
“That means that among these 3,000 individuals [who] will be released in the coming five years, some of them, perhaps 1%, 2%, 5%, are going to constitute a real threat,” he stated. “That is why security services are so concerned. [The terrorists are] not many, but can make a big impact.”
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