ISIS not yet vanquished, not by a long shot, top intel experts say

Report says terror group may have lost ground in Middle East but “it did not cease to exist, but, rather, changed the pattern of its activities.”

AN ISIS member rides on a rocket launcher in Raqqa in Syria two months ago (photo credit: REUTERS)
AN ISIS member rides on a rocket launcher in Raqqa in Syria two months ago
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Celebrations of Islamic State essentially being routed from territory in its countries of birth, Syria and Iraq, have taken off worldwide.
Yet a new, and possibly the most comprehensive report to date on the future of all Islamic State arms, is grim.
The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center report, obtained exclusively by The Jeru- salem Post , resoundingly warns that from Libya to the Sinai Peninsula to the Philippines to foreign fighters fleeing Syria and Iraq and returning to their European countries of origin, the Pandora’s box cannot be closed.
The center is renowned for its members’ backgrounds in the Israeli intelligence community and its ongoing contacts with that community, with top current officials also authoring articles in its publications.
ISIS may no longer be a conventional force invasion threat within the Middle East and has lost its main financial weapons and physical recruitment centers. But its unique success in establishing global ISIS-chap- ters and using social media to facilitate ISIS-inspired attacks by local Westerners in their home countries is expected to plague Middle Eastern countries and beyond indefinitely.
Two major ISIS chapters the report said to keep a keen eye on in terms of predicting ISIS’s future in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere are its Libya and Sinai Peninsula branches.
Libya is a strong example of what is next for ISIS, the report said. Like in Syria and Iraq, ISIS Libya succeeded in controlling significant territory for an extended peri- od, and while eventually losing control of it, the group later rallied into new forms of activity.
In Libya, ISIS seized control of the northern region known as Sirte. Around 157,000 of Libya’s 6.4 million people, with 150 miles of coastline, lived under ISIS rule in the Sirte region from early 2015 until last December.
ISIS even defeated attempts to dislodge it from Sirte in the spring of 2015, and lost control only after a seven-month battle with Libyan forces backed by US air strikes.
However, the center said, even after ISIS lost control of the region, “it did not cease to exist, but, rather, changed the pattern of its activities.”
It said that ISIS is now utilizing guerrilla warfare and typical terrorist organization tactics to continue to impact Libya, instead of fighting conventional land battles to hold on to territory.
While tactically retreating into desert areas, especially further south from its prior positions, its surviving core from Sirte is reuniting with other ISIS Libya chapters and systematically establishing new methods to raise funds, such as robbing trucks and traveling migrants.
The report said that ISIS in Libya is expected to raise its level of contact with other ISIS groups in Northern Africa and the West and become a leading area for planning and staging terrorist attacks in the West.
On November 10, Reuters reported that though security in Sirte has improved, residents remain wary of jihadis in the desert to the south, who have stepped up their attacks in recent months, even setting up checkpoints in some areas.
In a country where fighting between rival forces frequently flares, Sirte is particularly exposed, sitting in limbo between loose alliances aligned with rival governments in Tripoli and the east.
“If the situation continues like this, then Daesh [Islamic State] will come back, no doubt. There was a reason why they came. People were angry, felt side- lined,” Ali Miftah, a civil servant and father of five, told Reuters.
ISIS sleeper cells and fighters arriving to the area fleeing Syria and Iraq could also exploit continuous power vacuums in Libya, especially when it is unclear how long Libyan army forces will remain in strength to secure the area.
All of this could be a model for what to expect from ISIS in other countries, despite its loss of territory in Syria and Iraq.
Another area to keep an eye on, and of particular concern to Israel, is Sinai. The report said that Sinai, “in our estimate, is expected to continue to be a hard nut to crack.”
It said that ISIS Sinai is likely to try to replace its funding, recruiting and logistical support losses by deepening its links to ISIS chapters in other parts of Egypt, Libya and Gaza. Furthermore, the center expects ISIS Sinai to replenish its funding by a string of robberies as well as smuggling.
If Egypt’s government and Israel are hoping for fewer problems from Sinai, and for ISIS’s group there to fall apart as a result of infighting with other jihadist groups, they will be sorely disappointed, the report said.
Though there are countries where al-Qaida is expect- ed to absorb or destroy ISIS chapters that have become more vulnerable without being connected to the Islamic “caliphate,” al-Qaida is considered uniquely weak in Sinai, said the report.
As such, the center expects ISIS Sinai to continue to stage attacks, both against Egypt’s government and against Israel, in the form of both cross-border raids and rocket strikes.
Notably, though ISIS used drones in Syria and Iraq, and Israel has faced drone threats from Hamas and Hezbollah, to date there have been no reports of ISIS Sinai threatening Israel with drones.
Regarding another threat to Israel, partially as an indirect result of ISIS’s fall, the report predicts that Iran will view ISIS’s fall as one of the greatest openings since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 for it to spread its regional influence and form a physical land and sea bridge of cross-border Shi’a pockets.
For Israel, the report confirms the Israeli intelligence community’s estimates that Iran will try “to create an active terrorist area” on “the Golan Heights border by directing action by Shi’ite actors of Hezbollah as well as Palestinians and Druse against Israel.”
In one piece of good news for Israel, the report said that any ongoing attempt by ISIS to gain footholds in Jordan, within Israel proper, the West Bank and Gaza are expected to dissipate with the fall of ISIS’s “caliph- ate.”
Simply put, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians never allowed ISIS to gain a foothold, and its ideology never had broad appeal in these areas.
In November 2014, at the height of ISIS’s spread throughout Syria and Iraq, its leader, Abu Bakr al-Bagh- dadi, announced a list of its other established chapters. The list included the Hejaz region in Saudi Arabia; Yemen; Sinai; Libya; Algeria; Afghanistan-Pakistan; Alexandria, Egypt; West Africa, led by the Nigerian Boko Haram; the Caucasus (border of Europe and Asia, situated between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea) and the Philippines.
There were also others listed, which the report said were more of propaganda value and did not really exist substantively on the ground. Morocco has had no ISIS chapter to date, due to strong regime control of the state. But both the center and a late October report by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point expressed concern about Morocco’s future, since 33 plots against the West, including successful ones in Paris and Barcelona, can be connected to Moroccans.
ISIS Libya, ISIS Sinai and some other areas close to ISIS’s former headquarters are expected to take somewhat of a hit in resources they once received before the so-called caliphate’s fall, said the report.
Its chapters in Afghanistan-Pakistan and in parts of the Arabian Peninsula are expected to take an even bigger hit, as al-Qaida is strong in those areas and can be expected either to absorb them or even take advantage of their new vulnerability to eliminate them as competition.
ISIS chapters in Saudi Arabia and Algeria are expected to face extra pressure, since those regimes never lost central control of the state apparatus the way that a range of other Middle Eastern and African countries did during the “Arab Winter,” the report said.
But Yemen, West Africa and the Philippines are not expected to be heavily impacted by ISIS’s loss in Syria and Iraq, as, even beforehand, they did not receive extensive resources or support beyond inspirational support from ISIS in those areas, said the center.
An entirely different question is how the loss of territory in Syria and Iraq may lead to a heightened ISIS threat to the West, when fighters who came from Europe to the Middle East to fight return to their European countries of origin as radicalized ISIS actors.
Of the estimated 25,000 foreign fighters who came to fight for ISIS in the Middle East, around half in Syria and Iraq, “several thousand fighters have already returned to their states of origin, and several thousand more are waiting for an opportunity to escape Syria and Iraq” in order to return, said the report.
The center estimated that hundreds of fighters would return to both England and France, and noted that both countries also have a supportive radical Muslim infrastructure for them to interact with.
It is expected that their influence and involvement in terrorism in their states of origin will increase as their numbers in those states increase.
“The return of foreign fighters to their states of origin, in our estimation, is expected to present a difficult security dilemma to the different governments,” the report said.
This is not just because of the increase in ISIS-associated terrorists’ numbers, but also because those returning are “skilled fighters who acquired substantial military experience and absorbed the Salafist-jihadist ideology during their time fighting among the ISIS forces.”
These returning fighters are “liable to connect with local Salafist-jihadist organizations in their states and to act as an extremist motivator,” pulling them toward more radical Islamist and terrorist actions.
Furthermore, some fighters will return to their countries of origin with spouses and children raised in an atmosphere of ISIS brainwashing. This means “their children could serve as a next generation of human resource infrastructure” for ISIS, ready to grow into a new arm for carrying out terrorist attacks.
The report said it is still too soon to estimate what per - centage of the fighters returning to their states would give up the cause after ISIS’s fall and how many would simply try to transfer their terrorist activities to their states of origin.
The report said that the West can expect fewer coordinated large-scale ISIS terrorist attacks. But it also noted that this may not give the West much relief, as most ISIS attacks there in 2014-2017 have been of the “ISIS-inspired” lone-wolf variety, rather than having been directly planned by ISIS.
According to the report, 28 out of 33 ISIS terrorist attacks in the West in 2014-2017 were ISIS-inspired but not directly planned by ISIS. The most recent of these attacks occurred in New York on October 31, and the wave is expected to continue.
While the volume of lone-wolf attacks may be reduced because ISIS’s brand is down after losing its Islamic Caliph - ate dream, the center said it takes only a small number of hard-core loyalists to continue a wave of attacks.
ISIS’s predecessor, Islamic State of Iraq, was already routed once in 2008, but came back with a vengeance in 2013-2014. The report makes it clear that despite a lack of territory or the ability to pose an immediate threat of invasion, a third wave of ISIS terrorism is largely inevitable.