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Islamic State Trying to Rise Under the Radar

FILE - This frame grab from video posted online March 18, 2019, by the Aamaq News Agency, then a media arm of the Islamic State group, shows an IS fighter firing his weapon during clashes with U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in Baghouz, Syria.
FILE - This frame grab from video posted online March 18, 2019, by the Aamaq News Agency, then a media arm of the Islamic State group, shows an IS fighter firing his weapon during clashes with U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in Baghouz, Syria.

The Islamic State terror group, whose name once inspired fear across swaths of the Middle East and beyond, may be seeking to regain its reputation, pushing a new campaign it says is focused on killing the group’s enemies wherever they can be found.

Starting with its claim of the terror attack on the Iranian city of Kerman on January 3, killing nearly 90 people, Islamic State social media accounts have quickly pumped out claims for some 100 other attacks across Africa, the Middle East, and South and East Asia.

“The Islamic State calls on its soldiers and eager Muslims to renew their activities,” the group’s spokesman said in a speech released along with the initial claims of responsibility, according to a translation by JihadoScope, a company that monitors terrorist activity on social media.

“Invade their homes, kill them, and inflict harm upon them in every possible way,” the spokesperson added.

The campaign’s name: “And Kill Them Wherever You Find Them.”

But whether the announcement of this campaign is the start of a real resurgence depends on whom you ask.

“It's not the first time they have done such a thing,” JihadoScope co-founder Raphael Gluck told VOA.

“They [IS] band things under a banner …Typically the argument is that the more they declare under the same title the better it looks,” he said. “I think they're stretching it.”

Uptick in Islamic State activity in Syria

But others, including a key U.S. ally, worry something more is going on.

“ISIS activities are increasing,” the U.S. representative for the political wing of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), told VOA, using an acronym for the terror group, also known as IS or Daesh.

“The activity of ISIS has increased significantly, especially in our regions and the Syrian desert regions,” added Syrian Democratic Council representative Sinam Mohamad. “Within less than two months, the organization claimed responsibility for 16 various operations in our regions and more than 30 operations in the Syrian desert region.”

Some experts who have been tracking IS claims point to an even more marked upswing.

“What we're seeing is basically, since the beginning of this year, a pretty big uptick in attacks,” according to Greg Waters, a research analyst at the non-profit Counter Extremism Project.

Waters told VOA he has recorded at least 65 IS attacks in Syria in January, split between areas controlled by the SDF and areas overseen by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

That compares with 215 documented attacks in regime-held parts of Syria for all of 2023.

The Rojava Information Center, a pro-Kurdish researched group, separately documented 192 Islamic State attacks in SDF-controlled northeastern Syria in the same period.

“It seems that throughout the course of 2023, ISIS has been able to rebuild its cells, its equipment, and for whatever reason, a variety of reasons, it felt more confident to carry out attacks,” Waters said.

There are also indications the terror group is gaining sway in some of its former strongholds, like Raqqa and Deir Ezzor.

“The fact that ISIS has been able to just turn the tap in an instant, and conduct so many attacks across the northeast, I think really demonstrates the fact that the group does maintain a strong network there and a large amount of cells that it can quickly sort of turn on when it needs,” said Waters.

Differing assessments

The idea of a growing, strengthening IS, however, runs contrary to assessments by U.S. officials, who say the terror group has been “largely suppressed,” with likely no more than a total of 1,000 members -- including non-fighters like financiers and other facilitators -- in Syria and Iraq.

“Daesh [IS] is not capable beyond small attacks, currently in Iraq and Syria,” a senior U.S. military official said recently (January 25), briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon.

The terror group is “not to the level where they're operational, where they can tie their tactical engagements and battles together into an operation,” the official said in response to a question from VOA. “Nor can they hold or seize territory.”

The official also said IS has largely abandoned cities, preferring to hide in parts of the Syrian Desert while choosing equally remote locations in Kirkuk and Salah ad Din provinces in Iraq.

The U.S., likewise, sees the possibility of IS being able to project a threat, at least for now, as minimal.

“The group’s ability to train and deploy operatives from Iraq and Syria is probably degraded because of counterterrorism pressure, particularly from U.S. and counterterrorism partner disruptions of experienced ISIS leaders,” a U.S. official told VOA.

The official specifically pointed to U.S. operations in early 2023 that killed IS officials who played key roles in the group’s plots in the broader Middle East and Europe.

Who is leading Islamic State?

There are also questions about the state of Islamc State’s core leadership.

Almost nothing has been heard from the terror group’s current leader, Abu Hafs al-Hashemi al-Qurashi, named as the would-be caliph last August.

“I think they are struggling,” a former senior Western counterterrorism official told VOA.

Recent intelligence shared with the United Nations even noted indications that command and control of IS’ global terror network may be shifting away from Syria and Iraq.

"It feels as if the most reliable branches are no longer in the core areas," the former official noted. “Most plots that we are aware of go back to ISIS-K,” the former official said, referring to the terror group’s Afghan affiliate.

Some of Islamic State’s African branches also appear to be growing in power and influence, leading some U.N. member states to suggest that a shift to Africa is “more likely.”

Yet despite the group’s struggles in Syria and Iraq, current and former officials refuse to rule out a resurgence, especially in Syria.

“Syria is just one of those arenas that isn't going to go away," said the former Western counterterrorism official, describing the country as “chronically unstable and chronically prone to violence."

Syria is also home to thousands of IS supporters waiting for a chance to rejoin the fight – some 9,000 captured fighters are held in SDF-run prisons.

One senior U.S. official called the U.S.-backed network of prisons in northeastern Syria “the largest collection of terrorist fighters in the world.”

IS has tried multiple times to engineer large-scale prison breaks with limited success.

But intelligence shared with the U.N. in a report released this week warns the terror group was able to free some leaders and operatives from the SDF-run prisons as recently as this past August.

And even though many of the imprisoned fighters suffer from malnutrition or disease, should IS succeed with a larger plot even U.S. officials agree there would be reason for worry.

“Some percentage of them would pose a threat. Absolutely,” the senior U.S. official said. “I mean, these are hardened ISIS fighters.”