Paul Iddon, journalist based in the Middle East
Even though the Islamic State (ISIS) has lost control over all the territories that once made-up its self-styled caliphate, the group still has forces underground and still poses a significant security threat to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. This is largely a result of internal conflicts that continue to destabilize several key MENA countries. If left untended, these could unwittingly help pave the way for a major ISIS resurgence.
A look at four of these case studies — Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Syria — reveals a very worrying trend.
ISIS’s Egyptian affiliate, predominantly based in the country’s sparsely populated Sinai region, has been given a boon by the wide-ranging crackdown implemented by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Despite Sisi’s pronouncements that his regime’s measures are needed to combat terrorism, the heavy-handed actions have made little headway against ISIS since he came to power in July 2013 after the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi.
Sisi’s reliance on the military option can at best only enable Egypt to attain tactical victories in its fight against ISIS, and other jihadist groups operating in the country’s Sinai Peninsula. As one analysis warned: “Sisi’s strategy is liable to only worsen North Sinai’s status as a breeding ground for Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the next generation of global jihadis”.
The suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood after the 2013 coup has involved the Egyptian military killing many thousands of people and involved a curb on all dissent in the country. As a result, Egypt’s jails are chronically overcrowded.
“The security services have been ruthless in clamping down on any remaining political, social or even cultural independent spaces,” said Amnesty International’s North Africa Campaigns Director Najia Bounaim. “These measures, more extreme than anything seen in former President Hosni Mubarak’s repressive 30-year rule, have turned Egypt into an open-air prison for critics”.
This has bred greater resentment against the regime. ISIS has adeptly exploited this situation by recruiting victims of official abuse across the country. Former prisoners have said that ISIS “preys on abused prisoners, exploiting their anger and offering them promises of revenge.” As a result, the group “is now so powerful they have de facto control of parts of the prison system”.
The stability of the Sisi regime cannot be taken for granted, and if turmoil returns to Egypt, ISIS is well-positioned to tap into these networks it has so diligently built-up to become a powerful force in determining the country’s future.
ISIS has a small affiliate in Libya that seized the town Sirte, the hometown of former Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, in early 2015 and at one point controlled 150 miles of Libya’s lengthy Mediterranean coastline.
Anti-ISIS Libyan militiamen, backed by U.S. airstrikes, finally routed the group from Sirte by December 2016 and ISIS’ Libya faction reverted to a non-state actor.
There are some indications that the remnants of ISIS in Libya have exploited the recent turmoil in the country.
The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA) based in eastern Libya, led by General Khalifa Haftar, are both opposed to ISIS. However, the clashes between the two since April have alleviated the pressure on ISIS in that war-torn North African country. Paul Selva, the Vice Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted in the early summer that since the LNA and GNA began fighting over Tripoli “it’s actually taking their attention off of ISIS and we’ve seen a small resurgence of those [ISIS] camps in the central region”.
In May, the Libyan ISIS outfit claimed an attack on an LNA training camp, which killed nine. In early April, ISIS seized its opportunity to launch an attack on Fuhaqa, a remote town 400 miles southeast of the Libyan capital. In that attack, they successfully killed three people and set several buildings on fire.
While these were not particularly large attacks, it is hardly coincidental that ISIS remnants in Libya were emboldened by the fighting among its enemies. So long as the conflict between them persists, and so long as a political solution does not begin stabilizing Libya, ISIS forces and their sympathizers in Libya are likely to benefit.
When Iraqi Kurds voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence in a non-binding referendum held by that autonomous region’s government in September 2017, Iraq immediately took steps to punish it. It started by closing Kurdistan’s two international airports. Then, with Iranian direction, Iraq’s security forces militarily seized the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, a disputed territory between the government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
The latter action briefly resulted in Iraqi forces and Kurdish Peshmerga shooting each other for the first time since Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq. This was a mere year after both sides had coordinated their efforts against ISIS in Mosul, the biggest city that group ever captured and from where it first declared its caliphate, in a move that was hailed as historic.
While relations between Baghdad and the KRG have thawed substantially since the Kirkuk crisis, the taboo on using violence to resolve political differences in the New Iraq has been shattered and the trust that had been built up since Saddam’s fall was lost. It is unlikely to be regained. Part of this mistrust is reflected in the Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi military forces not having coordinated any of their actions against ISIS since that date.
As a result, there are major security gaps between the Iraqi and Kurdish lines in Kirkuk and other disputed territories that has allowed ISIS the ability to continuously operate in central Iraq. In this important region, ISIS has been able to “tax” (extort) locals to fund their activities, burn crops and assassinate village elders — the muqtars — to erode confidence in the ability of the Iraqi state and its security forces.
Had the Kirkuk crisis not transpired and cooperation against a common enemy continued between Iraq and the KRG — something Erbil wanted to preserve and increase, even if Kurdistan attained complete independence from Iraq — it’s unlikely ISIS would still pose such a substantial threat in that area over 18 months after Iraq declared that the group was defeated in December 2017.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad never focused his efforts on combating the threat posed by ISIS throughout the lengthy conflict in his country. Before the conflict, his regime facilitated the transit of jihadists through his country to kill American soldiers and Iraqi civilians in Iraq. Many of those jihadists eventually formed Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor organization to ISIS.
Assad focused on crushing opposition groups around the country rather than fighting terrorists. Between 2013 and 2014, ISIS was allowed to build up its proto-state in northeast Syria as the regime concentrated on bombing the more moderate opposition in the west. In 2016, Palmyra was allowed to fall to ISIS as Assad attacked the mainstream rebels in Aleppo. The Assad regime’s intention was to leave the jihadists like ISIS and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) as the only alternative to his rule so the world would have no choice but to help him suppress the insurgency.
When Russia intervened on Assad’s behalf in 2015 it also did little to confront ISIS. Early in the Russian campaign ISIS even made some territorial gains in the parts of the country’s northwest bombed by Russian warplanes. When malign intent did not forestall counter-terrorism efforts, incompetence did. A small expeditionary force of pro-regime fighters tried to recapture parts of Raqqa province in the summer of 2016 but was completely repelled by a swift and devastating ISIS counteroffensive. 
Once supplied with American airpower, the Kurdish-controlled Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) did by far the most to combat and destroy ISIS’s caliphate in Syria. However, the SDF’s fight against ISIS was briefly distracted by another conflict with Turkey.
In January 2018 Turkey — citing the predominance in the SDF of fighters linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group with which it has been at war for decades and is also designated a terrorist organisation by the US and EU — invaded the northwestern Syrian enclave of Afrin, pushing out the Kurdish fighters and simultaneously displacing 100,000 Kurdish civilians. Many of the Kurdish fighters who make up the backbone of the SDF abandoned their offensive against ISIS in eastern Syria in an attempt to bolster Afrin’s defences. According to a U.S. Department of Defense report, ISIS successfully “exploited” this “two-month pause in fighting” as SDF fighters moved from eastern to northern Syria “to recruit new members, gain resources, and conduct attacks”.
When Turkey began shelling SDF positions in border cities late last October, Kurdish guerrillas again briefly left the front-lines. In that case, however, the U.S. military quickly began military patrols along that border and the SDF militiamen promptly resumed their offensive against ISIS and finally destroyed the remnants of the caliphate in eastern Syria by March with their takeover of the town of Baghouz.
The tension between the SDF and Turkey is yet another striking example — an ongoing one — of how sub-conflicts in areas where ISIS retains a presence can take the pressure off the group and increase the risk that its numerous sleeper cells and sympathizers can regroup, reorganize, and revive. The group’s shrewdness in exploiting these local political divisions is what enabled it to conquer a region across northeast Syria and northwest Iraq roughly equal in size to Great Britain at its peak. If these conflicts are allowed to persist the group could well make a major resurgence and yet again become a threat to these regions and the world.
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 Egypt: Unprecedented crackdown on freedom of expression under al-Sisi turns Egypt into open-air prison, Amnesty International, September 20, 2018, accessible at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/09/egypt-unprecedented-crackdown-on-freedom-of-expression-under-alsisi-turns-egypt-into-openair-prison/
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