European Eye on Radicalization
The United States announced two weeks ago that it had, in collaboration with its partner force—the so-called “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), the political cover for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—conducted a raid in Syria on 10 February that killed an important Islamic State (ISIS) official, Ibrahim al-Qahtani. This is the latest in a series of raids by the U.S. against ISIS, suggesting that the U.S. has good intelligence coverage of the terrorist group in its heartlands. It has also highlighted the limits of the present strategy, since ISIS is still continuing a high tempo of insurgent activity across Syria and Iraq, and beyond; the situation of ISIS prisoners held in Syria remains very fragile, a dangerous security challenge with no solution in sight; and ISIS’s evolving tactics for sustaining itself seem to be paying dividends.
Just after Al-Qahtani was killed, the ISIS commander for eastern Syria, Hamza al-Homsi, was eliminated, a counter-terrorism success, though as Voice of America noted: “the raid against al-Homsi in the vicinity of Deir [Ezzor] turned dicey when the [ISIS] leader triggered an explosive device, possibly a hand grenade. The blast wounded four U.S. service members and a service dog, who were taken to medical facilities in Iraq.”
VOA went on to explain:
[On 21 January 2023], a U.S. operation in eastern Syria resulted in the capture of two IS facilitators, Abdallah Hamid Muslih al-Maddad, also known as Abu Hamza al-Suri, and Husam Hamid al-Muslih al-Maddad al-Khayr, as well as one of al-Khayr’s associates.
Just days earlier, another U.S.-SDF operation in eastern Syria resulted in the capture of an IS official said to be “involved in the planning and facilitation of ISIS operations in and outside of the region as well as global recruiting efforts.”
U.S. and SDF forces likewise captured a number of key [ISIS] operatives during a series of raids in north-eastern Syria this past December.
Set against this, ISIS has managed to continue a steady tempo of attacks on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border, and in February 2023 launched a serious escalation in Syria. As The Associated Press reported:
The [ISIS] attacks [in February] were largely against a very vulnerable target: Syrians hunting truffles in the desert. …
On Feb. 11, IS fighters kidnapped about 75 truffle hunters outside the town of Palmyra. At least 16 were killed, including a woman and security officers, 25 were released and the rest remain missing.
Six days later … they attacked a group of truffle hunters outside the desert town of Sukhna, just up the highway from Palmyra, and fought with troops at a security checkpoint close by. At least 61 civilians and seven soldiers were killed. Many of the truffle hunters in the group work for three local businessmen close to the Syrian military and pro-government militias, which may have prompted IS to target them …
Smaller attacks around the area killed 12 other people, including soldiers, pro-government fighters and civilians. …
[The] attack in Sukhna was the group’s deadliest since January 2022, when [ISIS] gunmen stormed a prison in the north-eastern city of [Hasaka].
Al-Qahtani was described by the U.S. “an ISIS official associated with planning ISIS detention center attacks”, meaning he was likely involved in the January 2022 attack on Al-Sinaa prison in the Ghwayran area of Hasaka city, which released hundreds of ISIS’s most hardened operatives. ISIS calls its prison-break campaign “Breaking the Walls”, and it used it to devastating effect during its revival in the years before the “caliphate” was declared in 2014. The new “Breaking the Walls” campaign, initiated since ISIS lost its control of territory, has focused on freeing the more than 10,000 ISIS prisoners held by the SDF/PKK in makeshift camps in Syria.
European Eye on Radicalization has covered the issued of ISIS prisoners in the camps in Syria extensively. A large number of these terrorists and their families are not Syrian citizens and many of them are European. It is a terrible and growing security problem to leave ISIS members in an environment where they can further radicalize, can radicalize others, and have the chance of being broken out by the organization. Apart from the legal and moral arguments for European states to engage more actively in repatriation, it is a security imperative to bring these people home as soon as possible, where they can face justice and be dealt with by counter-extremist professionals.
Raids such as that which killed Al-Qahtani are a necessary part of the anti-ISIS strategy, but they are not sufficient, and his successor will have the opportunity to stage more raids like that at Al-Sinaa last year for as long as European states leave their citizens in the camps in Syria. Meanwhile, beyond the centre, ISIS has continued to grow. ISIS has gone from strength to strength in Afghanistan since NATO left the country to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda eighteen months ago, able to conduct large and complex attacks in the most well-defended areas of the capital. In Africa, ISIS’s footholds continue to expand and consolidate, particularly in Nigeria, where the jihadists have fought the government to a standstill; the broader Sahel remains favourable to ISIS, as does the Congo, Mozambique, and even the small ISIS outposts in Somalia and South Africa have proven integral to the logistics and financing of the transnational caliphate.
One new element that has helped ISIS keep its finances in order is the use of cryptocurrency. As early as June 2020, an ISIS website that had “previously been available on both the surface and dark web”, pumping out propaganda materials and allowing ISIS loyalists to interact with one another from across the world, was making requests for donations using cryptocurrency, specifically telling its members to use Monero rather than Bitcoin for security reasons. It is difficult to know the scale on which ISIS is using cryptocurrencies. In August 2020, the U.S. Justice Department announced the shut down of 300 crypto accounts and the seizure of “millions of dollars” belonging to ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and HAMAS (the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood).
ISIS has also made use of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), which are generally online pictures or artwork where the “ownership” can be traded. Despite demands that NFT traders expel ISIS from their platforms, they have refused. “It’s as censorship-proof as you can get,” Mario Cosby, a former U.S. federal intelligence analyst specializing in blockchain currencies told The Wall Street Journal late last year after an ISIS NFT was discovered. “There’s not really anything anyone can do to actually take this NFT down.”
What is clear is that the nature of cryptocurrencies and NFTs makes them a very convenient and secure fundraising technology for terrorists, arms dealers, corrupt governments, drug cartels, and other nefarious actors. Far-Right extremists have been making use of them for some time. There are proposals to regulate this space, but the difficulty is that crypto is essentially criminal in conception: state regulation risks legitimising this shadowy industry—and thus expanding it—rather than restricting its use by terrorists and others.
The ISIS threat remains persistent and global. Managing it will require greater coordination between governments—on “hard” security matters, like providing weapons, intelligence, and perhaps troops to states threatened by its insurgencies, as well as the “softer” aspects like terrorism financing.