The End of ISIS

October 2019. The killing of Abū Bakr al-Baghdādī, (the self-styled Caliph of the Islamic State – ISIS) by the U.S. special forces, caused a change inside the organization.
Since then, in fact, the Iraqi branch of the terrorist organization, which has always led the group, has adopted a new strategy.
The strategy no longer consists of blatant attacks, but rather of patient work for the reconstruction of its clandestine presence on the territory, particularly in Iraq. To rebuild its presence, it is implementing a modus operandi similar to the criminal organizations.

Extortion, murder, and intimidation to terrorize those who stand against ISIS. Smuggling and illicit trafficking to finance themselves and distribute the resources among the supporters. Protection and economic aid to consolidate support among supporters. Given all these activities, it can be said that ISIS is still particularly active.

This can be seen primarily in Africa, particularly in the Sahel area and more specifically in Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Chad. In these states, in fact, the Islamic State is really active and is trying to carve out a new territorial space for itself after the defeats in the Middle East.

Another state where it is particularly visible is Iraq, which remains the centre of the project. Here, according to a recent study, about 4000 ISIS fighters are still active, in addition to almost 8000 sympathizers ready to take up arms.

These numbers therefore give us the idea that the presence in the country is still substantial, and therefore also dangerous.

The demonstration that ISIS is still active is linked to the fact that, in recent months, we have seen that small attacks have multiplied at local level.

The victims of these attacks are the tribal leaders who cooperate with the government; the paramilitary militias operating on the territory, the security forces and the army; the drivers who transport oil from the extraction areas to the processing areas. A further cause for concern is that Iraq has experienced increasing political instability in recent months, thus creating fertile ground for the proliferation of terrorist groups. In fact, in recent months, many Iraqis have taken to the streets to protest against the corruption of the ruling class and therefore demand greater transparency and a solution to the current economic crisis.

All this took place in a context of state weakness that still fails to govern large portions of Iraqi territory. The internal political instability is therefore aggravated by the tense international relations between Iran and the United States, which are clashing in the country to pursue their geopolitical objectives in the region.

The international situation, caused by COVID-19, offers an incredible opportunity for ISIS to raise its head.

Between 2010 and 2012 ISIS had already shown itself capable of taking advantage of the discontent of the local population and the weakness of state institutions in Iraq.

Today both low oil prices and the COVID-19 emergency have created a similar situation.

Because for a country that is hyper dependent on oil, low prices mean much less money for both institutions and civil servants’ payments.

Speaking pragmatically, there is a lack of funds to keep open: schools, military barracks and hospitals, but also the salaries of doctors, teachers and military personnel. From this situation comes the discontent of a population that is increasingly poorer and at the same time deprived of services.

This picture gives an idea of what this situation can be like as a perfect mix for the return of the ISIS threat.

Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, the newly installed Iraqi Prime Minister, will face difficult challenges, not only in the management of COVID-19 but also from an economic point of view.

Iraq has a state budget that is in fact 93% based on oil revenues, which at the moment are minimized by low prices. At the same time, however, the reasons that had pushed thousands of demonstrators to take to the streets in recent months have not been resolved: first of all, corruption but also the lack of opportunities for the new generations. In fact, unemployment among young people remains very high, around 20%.

In economic terms then, according to World Bank estimates, in 2020 there will be a contraction of GDP, between 9-10%.

What does this mean?

It means that the reasons for social fragmentation and lack of confidence in political institutions will be very good reasons and also very good opportunities for ISIS to raise its head using the contingent moment.

ISIS will therefore certainly play its game with clear objectives.

A short-term objective could be to exploit the weakness of the central authority to have local influence on the population but also on illicit trafficking, such as smuggling or wholesale of drugs.

A longer-term objective is to be strong enough to re-establish territorial control in the north of Iraq.

From a general point of view, the objectives are three: the first is to maintain a pre-eminent symbolic role in the jihadist galaxy, which counts dozens of groups, often in competition with each other, appearing as a strong and winning group.

The second is to reiterate that if the caliphate is a global authority, ISIS operations must take place in various theatres: from Mozambique to the Sahel, from Afghanistan to Iraq, etc…

The third is to carve out a territorial control zone where, if Iraq is not possible, perhaps in Afghanistan or Africa, to implement the state project.

Dwelling instead on the Coronavirus theme in ISIS propaganda, this pandemic is yet another proof that God is punishing their enemies and leading to the inevitable collapse of world order.

In this sense, the propaganda of the self-styled Islamic state presents the virus as the crusaders’ nightmare, a punishment sent by God that weakens the enemy. Above all ISIS points out that with the current financial difficulties it will be increasingly difficult for many countries to carry out prolonged military commitments and this will only benefit them.

On the one hand there is propaganda, on the other hand there are facts, what really happens.

With the death of Abū Bakr al-Baghdādī there have been significant changes within the structure of the organization.

With the death of Abū Bakr al-Baghdādī, his place was taken by Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi[2], furthermore two commissions were created.

The first is a 5-member board, led by Abū Bakr al-Baghdādī’s brother; the second is a commission formed by 5 members and each member would be responsible for a portfolio: security, housing, religious affairs, media and financing.

One of the most important changes is that the committee has decentralised the different provinces and thus also the control of a whole range of questions. This gives less power to the central control of ISIS than when Abū Bakr al-Baghdādī led it.

What remains important to underline is that ISIS has not been defeated and continues to operate, despite a decrease in its range of action both ideologically and militarily, especially after the defeats on the field.

One of the countries still hardest hit by the problem remains Iraq. The nation in question has in fact seen an increase in the number of attacks: 566 only in the first 3 months of this year, compared to 292 in the same period of 2019.

At the same time, its influence remains in certain areas of Africa, North Africa and the Middle East, and in order to continue to be able to subsidise its activities, it needs large amounts of money from smuggling and illicit trafficking.

A glaring example of illicit trafficking has been discovered in recent days.

The drug operation conducted by the Guardia di Finanza of Naples led to the seizure, in the port of Salerno, of 14 tons of amphetamines produced in Syria by ISIS to finance terrorism.

The value of the 84 million tablets found is estimated at over 1 billion Euros, counting about 10-15 Euros per tablet, which is the retail price in “European squares”.

The seized pills are marked with the “captagon” logo, a synthetic drug widely used by jihadists and fighters of various types, especially in the Middle East, because it would inhibit fear, pain and fatigue.

ISIS has been spreading it for a long time (according to the DEA – Drug Enforcement Administration ISIS is one of the largest drug producers in the territories under its dominion) and controls its large-scale distribution. It may have set up a cartel with Italian drug traffickers in order to heal, with the markets of Europe, the financial losses due to the withdrawal from some oil-producing territories.

This last point is particularly important, because it is a matter of both interest and concern.

In fact, underlines the connection that has been established between the terrorists of the self-styled Islamic State and the Italian mafias, which control the narco-traffic.

In particular, with the Ndrangheta, which is the Italian criminal organization that has spent the most money in the sector, even in Campania, because for the moment, it is sufficient for the Camorra to control the cocaine market.

After the end of the lockdown due to the health emergency, many traffickers could have turned to Syria, whose production does not seem to have suffered any slowdown.

In fact, it is quite easy for ISIS to produce large quantities of synthetic drugs in those territories.

By, Michele Brunori

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