ISIS opens new global terror front after battlefield losses

It has been a bloody Ramadan around the world, mainly due to the provocations by the militant Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its supporters.

The spate of attacks began on June 12, when a gunman stormed a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and killed 49 people.

On June 27, suicide bombers killed dozens of civilians in Yemen and in a Christian village in Lebanon. The next day, militants attacked Istanbul's largest airport, killing 45 people, in the deadliest terrorist strike on Turkey's largest city this year.

On Friday last week, militants laid siege to a restaurant in the diplomatic quarter of Bangladesh's capital Dhaka, and began a 12-hour stand-off with security forces, killing 20 patrons, most of them foreigners.

On Sunday, a massive car bomb attack in Baghdad killed more than 200 people, in one of the deadliest attacks in the Iraqi capital since the United States invasion in 2003.

And in the last week, there were attacks carried out in Malaysia and Indonesia that were also linked to ISIS. All the attacks were inspired, loosely organised or carried out directly by ISIS and its leaders.

As the extremist group loses territory in Syria and Iraq under pressure from Western bombing and local military forces, it is trying to project strength by organising or inspiring attacks around the world.

An Iraqi firefighter at the site of a suicide bomb attack in the shopping area of Karrada in Baghdad on Sunday. As ISIS loses territory in Syria and Iraq under pressure from Western bombing and local military forces, it is trying to project strength by organising or inspiring attacks around the world. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

In recent months, ISIS was forced out of the Iraqi city of Ramadi and then Fallujah, one of its last strongholds in western Iraq.

ISIS' reach and ability to sow terror expanded far beyond the Middle East - inspiring attacks in Paris, Brussels and elsewhere in the West - more than a year ago, but after the bloodshed it inspired this Ramadan, the group is entering a new phase.

To make up for its battlefield losses, the group will lash out by launching more terrorist attacks. As the only terrorist group that has been able to create its own state, ISIS is transforming itself into a more sophisticated and deadlier version of its main militant rival Al-Qaeda, which has never controlled a state.

"As the pressure mounts on ISIL, we judge that it will intensify its global terror campaign to maintain its dominance of the global terrorism agenda," said CIA director John Brennan at a US Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last month. ISIL is the other name by which the group is known.

Already, US officials say the group has lost nearly half of the territory it once controlled in Iraq, and a quarter of the territory in Syria.


As the pressure mounts on ISIL, we judge that it will intensify its global terror campaign to maintain its dominance of the global terrorism agenda.

CIA DIRECTOR JOHN BRENNAN, referring to ISIS by another name it is known by.

Its illicit oil revenues dropped to US$150 million (S$202 million) a year, from a high of US$500 million in 2014. And with new attacks, such as the bombing of Istanbul's Ataturk Airport last week and a string of bombings in Saudi Arabia on Monday, the group risks provoking a massive crackdown by the governments it has targeted.

Since 2013, ISIS and Al-Qaeda have been competing for funding, recruits and prestige - and they often argue over tactics. ISIS leaders prefer the wholesale slaughter of civilians, as epitomised by the spate of attacks in Ramadan.

By late 2014, ISIS had seized large chunks of territory in Syria and Iraq. It then proclaimed a caliphate in the territory under its control, and named its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph and "leader of Muslims everywhere".

ISIS established a territorial base that has allowed it to govern territory, train thousands of fighters and generate income from illicit trade in oil and other resources - all on a scale larger than anything Al-Qaeda had achieved.

ISIS has also established a larger recruitment effort and a more sophisticated social media presence than Al-Qaeda.

With its self-declared caliphate, ISIS has gained control of more resources and generated far more income than Al-Qaeda. ISIS generates money by selling oil and wheat, imposing taxes on residents living in the territory it controls, and through extortion.

In 2014, ISIS raked in about US$2 billion, according to the US Treasury Department. That included US$500 million in oil sales on the black market, and up to US$1 billion in cash stolen from banks as the group made its initial march across Syria and Iraq.

By contrast, Al-Qaeda has historically relied on donations from wealthy individuals, especially in the Gulf Arab states.

Overall, ISIS has displaced Al-Qaeda as the dominant force in international terrorism. In the past two years, ISIS has been more successful in its strategy, which relies on capturing and holding territory. But after its recent losses in Iraq and Syria, the group has reverted to its roots as a terrorist insurgency, bent on instilling fear in its enemies.

In doing so, ISIS leaders are conceding that they might eventually lose their strongholds in Raqqa, Syria and Mosul, Iraq. That means ISIS would squander the caliphate that has distinguished it from other militant groups.

ISIS has suffered significant losses in its ranks. At its peak last year, US officials said the group had about 33,000 fighters; today that number has fallen to between 18,000 and 22,000 militants in Iraq and Syria.

But ISIS also has eight affiliates that have pledged allegiance to Baghdadi as caliph, and those groups - in Egypt, Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria - have another 20,000 militants fighting under the ISIS banner.

Al-Qaeda had only several thousand fighters at the height of its power.

To combat this new and more complex range of threats posed by ISIS and its supporters, governments in the West and the Middle East must do more than simply continue military strikes against targets in Iraq and Syria.

Deterring ISIS from launching new attacks against civilian targets requires greater vigilance in monitoring its clandestine networks, and adapting to a new enemy that knows no limits.

  • Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and a former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday, a New York newspaper.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 07, 2016, with the headline 'ISIS opens new global terror front after battlefield losses'. Print Edition | Subscribe