Given that much of the world has been beleaguered by the coronavirus pandemic — and the subsequent lockdowns, bending of health care systems, economic downturns and political divide — concerns have risen that the Islamic State group, or ISIS, has and will continue to exploit the distraction to sustain its global reign of terror.
«ISIS views the global pandemic as an opportunity to weaken its enemies further. Governments are trying to maintain their focus on international security issues at the same time they are addressing a global health crisis that is also sparking an economic crisis,» Counter Extremism Project (CEP) Senior Researcher Josh Lipowsky told Fox News.
«ISIS recognizes that and sees opportunities to take advantage of increased fears among civilian populations, as well as governments that are refocusing and stretching their resources.»
In March, just as stay-at-home orders were taking hold across the United States, ISIS — via its weekly publication al-Naba — called on its operatives to strike against the West.
«ISIS sees the entirety of the West as an enemy of Islam guilty of destroying its physical caliphate. ISIS has incorporated the COVID-19 pandemic into its propaganda, praising it as divine punishment for the West,» Lipowsky explained. «At first, ISIS called on its followers to avoid areas affected by the coronavirus, but now ISIS has realized it can capitalize on the fear caused by the pandemic.»
Last month, German authorities foiled an alleged ISIS plot — purportedly hatched by fighters from Tajikistan — to attack U.S. military facilities. Also in April, France’s counterterrorism authorities opened an investigation after a Sudanese man went on a broad-daylight knife spree in Romans-sur-Isère, according to France 24, in which two people were killed. The suspect, who stole a knife from a local butcher shop, is believed to have been linked to an outside extremist outfit.
Moreover, police across Europe are reported to be probing whether ISIS cells are being quietly reignited as lockdown measures drag on. In April, the U.K.’s most sought-after ISIS fugitive Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary was apprehended in Spain, and a Moroccan national was arrested earlier this month under suspicion he was planning an attack.
Since the fall of Mosul in July 2017, some 1500 ISIS wives and children have been brought to specialized camps operated by Iraqi authorities. (Hollie McKay/Fox News)
However, the place that has seen the most significant uptick in activity amid the public health calamity is Iraq, military analysts caution. While territorially defeated in the country it once controlled more than a third of almost three years ago, the extremist outfit has maintained s simmering presence across the distracted and politically fraught nation.
«The Islamic State has indeed tried to make the most of the coronavirus pandemic, unleashing a wave of attacks across Iraq that also collide with the holy month of Ramadan, which jihadis have made much of in recent years as the month of conquest,» Raphael Gluck, founder of the terrorist monitoring site Jihadoscope, pointed out.
«Since the loss of its caliphate, ISIS has really been fighting a guerilla warfare-style campaign, going back to the way it used to be before those huge land grabs of 2014. ISIS is encouraging fighters to rally onward in the shadow of the plague.»
It has significantly accelerated attacks in remote northern Iraqi villages, taking advantage of the perfect storm of a pandemic, tensions between Iran and the U.S., long-running protests against Tehran’s meddling, and the sharp drop in oil prices.
Over the past week alone, ISIS militants have set fire again to Qarachogh heights near Mosul, wounded several Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) soldiers at their checkpoints in northern Diyala province, and launched a series of deadly attacks as the holy month of Ramadan draws down — including in the historic Babylon province south of Baghdad.
Iraqi military officials also told Fox News that they had steep concerns over the reactivation of sleeper cells napping in Salahuddin, Makhmour, Diyala and the ancestral Christian homeland of the Nineveh Plains.
«There has been an increase daily, a lot of hit-and-run attacks and the killing of police and army officers,» one Iraqi defense specialist, who requested anonymity for security reasons, said. «They are active on many fronts.»
The threat of coronavirus has also compelled the U.S-led military coalition, known as Operation Inherent Resolve, to halt some components of its campaign in Iraq and Syria, while Iraq’s forces have also had to enforce curfews and make operational changes. Several European countries have also pulled out their troops from coalition and NATO training missions in a bid to stop the spread of the novel pathogen.
In neighboring Syria, local forces battling to keep ISIS cells at bay say their struggle has risen twofold since the pandemic onset more than two months ago.
«Without a doubt, ISIS has taken benefit from the emergence of coronavirus and have been able to re-establish a presence in some regions which they had lost,» Mehmud Faruq Ibrahim, co-chair of the Bureau for Civil Affairs in the Civil Administration of Deir-Ez-Zor, near the Iraq border, told Fox News on Wednesday. «There are gunmen loyal to ISIS who refuse any attempt to find a solution. We don’t believe that they have been defeated, because they still command large numbers. Recently, they have become bolder in their actions.»
A U.S. flag is seen at a post in Deh Bala district, Nangarhar province, Afghanistan after the area was recaptured from ISIS fighters. (Reuters)
According to Ibrahim, just in the past few days, ISIS has carried out attacks on several Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) checkpoints, in addition to «setting off mines, blowing up a fuel truck, attacking SDF bases and stations for the distribution of water and they set off a bomb in Basara in which three children and a man were killed.»
Nonetheless, the U.S. military remains confident that ISIS is diminishing.
«The Iraqi Security Forces conducted more than 25 operations against ISIS terrorists in the past week,» Col. Myles B. Caggins III, Coalition spokesman, said on Wednesday. «Over in Syria, our SDF security partners conducted multiple raids on ISIS networks; the Coalition enabled these operations with intelligence sharing and air support.»
The Pentagon’s Lt. Gen. Pat White also told reporters last week that ISIS claimed some 151 attacks throughout April, roughly the same as the previous year, stressing in a call with reporters earlier this month that the level of sophistication of their onslaughts had deteriorated. Moreover, the latest Pentagon report has labeled ISIS a low-level insurgency, one unable to hold territory.
But in financial terms, the Islamic State’s expenses have significantly decreased without a physical caliphate to maintain, and the terror group continues to exploit the monetary mechanisms it put in place. From Lipowsky’s lens, ISIS’s individual provinces continue to raise funds through theft of resources, the imposition of taxes on locals and extortion.
«We have not fully accounted for what became of the vast wealth ISIS accumulated during the caliphate,» he said. «It has also been reported that ISIS even invested some of that capital into legitimate businesses in Syria and Iraq, from which the group continues to draw funding.»
And in Afghanistan, U.S. officials have blamed the radical Islamic militants for one of the most horrific attacks in recent years — the storming of a maternity ward in a Kabul hospital earlier this month that killed at least 16 people, including two newborns.
U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad condemned ISIS for the attack, tweeting that the Afghanistan affiliate «opposes a peace agreement between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban, and seeks to encourage sectarian war as in Iraq and Syria.»
According to Gluck’s tracking, ISIS has not claimed the hospital assailment, and the U.S. has laid the blame with ISIS, while the Afghan government blamed the Taliban.
Meanwhile, the ISIS foothold across swaths of Africa has remained fervent throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
In recent times, northern Mozambique has emerged as a prominent pocket for ISIS attacks and throughout April took control of at least two towns in the Cabo Delgado region, according to local reports. The black-flag jihadist army also took responsibility for a bloody onslaught in Xitaxi, Mozambique, last month, which resulted in more than 50 deaths in what many defense experts have perceived as capitalizing the instability of a nation struggling to contain the burgeoning pandemic.
«With its continued spree of attacks in Africa, ISIS has made special mention of attacks on Christians, part of its Ramadan conquest,» Gluck said.
A recent augment in ISIS activities in Africa’s Sahel region has also been documented, not only toward civilians but also against Al Qaeda branches in the area, of which ISIS once cooperated with to wreak havoc. And in the northern African militant stronghold of Libya, the pandemic is said to have bolstered the array of militias — giving them easier passage to bring in weapons and aid for their fighters — although U.S. defense and U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) officials told the Washington Examiner that Russia’s increasing use of shadowy groups in Libya to support Khalifa Haftar poses a greater geopolitical threat than ISIS.
But with its physical terrain mostly diminished, ISIS has once again turned to its online presence to boost morale and recruit troubled minds.
«A number of their troll accounts are coming back, and they are posting more videos and pictures,» an Iraq-focused security expert, who requested their name not be used, said. «They have become much smarter about avoiding auto-detection from Facebook and Twitter, and have learned from their past experiences.»
A May 15 report by the Middle East Research Institute (MEMRI) entitled «Amid COVID-19, ISIS Supporters Step Up Efforts To Reestablish Presence On Social Media,» concurred that «recent weeks have seen a spike in media activity from supporters of the Islamic State (ISIS),» that there had been an increase «in the launching of Facebook accounts, the opening of new media outlets and increased activity by established ones, Telegram channels, and other media and propaganda ventures.»
«It appears that ISIS supporters have been taking advantage of a reduction in the prevention activity by internet companies during the COVID-19 pandemic,» MEMRI said. «Meanwhile on Telegram, ISIS supporters have managed to revive a large portion of their presence on the messaging app, which has served as ISIS’s main platform for releasing official publications. Dozens of new channels have sprouted up in recent weeks, following several months of relatively scant activity after a coordinated effort by Europol and Telegram to shut down ISIS accounts at the end of 2019.»
The former leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, reportedly had internet at his compound in Northern Syria where a U.S commando raid took place at the end of October, leading the terror leader to blow himself up. ((Al-Furqan media via AP, File)
Another platform where ISIS supporters are flourishing, according to MEMRI, is the messaging app Hoop, a Canada-based app that bills itself as having unparalleled freedom and privacy.
«At present, dozens of official channels are active on Hoop; both those are distributing official ISIS publications and non-official or semi-official channels of supporters. Many of these channels boast thousands of members,» MEMRI said. «ISIS supporters regularly share links to their Hoop channels on Telegram.»