- Almost five years ago, in the summer of 2014, the Islamic Caliphate established by ISIS reached the height of its expansion. Its territories included a third of Iraq and between a quarter and a third of Syria. The area had a population of between five and six million people and ISIS had control of the governmental petroleum production infrastructure in both Iraq and Syria (with an income from petroleum products estimated at the time at several million dollars a day). However, ISIS’s dramatic achievements led to the forming, in September 2014, of the American-led international coalition. It also led to Russian intervention in Syria in support of the Syrian regime (beginning in September 2015). As a result of combined local, regional and international efforts, ISIS’s spread was halted in Syria and Iraq (its two core countries) and in recent years the organization has found itself continually on the defensive in those countries.
- The campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria brought about the collapse of the Islamic Caliphate at the end of 2017 and during 2018. In recent years ISIS has lost all the areas it controlled, with their populations, including its two “capital cities,” Mosul in Iraq and al-Raqqa in Syria. In addition, its chain of command was affected; the governmental institutions it established were closed; its economic assets (primarily oil and gas fields) were lost; and some of its foreign fighters were killed, taken captive or returned to their countries of origin (a process which has not yet ended).
- In view of the blows suffered by ISIS, voices have been heard claiming the organization is facing extinction. The most conspicuous remark was made in a Trump tweet claiming, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria.” The operative conclusion of the tweet was that there is no reason for American troops to remain in Syria. Therefore, American sources reported that the United States would pull out its 2,000 troops stationed in Syria (the number was recently lowered to 1,600).
- The tweet raises a number of fundamental questions: has ISIS in fact been defeated? Is the entire organization or at least its branch in Syria no longer a significant threat to the Middle East and the international community? Can the organization overcome the blows it suffered and rehabilitate itself, and how will that be manifested in the coming years?
Right: Trump’s tweet, December 19, 2018. Left: Excerpt from a speech made by President Obama (White House website, September 10, 2014).
- In ITIC assessment, ISIS has been weakened but despite the blows it suffered, it has not been defeated. It still possesses strategic assets which will enable it to rehabilitate itself and continue to pose a threat to the international community: it has active provinces in Iraq and Syria and in countries in Asia and Africa, where the local regimes find it difficult to uproot the organization. ISIS’s charismatic leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and several other senior figures, have so far managed to survive the blows and continue to lead the organization and control its various provinces, even if it is decentralized. The ISIS brand has eroded to a certain extent but the organization and the ideology behind it continue to attract young Muslims in Iraq and Syria, other countries in the Middle East and around the globe. On the other hand, the anti-ISIS coalition, which successfully halted the organization’s expansion and strongly assailed its strongholds in Iraq and Syria, is heterogenic and its members have different and sometimes conflicting interests. Thus it can be expected that following the loss of the regions ISIS controlled in Iraq and Syria, the powers and local and regional countries will put their emphasis on promoting other interests in Iraq and Syria and the momentum of the campaign against ISIS is liable to wane.
- ISIS represents the loss of its stronghold in the lower Euphrates Valley as having lost the battle but not the war. In a recent ISIS video, prompted by the expected fall of its last stronghold in the village of al-Baghuz Fawqani, an operative explained that in the beginning Islam also lost battles but in the end succeeded in establishing itself and putting down roots. He said war is fickle, “sometimes you win a battle and sometimes you lose, but the war isn’t over yet” (ISIS video entitled “The importance of standing firm in al-Baghuz,” Shabakat Shumukh, March 11, 2019)
- What may be the level of danger ISIS will pose in the coming year? On the one hand, it seems unlikely that in the near future ISIS will be a significant threat, as it was at the height of its power in 2014. On the other, its strengthening in Iraq and its continued activity in Syria and countries in Asia and Africa may contribute to continuing the chronic instability from which those countries suffer, making it difficult for failing countries to rehabilitate themselves. ISIS’s terrorist attacks will claim a high price in human life in the countries where its provinces operate and in Western countries as well. The destructive potential of ISIS is still great, especially in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and West Africa, and the level of danger it presents must not be underestimated (as it was in the past, before the beginning of the American-led campaign against ISIS). The international community, led by the United States, should not ease the pressure on ISIS and must continue the campaign against it, in the Middle East and around the world, invest the necessary resources and support the countries threatened by ISIS.
ISIS’s remaining strategic assets
- ISIS left the campaign against it in recent years beaten and bleeding. However, in ITIC assessment, ISIS still has important strategic assets which will help it rehabilitate itself and position itself as an highly dangerous global guerrilla terrorist organization:
- Strategic asset number 1: The existence of operative military infrastructures in its core countries, Iraq and Syria, and the difficulty of the local regimes to uproot them. The difficulty comes mainly from the regimes’ instability, the schisms between sectarian, ethnic and religious communities (especially between Shi’ites and Sunnis), and the conflicts between regional and international powers.
- Strategic asset number 2: ISIS still possesses a charismatic leader, an attractive Salafist-jihadist ideology and the broad media network it established to wage the battle for hearts and minds and to maintain contact with its operatives and provinces.
- Strategic asset number 3: ISIS provinces in several countries in Asia and Africa. In some of those provinces intense military activity continued, and in some even increased, regardless of the blows to ISIS in its core countries. The attempts of the local regimes to uproot ISIS provinces were unsuccessful even when considerable efforts were invested (the success of the Sinai Province to stand firm against the campaign waged by Egypt is a good example). In ITIC assessment the great potential for ISIS’s subversion and terrorism now lies in Afghanistan and West Africa.
- Strategic asset number 4: The support ISIS and its ideology have in large sectors of the Muslim population in Western countries. The alienated Muslim communities in the West (especially in western Europe) are fertile ground for radical Muslim ideology and the recruitment of local supporters to carry out ISIS-inspired attacks. The possible return of operatives and their families to their countries of origin in the West may increase the value of the asset.
Strategic asset number 1: ISIS is still rooted in the Sunni communities in Syria and Iraq, and the local regimes find it difficult to uproot it
The height of the Islamic Caliphate’s expansion, June 2014: the Islamic Caliphate controlled extensive areas in western Iraq and northeastern Syria. The map was uploaded to jihadist forums on August 18, 2014 (hanein.info; alplatfrommedia.com)
- After the collapse of the Islamic Caliphate ISIS kept control over several regions in Syria, all of which were conquered during 2018 by the Syrian army with the support of Russia and Iran: the area of the Yarmouk refugee camp south of Damascus (May 2018); the southern Golan Heights (July 2018); and the area of al-Safa, northeast of Suwayda (November 2018, but there are still a few ISIS fighters left). The last important area of control in the lower Euphrates Valley fell to SDF forces.
- The attack on the ISIS stronghold in the Euphrates Valley began more than half a year ago, waged by the Kurdish forces (SDF) with support from the United States and the coalition countries. After more than half a year of fighting, the village of al-Baghuz Fawqani, northeast of the city of Albukamal (the southern part of the enclave), fell to the SDF forces.
Scene from the ISIS video “ISIS’s Pocket in al-Baghuz Fawqani” (Shabakat Shumukh, March 11, 2019).
- In ITIC assessment, even after the fall of the ISIS enclave in the Euphrates Valley, thousands of ISIS operatives will remain in Syria. The most important region of operations for those operatives is now the desert region between Palmyra and Deir al-Zor. ISIS also has local and regional networks that continue operating in the area northeast of Suwayda, in the upper Euphrates Valley and the region of Idlib. However, ISIS has no control over the population in those regions in Syria and continues waging guerrilla warfare against its various enemies: the Syrian army (supported by Russia); the Kurds (supported by the United States), and the jihadist organization, Headquarters for the Liberation of al-Sham (the dominant organization in the region of Idlib).
- With the fall of the ISIS enclave in the Euphrates Valley, in Syria as well the loss of its control over territory and population was completed. In the meantime, the process of turning ISIS into a guerrilla terrorist organization has begun. In its new form ISIS will not be bound by a territorial framework and will enjoy flexibility and greater freedom of action in orchestrating hit and run attacks. In ITIC assessment, in Syria ISIS will undergo period of reorganization during 2019. ISIS will make an effort to continue its military activities and even improve them to prove it is still viable and the leading jihadist organization, while in reality, the Headquarters for the Liberation of al-Sham (the former Jabhat al-Nusra) remains the dominant organization in the Idlib region and the leading jihadist organization in Syria.
- From an organizational point of view, the various provinces in Iraq were united by ISIS into an “umbrella province” that encompassed the various regions: Dijla (the Tigris), al-Anbar, Diyala, Baghdad, northern Baghdad, Saladin, Nineveh, Jazeera and the Southern Province. ISIS’s leadership has control over its networks throughout Iraq, but in ITIC assessment it is weak, and ISIS networks in the various regions enjoy a certain amount of autonomy,
- The regions where ISIS is more intensively active are Saladin, Nineveh and Mosul, Kirkuk, Diyala and al-Anbar (see map). The central objectives of ISIS’s attacks are the Iraqi security forces and Shi’ite and Sunni militias affiliated with the Iraqi regime: the Iraqi army, the “popular mobilization” (an Iranian-sponsored Shi’ite militia), the “tribal mobilization” (militias of Sunni tribesmen who collaborate with the regime), members of Iraqi intelligence and “agents” suspected of collaboration with the Iraq regime. Attacks also targeted the Shi’ite population, with the objective of deepening the sectarian schism between Shi’ites and Sunnis. It is a tactic similar to that used by the al-Qaeda branch in Iraq when it began, out of which ISIS grew. That branch, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, waged terrorist-guerrilla warfare against the United States and its allies, and at the same time against the Shi’ite population. The tactics contributed, in the final analysis, to the withdrawal of the American troops from Iraq and the fundamental weakness of the Iraqi regime.
A map of the provinces of Iraq (Wikipedia). The numbers in the north and west indicate areas of intensive ISIS military activity.
- In 2018 ISIS carried out a variety of attacks: detonating IEDs to attack security force vehicles; attacking security targets using rockets and mortar shells; ambushes; placing IEDs; attacks on Iraqi security force positions and roadblocks; sniper fire; killing security personnel and civilians who helped them, and burning their houses; abducting civilians and members of the security forces and attacking civilians and their property. In most cases the attacks were “simple” and did not require exceptional operational sophistication. However, in some instances more complex attacks were carried out, including suicide bombing attacks. The extensive terrorist activities undertaken in Iraq indicate the potential for intensive terrorist attacks ISIS may carry out in the future.
Types of ISIS Attacks in Iraq
Right: Vehicle belonging to the Iraqi security forces burns east of Tikrit after ISIS operatives detonated an IED (Shabakat Shumukh, February 14, 2019). Left: ISIS operative launces a mortar shell at a village northwest of Baqubah (Shabakat Shumukh, February 14, 2019).
Right: Rocket launched at the Iraqi security forces northeast of Baqubah (Shabakat Shumukh, February 16, 2019). Left: Truck and tractor set on fire by ISIS operatives (Iraq Province – Diyala region, December 9, 2018).
Right: Breaking into an Iraqi police post in the region of Khanaqin (pastethis.to, January 7, 2019). Left: ISIS operatives pray before leaving to ambush fighters of the “popular mobilization” in Khanaqin (Nasher News Agency, April 19, 2019).
Right: Execution of an Iraqi government “agent” taken captive west of al-Ramadi in al-Anbar Province, on August 29, 2018 (rudaw.net, August 29, 2018).
Strategic asset number 2: ISIS’s leader, ideology and the extensive media network
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gives a sermon at the Great Mosque in Mosul (YouTube, July 5, 2014).
- ISIS is a global terrorist organization which adheres to the Islamic Salafist-jihadist ideology. The ideology belongs to an extremist trend in Sunni Islam that seeks to restore what it considers the Golden Age of Islam in the 7th century AD (the era of the prophet Muhammad and the first four Caliphs who came after him). That is to be accomplished by jihad, a holy war targeting internal and external enemies, which is the personal duty of every Muslim. Al-Qaeda and ISIS grew out of that concept, but ISIS’s interpretation is different from al-Qaeda’s. The return to the Golden Age of Islam, according to ISIS’s ideology, will be accomplished by the establishment of a supranational Islamic Caliphate, which negates the concept of the nation states that were carved out of the Middle East after the First World War. The Caliphate will be based on the model of the first four Caliphs and conducted according to an extremist interpretation of Islamic religious law.
- However, the fundamental societal, religious/sectarian and political conditions that initially led to the establishment of ISIS in Iraq and Syria have not changed. The nation states established in the past in Syria and Iraq were not rehabilitated, their sectarian schisms are still strong and the security situation continues to be chronically unstable. Even in other provinces in Asia and Africa, generally speaking the regimes have a low level of governance (or have collapsed, for instance in Libya, Yemen and Somalia), and have difficulties in providing an effective response to ISIS’s activity. Thus ISIS’s Salafist-jihadist ideology may be a source of attraction for Muslims in those countries who regard themselves as deprived, even when ISIS has been militarily weakened in its core countries and even after the Islamic Caliphate it established has collapsed.
ISIS’s broad media network
ISIS notice stressing the importance of its media campaign. The Arabic reads, “Oh, man of the media, you are a real jihad fighter. The media campaign is no less important than the [campaign] waged on the battlefield. Each of you [the media operatives] must stand guard and [act] at every opportunity to renew the intention [to act for the sake of ISIS’s Islamic State]” (archive.org, April 6, 2016).
- In ITIC assessment, ISIS’s media empire will continue to be an important strategic asset, despite the damage it suffered in recent years. It will continue to disseminate the organization’s ideology, including preserving the idea of establishing a Caliphate, the continuation of jihad against various enemies and encouraging terrorist attacks in the West. Besides its central position in the battle for hearts and minds, it will continue to fulfill operative functions as well, such as maintaining connections between the operatives around the globe and contacts between them and the ISIS leadership, as well as recruiting operatives and funds.
Strategic asset number 3: ISIS provinces in African and Asian countries
Islamic State provinces around the world
- ISIS’s provinces around the world are:
- The Khorasan Province (Afghanistan/Pakistan/Iran): The province was established in 2014. The center of its activity is in Afghanistan, where there is ongoing instability and strengthening of the Taliban (which is hostile to ISIS). There has been a continuous rise over the years in the extent of the province’s terrorist attacks. In 2018 there was intensive activity, mainly in Afghanistan. The most conspicuous targets were the institutions affiliated with the Afghan government; the Afghan army; the Afghan intelligence and security services; the Taliban; prominent individuals and institutions affiliated with the United States and the West. In 2018 the Khorasan Province carried out showcase suicide bombing attacks in the capital city of Kabul and other cities. The attacks claimed a number of victims and were widely covered by the media. The Khorasan Province recently demonstrated its operational capabilities with two suicide bombing attacks, one near the airport in Jalalabad and the other targeting a march in Kabul attended by senior figures in the Afghan government, both carried out on March 6, 2019.
Examples of Suicide Bombing Attacks Carried Out by ISIS in Kabul
Right: The two ISIS operatives who carried out the suicide bombing attack on a march in Kabul (Shabakat Shumukh, March 8, 2019). Left: The scene of the attack (Britain Today YouTube channel, March 7, 2019).
Operatives of the Afghan security forces at the scene of the ISIS suicide bombing attack near the headquarters of the election committee in Kabul (Ariana News Twitter account, October 29, 2018).
Right: The ruins of the building after an ISIS suicide bombing attack in an educational center in Kabul (Khaama Press, August 16, 2018). Left: The ISIS suicide bombers who carried out the attack. It killed 34 people and wounded 56 (ISIS-affiliated www.k1falh.ga, August 16, 2018).
The scene of the June 4, 2018, ISIS suicide bombing attack at a conference where more than 2,000 religious figures participated. About 70 people were killed and wounded, including religious figures and operatives of the Afghan security forces (barsh.ir, June 4, 2018)
The scene of the April 20, 2018 ISIS double suicide bombing attack at a compound of the Afghanistan national directorate of security. Thirty people were killed (from a video posted to the Facebook page of Ahmad Ahmadi, April 30, 2018).
- The Sinai Province and Egypt proper:
- The year 2018 was characterized by violence in the Sinai Province, during which the Egyptian security forces exerted strong pressure in an extensive anti-ISIS campaign (“Sinai 2018”). According to the Egyptian army, during the first 11 months of 2018, 530 “terrorist operatives” (i.e., ISIS operatives) were killed. The Egyptian security forces reported that they hit ISIS’s infrastructure and located weapons, explosives, motorcycles and drugs that financed the organization’s activity (Bawabat al-Ayn, December 28, 2018). Nevertheless, the Sinai Province survived the blows and maintained a low but continuous level of offensive initiatives against the Egyptian security forces, especially in the northern Sinai Peninsula. The province is currently in the process of recovery.
- One example of the Sinai Province’s ability to carry out a complex attack was the attack on an Egyptian military post near the el-Arish airport. Fifteen Egyptian soldiers were killed and ISIS operatives seized Egyptian army weapons (February 16, 2019). The ongoing activity of ISIS operatives in the Sinai Province indicates ISIS has operational capabilities which should not be underestimated, it has a hold on part of the local population and the logistic capability necessary to maintain contact with the ISIS leadership.
- In addition, ISIS carried out showcase terrorist attacks in Egypt proper, the most prominent of which was the attack on two buses carrying Coptic Christians returning from a visit the monastery of Saint Samuel the Confessor, north of al-Minya (eight dead and 20 wounded, November 2, 2018).
ISIS attack on the Egyptian military post at the el-Arish airport (Shabakat Shumukh, February 19, 2019).
Egyptian army munitions that fell into the hands of ISIS during the attack on the post at the el-Arish airport (Shabakat Shumukh, February 19, 2019).
The attack on the Coptic Christians. Right: A tent used by some of the ISIS operatives who carried out the attack (Egyptian ministry of the interior Facebook page, November 4, 2018). Left: One of the buses shot at during the attack (al-Masry al-Youm YouTube channel, November 2, 2018).
- West Africa Province: During 2018 there was a rise in the number and quality of the activities of the West Africa Province. The center of its military activity is Nigeria, but its activities leaked into neighboring Chad and Niger. The basis for ISIS’s success in West Africa and the sub-Saharan countries is the weakness of the local governments and the support the province receives from certain sectors within the Muslim population. During the last months of the year the intensity of ISIS’s activities in Nigeria and the sub-Saharan countries increased and in all probably will continue to increase in 2019.
Right: ISIS attack on a camp of the Nigerian army (Shabakat Shumukh, December 28, 2018). Left: ISIS attack on a post of the Nigerian army (Shabakat Shumukh, January 17, 2019).
Right: An operative calls on Muslims to join the Islamic State, in this case, Muslims in Somalia (ISIS’s West Africa Province, January 15, 2019). Left: Operatives of ISIS’s West Africa Province in an exchange of fire in Nigeria (ISIS’s West Africa Province, August 12, 2018).
- In 2018 other ISIS provinces continued their operations, showing themselves as relatively weaker than their various rivals (al-Qaeda and the local authorities):
- Somalia Province: It is a relatively new ISIS province with little activity in recent months. They have attacked operatives of the security forces and members of the Somali administration (intelligence personnel, police, officials). In addition, the province also operates against the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab (to which ISIS is in a position of inferiority).
- Libya Province: During the two years since the fall of ISIS’s stronghold in the region of Sirte (December 6, 2016), there has been a serious decline in the activities of the Libya Province. The main targets for its attacks in 2018 were the Libyan security forces. ISIS also carried out a combined showcase attack on the Libyan foreign ministry in Tripoli (December 25, 2018). The attack was carried out by three terrorist operatives, two of them suicide bombers. The attack began with the detonation of a car bomb. The Libyan ministry of health reported that at least three people were killed, one of them a department manager in the foreign ministry, and ten people were wounded (Akhbar Libya, France 24, December 25, 2018).
Right: Smoke rises from the Libyan foreign ministry in Tripoli (Akhbar Libya, December 25, 2018). Left: Cars set on fire in the area of the attack (Akhbar Libya, December 25, 2019).
- Yemen Province: During 2018 the province continued activities against a number of targets, including the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Yemeni administration. During 2016 six provinces were active: Sanaa, Aden-Abyan, Shabwah, Bayda, Hadrawmat, and the Taiz and Bab regions (Haqq, July 7, 2016). Since then there has apparently been an organizational change. The entire country is now called the Yemen Province and is divided into secondary regions. In 2018 its military activity decreased and focused on the regions of Bayada and Aden-Abyan.
Right: The Yemeni security forces, which exchanged fire with the emir of the Aden region and his men (al-A’an TV YouTube channel, April 28, 2018). Left: The body of the emir of ISIS’s Aden region, Saleh Nasr Fadhel al-Bahshi, killed in the exchange of fire (al-Arabiya, April 28, 2018).
- East Asia: ISIS’s activities in the East Asia Province are based on the Filipino Abu Sayyaf organization, which joined the Islamic State four and a half years ago. The activities of the province focus on the Southern Philippines islands (Mindanao and Sulu). The province is also active in Indonesia, but mainly carrying out attacks in the Philippines. ISIS operatives have been waging ongoing terrorist and guerrilla warfare against the Filipino army and security forces. Prominent most recently was the attack carried out during mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount. Carmel on the island of Jolo in the Southern Philippines (January 27, 2019). It killed 23 people, civilians and operatives of the security forces, and wounded about 110. According to Rommel Banlaoi, Chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, “ISIS is the most complicated, evolving problem for the Philippines today, and we should not pretend that it doesn’t exist because we don’t want it to exist” (New York Times, March 9, 2019).
Right: The island of Jolo in the Philippines (Google Maps). Left: The entrance to the cathedral after two explosions (West Mindanao Command, January 28, 2019).
- North Caucasus: During 2018 ISIS increased its activity in the North Caucasus (Dagestan, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Kabardino-Balkaria). However, ISIS is still weak in those areas. It may be a temporary weakness and ISIS in the Caucasus is liable to reemerge (especially if its operatives who fought in Syria return home). At the end of 2018 the Russian federal security service (FSB) announced that it had exposed a network of ISIS operatives who had collected donations in Russia for operatives in the Islamic State and the Jabhat al-Nusra [i.e., the Headquarters for the Liberation of al-Sham]. The network operated in the region of Moscow, as well as in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia. According to the announcement, two charitable associations, Muhadjiron and Salsabil, raised donations allegedly for building a mosque in Moscow and for supporting needy Muslims (TASS, December 13, 2018).
Covert ISIS networks in Arab countries
- The following were the main activities of ISIS’s covert networks and the counterterrorist activities of the Arab security forces during 2018:
- On August 10, 2018, an IED was detonated attacking a security patrol southeast of the city of Salt in the southern part of the country. One Jordanian security operative was killed and six were injured. The squad that carried out the attack (probably ISIS operatives) fled to a building in Salt from which they exchanged fire with the Jordanian security forces. During the exchange of fire ten Jordanian security force operatives were killed and 20 were wounded. The event occurred after almost two years of security calm in the country.
The building where the terrorists operatives barricaded themselves in Salt
The building after its collapse (aboodrss’ Twitter account, August 11, 2018)
- The Jordanian minister of the interior said at a press conference that there were other plans to attack security targets and public assemblies. He said the terrorists who carried out the attack [in Salt] had a Salafist-jihadist ideology and were supported by ISIS (from a press conference in Amman, August 13, 2018). According to a France24 TV report, on August 8, 2018, Jordanian intelligence detained 17 ISIS operatives who planned to carry out attacks against security, military and commercial centers, as well as against the media. Some of the attacks were supposed to be carried out simultaneously to sow confusion and chaos.
- Morocco: The most prominent terrorist attack carried out by ISIS-affiliated operatives was the murder of two Scandinavian tourists, one from Denmark and the other from Norway, who were touring the Atlas Mountains. They were raped and killed on December 17, 2018. The Moroccan authorities announced that four suspects, detained on suspicion of having committed the murders, had sworn allegiance to ISIS. A video of the ceremony in which they swore allegiance was posted to the social networks before they committed the murders. On December 21, 2018 the Moroccan Central Bureau for Judicial Investigations announced that nine more people had been arrested in Morocco on suspicion of being connected to the murderers (Reuters, December 21, 2018).
Right: Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, from Denmark (Louisa Vesterager Jespersen Facebook page, opened in her memory, December 20, 2018). Left: Maren Ueland from Norway (Maren Ueland Facebook page, opened in her memory, December 19, 2019).
Three ISIS operatives suspected of murdering the two Scandinavian tourists in Morocco (el@hamdilf, December 20, 2018).
- Tunisia: The most prominent terrorist attack in 2018 was carried out by a female suicide bomber who blew herself up with an IED in front of the Tunis city theatre. Nine operatives of the security forces and a civilian were injured. ISIS did not claim responsibility for the attack but in all probability was behind it. Another notable attack was the explosion in eastern Tunisia of a natural gas pipeline that connected the al-Dawlab oilfield to the city of Sfax on the Mediterranean coast (June 2, 2018). ISIS claimed responsibility for the explosion. Note: Recently the military activities of ISIS in northeastern Tunisia increased, and Tunisia may have become a new ISIS province.
Exposure of ISIS networks in Russia, 2018
- During 2018 the Russian security services exposed a number of networks of ISIS operatives, thereby preventing many terrorist attacks, including showcase attacks in Moscow. The most important were the following:
- The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) announced it had killed a man suspected of belonging to ISIS who planned to carry out a terrorist attack in the city of Nizhny Novgorod (lying on the Volga River, it is the fourth largest city in Russia). The attack was planned for the day the Russian presidential elections were held (March 18, 2018). At the home of the suspect, who came from one of the countries on the Russian border, a powerful IED was found, along with components for making other explosive devices, weapons and ammunition (FSB website, February 1, 2018).
- The FSB detained four operatives of an ISIS squad from the Kaluga Province (about 150 kilometers (93 miles) southwest of Moscow). The squad leader was an ISIS operative who had been in Syria and had undergone training in the Islamic State. He arrived in Russia to organize terrorist attacks. During interrogation the operatives admitted to having planned a terrorist attack (FSB website, March 15, 2018).
- The FSB and the Russian ministry of the interior prevented the activities of a terrorist squad in the Moscow area that recruited operatives and sent them to Syria and Iraq to fight in the ranks of ISIS. In addition, the squad supported giving legal status to immigrants who came from Central Asia. While thwarting the activity of the squad, the FSB raided houses at 17 addresses which were searched, and sixty foreign residents were detained. In addition, three laboratories for forging documents were found (FSB website, March 13, 2018).
- In March 2018 the FSB prevented the activities of four operatives who belonged to a covert ISIS network. They came from the city of Novy Urengoy, about 2,300 kilometers (about 1,430 miles) northeast of the region of Moscow. They planned a series of terrorist attacks in the Moscow area, directed by ISIS operatives in Syria (through the Telegram phone application). The investigation revealed connections between the network and a number of extremist residents from the same city. As a result, on April 26, 2018, the FSB and the Russian ministry of the interior detained 20 people in Novy Urengoy. They found ISIS propaganda materials, communications equipment and radical religious literature (FSB website, April 27, 2018)..
- On May 3 and 4, 2018, the FSB detained five operatives who belonged to an ISIS squad in Yaroslavl, a city about 250 kilometers (about 155 miles) northeast of Moscow. They planned to carry out terrorist attacks in a number of regions in Russia. Coordinating preparations for the attacks was carried out though closed communities on Telegram, some of which were “groups abroad.” Searches revealed IEDs, explosives, weapons and ammunition (FSB website, May 4, 2018).
- On October 26, 2018, the FSB and operatives from the Russian ministry of the interior detained six operatives of an ISIS terrorist squad in Moscow. The operatives planned to carry out large terrorist attacks in Moscow using chemical substances and IEDs. Searches revealed automatic weapons, money, communications equipment, instructions for carrying out terrorist attacks and manuals for making IEDs. The squad was financed by bank transfers from abroad and local criminal activities, and was handled by operatives from Central Asia who were staying in Syria (Sputnik, TASS, Russia Today, October 26, 2019).
Picture from the video, showing operatives of the squad immediately after their detention (Russia Today YouTube page, October 26, 2018)
ISIS’s global activities under the caption, “Do you think we will disappear?”
(Shabakat Shumukh, March 14, 2019).
Strategic asset number 4: ISIS supporters in the West and the ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks they carry out
In the West, especially in Western Europe, there are alienated Muslim communities that are fertile soil for the spread of Salafist-jihadist ideology. ISIS considers terrorist attacks abroad as very important, especially in Western countries (“the countries of the Cross”). ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has repeatedly called on Muslims living in the West to carry out attacks. Local Muslims, who were radicalized for a variety of reasons, both personal and ideological, continued carrying out ISIS-inspired attacks in 2018, although since 2016 they have declined in both scope and nature. During 2018 there were eight ISIS-inspired attacks in Western countries, distributed as follows: three in France, two in Australia, one in Canada, one in Britain, one in Belgium.
- On August 22, 2018, ISIS’s al-Furqan Media Foundation issued a recording made by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It called on his operatives and supporters abroad to increase their offensives and attacks, especially against the West. He ended by emphasizing that attacks abroad were support for the ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq. “A bullet that is fired,” he said, “a stabbing, the explosion of an IED in your country is equal to a thousand attacks in ours [Syria and Iraq], and do not neglect vehicular attacks on the roads.”
- In all probability, despite the blows suffered by ISIS, its attraction and the attraction of its ideology for young Muslims in Western countries has not waned. The fundamental reasons are explained by Michael Milstein in an article examining ISIS as a social, cultural phenomenon [ITIC translation and emphasis]:
Distribution of terrorist attacks carried out in the West (most of them ISIS-inspired)
- In ITIC assessment ISIS-inspired attacks will continue into the coming year, despite the blows suffered by ISIS in various locations in Syria. On the other hand, because of the loss of its ability to direct and support attacks from Syria, ISIS will find it hard, as it did in 2018, to carry out planned attacks preceded by an orderly process of collecting intelligence, preparing weapons and training the terrorist/s.
- ISIS’s global propaganda network (and of other jihadist institutions) will continue to motivate ISIS supporters in Western countries to carry out ISIS-inspired attacks. An analysis of ISIS-inspired attacks in 2018 shows that most of the terrorists who carried them out had been influenced by ISIS propaganda (and by the propaganda of other jihadist institutions) spread by the social networks and websites. Some of them were not only exposed to ISIS propaganda, but were active on the social networks that disseminated the materials.
Encouragement for terrorist attacks in Western countries. Right: Notice posted to Telegram by ISIS supporters. The Arabic reads, “Just terrorism – your holidays are coming, so are [the dates for] your funerals” (al-Abd al-Faqir Media Foundation, December 24, 2018). Left: The notice showing a terrorist who carried out a stabbing attack in Melbourne. The English reads, “We strike whenever we want, wherever we want, however we want, #Australia” (Twitter account of Mahmut Aytekin@maytekin91, November 9. 2018. It was originally uploaded to ISIS’s Telegram channels).
Influence of the Social Networks on ISIS Supporters Who Carried Out Terrorist Attacks in Western Countries
- Another potential threat is liable to be the return of the foreign fighters and their families to their countries of origin. Britain, France and Belgium, the countries most hit by jihadist terrorism, announced they would not permit ISIS operatives to return. Germany and Canada, on the other hand, announced that in principle they had to allow the operatives (and their families) to return, subject to criminal processes that would be initiated against them if necessary. In ITIC assessment, in principle, ISIS operatives with military experience and who were brainwashed with ISIS’s ideology may encourage Islamic radicalization and terrorism within local Muslim communities. They may liable join local ISIS supporters and improve the supporters’ capability to carry out terrorist attacks in Western countries.
 Particularly prominent were the suicide bombing attacks carried out by ISIS on a post and headquarters of the "popular mobilization" and Iraqi security forces southwest of Tikrit. A suicide bomber drove a car bomb and blew himself up near an Iraqi security forces' post. Another suicide bomber, who was wearing an explosive belt, participated in the attack. ISIS claimed that 17 Iraqi security personnel were killed and 12 wounded (al-Ghurabaa', December 25, 2018) ↑
 On August 22, 2018, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi issued a recording encouraging ISIS operatives in Iraq and Syria. He called on the operatives in Iraq to carry out "one attack after another," and noted that the prisoners, male and female, in Iraqi jails had not been forgotten (al-Furqan Media Foundation), August 22, 2018) ↑
 Over the years al-Baghdadi's death has been reported many times. The reports have never been verified. ↑
 While the first four Caliphs were widely admired, a careful examination of the period of their rule shows that the idealization is exaggerated. The first three Caliphs were murdered and at that time the weakness of Islam was revealed, as was its lack of unity and lack of its ability to prevent a civil war and bloodshed. ↑
 For further information, see the February 10, 2019 bulletin, "ISIS’s media network: Developments in 2018 and future courses of action." ↑
 Note: After the publication of this study, a new ISIS province was apparently established in Tunisia. ↑
 Middle East Crossroads (Hebrew), Volume 9, February 19, 2019, ed. Dr. Esti Webman. Michael Milstein, "Apocalypse [Middle East] Now: ISIS as a Social and Cultural Phenomenon," (Hebrew only). ↑
 Sixty-three of the attacks were ISIS-inspired and 14 were "handled directly by ISIS." All the attacks carried out in 2018 were ISIS-inspired. The statistics include Western countries with the addition of Turkey. ↑
 For further information, see the February 20, 2019 bulletin, "The dilemma of ISIS captives held by SDF forces (and an analysis of possible solutions) ." ↑