Over the past three years, the number of losses that ISIS has experienced at the hands of U.S.-supported SDF (Syrian Allied), YPG/YPK (Kurdish), Iraqi forces and Turkish military, combined with losses to Syrian government forces and their allies (Assad), have reduced their control in Iraq to less than 7 percent and altered their footprint in Syria.
A Changing Landscape Means Changing Battles and a Retrenched ISIS
According to Zaman English: “In an unprecedented move in late March that indicated a greater willingness on the part of the Trump administration to engage in Syria, U.S. Marine pilots airlifted hundreds of Arab and Kurdish fighters affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to the frontlines of the fight against IS near its self-proclaimed capital Raqqa in northern Syria.”
"The Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack on 4 April, which left 89 people dead and many more wounded, was a spectacular attempt by the Assad regime to divert attention from the eastern front and buy time for logistical and military preparations there.
While it arguably has the upper hand in western Syria, the government lags far behind other players in the east and northeast, particularly the U.S. and Turkey, as they push against ISIS and seek to fill the void to be ultimately left by its potential defeat.
Incidentally, the al-Shayrat air base near Homs that the US navy targeted with a barrage of missiles in response to the Khan Sheikhoun assault was one of the major platforms used by Syrian and Russian aircraft to hit ISIS positions in the east, including around Palmyra."
The impact of these on-the-ground shifts has been to impact ISIS’s ability to fund operations and military campaigns. It has also altered ISIS’s focus from expansion to retention of territory and towards the development of dependable resource supplies and the syndication of their messaging.
As ISIS loses their stronghold around Raqqa and as SDF troops begin managing larger refugee camps outside or Raqqa, ISIS has been pushed to move their capital to the city of al-Mayadin in Deir Ezzor province. Deir Ezzor is oil rich and allows ISIS a backstop against the Iraqis and a defensive posture against the SDF (U.S. supported/allied and militia) and the Syrian regime. It also pulls them out of combat posture from the Turks and the Kurds — underscoring the need for a more comprehensive strategy to tackle them on the ground.
A Further Shift to Jim Jones With Guns
Analysis over the past five years have defined ISIS as a cult that selectively weaponizes religious texts and manufactures their own reasoning to ignore religion, rules, and rhetoric to justify their actions. Recently, however they have started a call for more lone wolf attacks in Egypt and the Middle East as well as new attacks on the U.S.
New ISIS threats
In the ISIS Al-Nabaa journal, ISIS affiliates in Egypt have named “churches, security posts and intstitutions.” This includes directives for lone wolf attacks in Egypt.
However in ISIS’s Rumiyah English language magazine — the terrorist group has taken their lone wolf advocacy several steps further, now advocating that recruits resort to kidnapping, torture, murder, and mass killing to strike fear.
ISIS is continuing to suggest that movie theatres, nightclubs, and college campuses as attack points with Rumiyah stating that it "allows for one to take control of the situation by rounding up the kuffar present inside and allows one to massacre them while using the building as a natural defense against any responding force attempting to enter and bring the operation to a quick halt."
Attacks to watch out for this summer are:
Knife, Vehicle, and Arson Attacks — ISIS is advocating that recruits go after lower impact, but high visibility attacks that are an extension of propaganda they have pushed arguing for the use of vehicles as weapons on crowds. By adding knife and arson attacks, they are seeding an ideology of mayhem that we have to counter through pulpit and community engagement.
Our Advice: Basic situational awareness, maintaining smoke alarms.
Craigslist — Where ISIS has suggested that fake ads be placed for goods or apartments allowing targets to be kidnapped and ransomed or ransomed and killed.
Our advice: Be careful, do not answer Craigslist ads in person without taking a partner, colleague, or friend. Take necessary security precautions.
Gun Shows: ISIS is advocating that lax gun laws will allow ISIS recruits to acquire weapons and plan attacks.
Our advice: The Jillenial profile we developed over the past two years suggests that secular, disenfranchised and non-Muslim actors are the primary recruits that fall prey to ISIS messaging. This is supported by JTTF profiles. Keep an eye out for dejected or overly excited people at gun shows who are looking to buy larger capacity weapons and magazines.
As always, stay alert and stay informed. It’s important we not only stay abreast of these issues — it keeps us all safer in the face of a changing global terror landscape.
Oz Sultan is a leading Big Data and counterterrorism expert who focuses on anti-recruiting and ISIS counterterror (CT) research within social media. He is an advisor to the Center for the Study of Civil Military Operations at Westpoint and is adjunct faculty at CUNY Baruch. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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