Down but Not Out: How ISIS is Regrouping in Syria, Iraq, and Online

When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s caliphate was overthrown in al-Raqqa in March 2019, many wrongly believed that the Islamic State (ISIS) was over. Born out of the chaos of the Syrian War, many assumed that it would disappear as the guns gradually fell silent in Syria. That has not happened, and over the past six months there has been a series of attacks on civilian populations in both Syria and Iraq — all claimed by ISIS. The most recent of those was a twin suicide bombing in Baghdad in January. Two months before, ISIS carried out three attacks in Iraq — one in the town of al-Mashak in the Salaheddine province killing six Iraqi security personnel, another was a roadside bomb in the Diyala governorate, and a third attack was carried out in the Anbar province. During the first eight months of 2020, ISIS carried out 126 attacks in Syria — up from just 144 in 2019. The US-led Coalition retaliated by bombing ISIS positions 152 times in March 2021. However, this has not eliminated the threat.

ISIS at Al-Hol

The reason for that, of course, is that although the founder is gone, the ideology is not. ISIS fed off the lawlessness that prevailed in both Syria and Iraq, along with the free access to arms and stolen state coffers in both countries or from other militias on the Syrian battlefield. The lawlessness is still there, and so are the arms. When the caliphate collapsed, a small handful of foreign fighters returned home, but the majority were bundled into camps, the most famous of them was al-Hol in the Syrian northeast close to the Syrian-Iraqi border, now under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). According to Human Rights Watch, the camp houses 43,000 foreign men and women linked to ISIS. Their home countries don’t want them back and are turning a deaf ear to calls for their repatriation. The George Washington University Program on Extremism says that the United States has only repatriated only 30 out of 300 Americans fighting with the terror group.

Maintaining proper security at the camp is too expensive for the SDF and, as a result, it has downgraded security, allowing militants to escape or bribe their way to freedom. During an April 2021 crackdown on al-Hol, the SDF said that it found weapons and ammunition, as well as laptops, all linked to ISIS. Meanwhile, the US Treasury Department says that al-Hol is becoming a magnet for ISIS finances, using internal hawalas (money transfer system) to move an estimated $100 million in cash reserves. Additionally, at least 42 ISIS-style executions have been performed in al-Hol since the start of this year, with the SDF reporting a slightly higher number of 47. Last month, the SDF claimed that it had captured 53 suspected ISIS operatives at al-Hol camp, including five cell leaders.

Easy to Assimilate

Elsewhere in Syria and Iraq, locals affiliated with the terror group simply shaved off their beards, took off their military fatigues, and re-assimilated into their communities, blending in with tremendous ease — the same way the Baathists were able to go underground after the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq back in April 2003. They knew the terrain extremely well, had families throughout the villages and towns, and spoke the local accent with ease, making them inconspicuous.  However, they are no longer able to execute people in public and film it to spread fear in the hearts of people, nor can they claim any manifestation of statehood like those that existed under Baghdadi. Nonetheless, they are still there — both physically and ideologically — and they are still vengeful, waiting for the right moment to re-emerge. Unfortunately, no one knows for sure how many ISIS supporters are scattered across the deserts of Syria and Iraq since both countries keep flawed and outdated records.

Online Recruitment

A recent UN report shows that ISIS manpower in Syria and Iraq stands at 10,000 fighters. However, the number of young men that these fighters can recruit and indoctrinate is theoretically unlimited. Western intelligence reports show that ISIS is still recruiting members through online jihadist forums, and still has anywhere between $50-300 million in its coffers. The terror group is using encrypted chat apps to work around bans imposed via Twitter and Facebook, and are now using Tam Tam — a Russian social media network. On that platform they have posted a 216-page illustrated manual for the “novice jihadist fighter”, along with a downloadable instruction video on how to make a one-shot gun for close range assassinations.

De-Sunnifying ISIS

When the Americans started bombing ISIS in 2014, they focused on eliminating top jihadists, but did little to combat jihadist ideology. ISIS and its caliphate, according to its former spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, is a “dream that lives in the depths of every Muslim believer.” It is important to note that when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate back in 2014, many Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood were critical of the caliph — whom they claimed was intellectually unfit to assume leadership of the Muslim World — but not necessarily the concept. They were not opposed to the terror group itself, given that they, too, had a similar ambition of setting up an Islamic state. We must never forget that Baghdadi himself was a young cadet within the ranks of the Brotherhood, and so were a handful of his Iraqi and Syrian comrades. In fact, in the wilderness of the Idlib countryside, Syrian Brotherhood members are still affiliated with ISIS and are helping them regroup.


Apart from a sole letter from 120 scholars dated September 20, 2014 challenging Baghdadi’s interpretation of the Holy Quran and of the Prophet’s hadith, no serious attempt was made at de-Islamifying or de-Sunnifying ISIS. In France, thousands of Muslims rallied at a mosque to say “Not in our name.” In Egypt, Dar al-Ifta — the religious authority in charge of issuing fatwas (religious dictums)— called to stop referring to the terrorist group as the “Islamic State.” Instead, it referred to the group as “Al-Qaeda Separatists in Iraq and Syria.” Regardless of these steps, it takes a lot more effort to root out the core ideology of ISIS, which traveled to all four corners of the globe and corrupted the minds of Muslims worldwide. Only now have international intelligence agencies realized the severity of the problem. Unfortunately, it is too late to do anything about it and, as a result, ISIS is clawing its way back into relevance.