ISIS’ New Leader and the Group’s Regeneration
Ever since the United States-led military coalition in Syria was ordered to withdraw the majority of its military assets from the Kurdish-dominated Rojava region in October 2019, the viability of the anti-ISIS coalition has been in doubt. At the time of the withdrawal, both the Kurds and outside observers asserted that this partial withdrawal would significantly hamper the coalition’s efforts to maintain a secure hold on the numerous prisons that hold ISIS fighters and their families. Furthermore, the withdrawal prompted a Turkish-supported invasion of northern Syria, diverting Kurdish troops from their primary task of hunting down ISIS remnants. Now that this U.S. support has largely been relegated to the protection of Syrian oil fields, ISIS has been given the breathing room to reassert itself in northeastern Syria, on both the Kurdish and Syrian government-controlled sides of the Euphrates River, as well as in northern Iraq. This newfound breathing room has emboldened ISIS to release the name of its new leader and increase the pace and audacity of insurgent attacks against Kurdish, Syrian government, and Iraqi targets, pointing to the conclusion that this aspect of the Syrian Civil War has merely transformed into a new phase.
On January 20, 2020, The Guardian reported that ISIS has confirmed its new leader to be Amir Mohammed Abdul Rahman al-Mawli al-Salbi, an Iraqi Turkmen raised in Tal Afar, Iraq who was one of the group’s founding members. During his time with the original iteration of ISIS, al-Salbi was the intellectual architect of the group’s enslavement of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, and also helped to plan several of the group’s global operations. Consequently, he possesses a deep understanding of the organization’s culture, its domestic and global operations, and is apparently a dedicated adherent to ISIS’s worldview and interpretation of Sharia law. Although the U.S. State Department has already placed a $5 million bounty on al-Salbi’s head, the coalition’s reduced on the ground footprint and the distraction of the Kurdish troops likely means that efforts to collect intelligence on his whereabouts has been hampered.
This newfound space has allowed him to consolidate ISIS’ new leadership, drawing new individuals from segments of the population “who were too young to play roles in ISIS’s founding battles against US forces from 2004 or in the Iraqi civil war that followed.” This development poses a significant challenge to efforts to eradicate the group, as the new level of leadership will be composed of individuals who may be unknown to U.S. intelligence, but have been educated by a life shaped by and infused with constant conflict against U.S. forces and American-backed regional allies. This space has not only allowed ISIS to reconstitute their leadership, it has also allowed them to regenerate their insurgent capabilities on both sides of the Syria/Iraq border.
In the summer of 2019, Iraqi Kurdish leaders warned that ISIS was increasing the pace of its attacks in the center and north of the country. A senior Kurdish official similarly noted: “We’re now tracking on average 60 attacks a month through assassinations, roadside bombs and assaults on Iraqi security forces.” This report may actually underestimate the true scale of these attacks, as ISIS claimed to carry out 106 attacks between December 20th and 26th, 2019 to avenge the deaths of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, ISIS’ propaganda chief. Clearly, this pace of attacks undermines any claims that the group has been fully degraded and destroyed, or that it has lost its capability of staging attacks on both sides of the Syria/Iraq border, seemingly at will. It appears that this capability is being fostered by the group’s robust rural network in Iraq, where fighters continue to receive monthly salaries and military training in remote mountainous areas. This strategic depth, accompanied by a war chest of approximately $100 million, provides the group with a relatively advantageous position where they can train, plot, and bide their time until shifting regional developments provide an opening for a more public presence in Syria and Iraq.
According to a report that was submitted to the UN Security Council in January 2020, it appears that the group is already starting to take advantage of uneven security and governance on both sides of this border. It notes that ISIS is already launching increasingly bold insurgent attacks, calling and planning for the breakout of fighters imprisoned in detention facilities, and exploiting security weaknesses in both countries. In fact, during the chaos and confusion that accompanied the Turkish-backed invasion of northern Syria in October 2019, the UN report states that several hundred ISIS members escaped from the detention facilities. It is reasonable to assume that many of these individuals have made a concerted effort to rejoin the group’s operations, since the detention facilities have become an incubator of extremist ideology in recent months. Now that the group is freed of the responsibility and cost of running a state, ISIS has the time and resources to focus on insurgent attacks, allowing the estimated 14,000 – 18,000 fighters to move freely across the states’ porous border to develop capabilities, move arms and materiel, and conduct hit and run attacks. If security, governance, and economic stability are not prioritized in these two regions, it is reasonable to assume that this development will accelerate in the near to midterm.
Following the fall of ISIS’ physical caliphate in March of 2019, the world was hopeful that the region could turn the page on this dark chapter in its history and begin to wind down the civil wars in both Syria and Iraq. Before the U.S. withdrawal, the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, and the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, there were positive indications that regional cooperation would offer stability to the region. After these events, however, it has become clear that this cooperation was masking the slow but steady revitalization of ISIS’ leadership and insurgent capabilities. In the wake of these three events, it has become increasingly clear that the group has been employing its sizeable financial resources and dedicated following to incrementally weaken state governance and security on both sides of the Syria/Iraq border. If this development is not adequately recognized and managed, recent events indicate that ISIS will continue to gain strength on both sides of the porous border until it possesses the security and confidence to reassert formal control of territory in one or both countries.
Chulov, Martin. “Isis Founding Member Confirmed by Spies as Group's New Leader.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 20 Jan. 2020, www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/20/isis-leader-confirmed-amir-mohammed-abdul-rahman-al-mawli-al-salbi.
Cruickshank, Paul. “UN Report Warns ISIS Is Reasserting under New Leader Believed to Be behind Yazidi Genocide.” CNN, Cable News Network, 29 Jan. 2020, www.cnn.com/2020/01/29/politics/un-terror-report-isis/index.html.
Hubbard, Ben, and Patrick Kingsley. “U.S. Withdrawal From Syria Gathers Speed, Amid Accusations of Betrayal.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Oct. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/10/21/world/middleeast/us-withdrawal-syria-iraq.html.