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  1. World
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28 March 2024

The deadly return of Islamic State

The attack at Moscow’s Crocus City concert hall shows that we ignore the jihadi group at our peril.

By Shiraz Maher

There was a depressing familiarity to Islamic State’s (IS) attack on the Crocus City Hall in Moscow on 22 March. Several gunmen stormed the music theatre in coordinated fashion, a marauding attack that killed 139 people and injured more than 180. In the days that followed, IS issued formal claims of responsibility for the attacks, saying it had deliberately targeted a gathering of Christians.

Vladimir Putin has, paradoxically, condemned “radical Islamists” while also seeking to blame both Western and Ukrainian intelligence. Yet, even a cursory examination of IS activity over recent years demonstrates just how much the group has been seeking to reassert itself. The Moscow attack comes just two months after another IS cell launched an attack inside a church in Istanbul targeting worshippers at Sunday mass.

These attacks can seem bewildering. After all, IS was ostensibly defeated in March 2019, following the collapse of its last redoubt in the Syrian town of Baghouz. At the time, the US president, Donald Trump was characteristically triumphant. “We defeated 100% of the ISIS Caliphate,” he tweeted a few months later. “We did our job perfectly!” Global events quickly moved on with the onset of Covid-19, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, increased tensions with China over Hong Kong, Taiwan and cyber espionage and the war in Gaza – along with a cost-of-living crisis at home accentuated by soaring energy prices and interest rates.

In this context it was easy to believe that the threat posed by IS had largely vanished. Aaron Zelin, a research fellow at the Washington Institute, runs a “worldwide activity map” tracking IS’s global footprint. His results make for sobering reading: the group has claimed responsibility for 5,273 attacks since 2019 outside of its primary arenas of activity in Syria and Iraq. Although the majority of its attacks have been concentrated in Africa, followed by Afghanistan, the most devastating and spectacular have this year taken place in Iran, Turkey and Russia.

The first of those took place on 3 January in the city of Kerman, located in south-eastern Iran, where two suicide bombers struck a memorial service for Qasem Soleimani, a general in the revolutionary guard who orchestrated a number of atrocities against Syrian rebels. The Kerman attack resulted in 94 people being killed and 284 injured. Masked gunmen associated with IS stormed a Catholic church in Istanbul just weeks later on 28 January, killing one and injuring others during mass.

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All three major attacks this year are believed to be linked to Islamic State–Khorasan Province (or IS-K), the group’s Afghan affiliate, which has grown in power and prominence since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. Khorasan is a Persian name for an ancient region spanning north-eastern Iran, the northern parts of Afghanistan and the southern parts of the four Central Asian states that sit above both countries: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

It is a permissive environment for the group, which the UN believes now has around 4,000-6,000 members in total. By contrast, al-Qaeda is thought to have just 2,000 members, of whom only around 400 could be considered fighters.

We have been here before with the jihadist movement. Al-Qaeda’s leadership in Iraq was dealt a significant blow in April 2010 when the group’s leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, and his military commander, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, were killed in a joint US-Iraqi military operation. At the time, General Ray Odierno, then commander of US forces in Iraq stated: “the death of these terrorists is potentially the most significant blow to al-Qaeda in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency.”

A year later, on 2 May 2011, US special forces killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan shortly after millions of protesters had taken to the streets across North Africa resulting in the toppling of Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Given these seismic shifts – the most dramatic and wide-ranging reconfiguring of power in the region since the collapse of the Ottoman empire – it was easy to assume al-Qaeda had been beaten.

“After years of war against al-Qaeda and its affiliates, we have dealt al-Qaeda a huge blow,” declared the US president Barack Obama on 19 May 2011, in a speech on US policy amid the Arab Spring uprisings. “By the time we found bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s agenda had come to be seen by the vast majority of the region as a dead end, and the people of the Middle East and North Africa had taken their future into their own hands. That story of self-determination began six months ago in Tunisia.”

Against this backdrop, little attention was paid to Abu Omar’s successor, a then unknown but ambitious jihadist called Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Away from the limelight, Baghdadi set about building IS, a highly technocratic and ruthless organisation, one that in a matter of just four years would smash the border between Syria and Iraq, mobilise tens of thousands around the world in its cause, and produce a reign of terror so brutal that even al-Qaeda would wince at its barbarism.

Even today, the embers of IS continue to glow in Syria long after the fall of Baghouz. Around 50,000 people associated with the group – men, women and children – remain arbitrarily detained in squalid, overcrowded detention facilities across various sites in north-eastern Syria. These sites often serve as a magnet for IS attacks, with the group repeatedly trying to free its captured comrades. The most significant of these attempts came in January 2022 when IS launched a ten-day campaign targeting the Sina’a prison complex resulting in hundreds of fighters escaping, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. About 500 prisoners, guards and IS fighters were killed during the uprising.

More frequently, tensions within these facilities frequently spill over into riots. On 24 March, six prisoners were killed and 15 injured during a riot at a facility in Raqqah, once the de facto capital of the IS caliphate. During a similar incident in 2020, Ishak Mostefaoui, a British fighter from London, was killed as he tried to escape custody. There are also thousands of children languishing in this same limbo, rudderless and increasingly radicalised, with no meaningful vision of the future available to them.

Following Hamas’s terrorist attacks on 7 October, IS has sought to reassert itself with more vigour, calling for attacks not just against Israel, but also Jews more generally and those perceived to be supporting them. This includes supposedly “apostate” Muslim governments along with Western powers including the US and Britain.

While IS has traditionally condemned Hamas for not adopting a doctrinaire approach towards global jihad (Hamas is viewed as a primarily nationalist movement), the group has nonetheless rallied behind the broader notion of the Palestinian cause and, in particular, the status of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, Islam’s third-holiest site. There are practical motivations as well, as other groups including al-Qaeda, the Taliban and various armed Syrian factions have also issued calls of solidarity with beleaguered Gazans.

From the jihadist perspective, the last six months have felt like going back to the future. War is again raging in the Middle East, another set of Arab cities reduced to ruin and rubble. IS attacks are also reappearing with greater frequency and potency than before, and Western security officials are warning their populations to be increasingly cautious against the threat of an impending attack.

Indeed, the Metropolitan Police warned in January that they are experiencing an “unprecedented” rise in the terrorist threat resulting from events in Gaza. “It’s hard to remember a more unstable, dangerous and uncertain world,” the Met’s assistant commissioner Matt Jukes said on 20 January. Following the attack in Moscow, French officials also raised the country’s terrorist threat alert to its highest level.

What distinguishes the global jihadist movement from other reactionary and militant movements is its resilience and lack of sentimentality. Where other groups might accept defeat or determine the costs of militarism too high, jihadist groups are buoyed by millenarian mania. This is not to suggest they are irrational or whimsical actors. All the evidence suggests precisely the contrary: that they are careful and considered but operate according to a wholly different set of metrics, including ideas – such as the belief in divine decree, predestination and martyrdom – which Western policymakers and observers often fail to appreciate.

To understand that mindset, consider IS’s response to their territorial collapse in 2019. The group launched a devastating attack in Sri Lanka the following month, on Easter Sunday, killing 269 people. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed by US forces in October of that year, but not before he released a video, in which he claimed the Sri Lanka attacks were revenge for the group’s losses. “Our battle today is a war of attrition to harm the enemy,” he said, recasting the group’s post-caliphate priorities that remain in place even now. “They should know that jihad will continue until doomsday.”

[See also: What Iranians want]

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This article appears in the 03 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Fragile Crown

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