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Jan 23, 2019 | 11:00 GMT

12 mins read

Tracking Jihadist Movements in 2019: The Islamic State

A picture taken on April 29, 2018, during a government guided tour in Damascus' southern al-Qadam neighborhood shows Syrian army sniper taking aim at Islamic State positions in Yarmuk, a Palestinian refugee camp on the edge of the capital.
(LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)
Editor's Note

With the arrival of the new year, Stratfor's unique protective intelligence team has once again presented its assessment of the state of the worldwide jihadist movement. In this condensed excerpt from Stratfor Threat Lens, a unique protective intelligence product designed with corporate security leaders in mind, we've split our discussion of the jihadist movement into three sections: the al Qaeda pole, the Islamic State pole, as well as the Taliban and the grassroots jihadist threat – the last of which takes its inspiration from al Qaeda, the Islamic State – or both. In this second of three installments from Threat Lens' jihadist forecast, we explore the Islamic State. You can read the first installment on al Qaeda here.

The Islamic State made headlines around the world when it captured one of Iraq's largest cities, Mosul, in 2014. The group soon declared a caliphate and began expanding control of vast swaths of Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State's successes in the Levant soon inspired movements in places as geographically diverse as Libya, Nigeria, the Sinai, Afghanistan and the Philippines, where extremists pledged allegiance to the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But that success came with consequences in the form of sustained international and local military pressure. The Islamic State has lost nearly all its territory in its heartland, yet it continues to remain a powerful force around the world.

Here's a closer look at the Islamic State's activities last year, as well as what its various provinces, as its associated groups are known, will do in 2019.

The Islamic State Core 

Status

The group retains just a slice of its former territory in Iraq and Syria, but it remains a potent force as it has returned to its roots as an insurgent and terrorist group — a development the group had long foreseen and prepared for. While the number of attacks conducted by the Islamic State has declined in the Levant, it remains active in staging bombings, assassinations, attacks on infrastructure and other operations. In 2018, it failed to project its power into nearby countries, including Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

Forecast

The Islamic State will attempt to reprise its strategy from 2011 by degrading the morale and willpower of security forces and civilians in areas it once held. Terrorist and insurgent attacks — including assassinations of local and tribal leaders — by the group in Iraq and Syria will persist throughout 2019. It will also attempt to exploit security gaps and any ensuing chaos in northeastern Syria created by the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces there. Its core will struggle in its attempts to conduct operations beyond Syria and Iraq. Accordingly, it will again have to rely more on its branches and grassroots supporters to stage external attacks. The Islamic State will also use any gains in Syria and Iraq as proof of its staying power.

Al-Baghdadi is, naturally, a marked man, and his demise would have wide-ranging implications. The death of the caliph could open the door for schisms within the group's core and also have consequences on the group's provinces — all of which swore a personal oath (bayat) to al-Baghdadi — as well as the global jihadist movement at large. If al-Baghdadi died, others would jostle to become caliph and seek personal oaths from individual branches. At the same time, various provinces would face a choice as to whether to stay in the fold, secede to become independent or join (in some cases, rejoin) al Qaeda.

The Islamic State will attempt to reprise its strategy from 2011 by degrading the morale and willpower of security forces and civilians in areas it once held.

Islamic State Franchises 

Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP)

ISWAP remains divided into two competing factions. The group in Nigeria officially recognized by the Islamic State is headed by Abu Musab al-Barnawi; the second camp is led by former ISWAP leader Abubakar Shekau. 

Al-Barnawi Faction

Status

The al-Barnawi organization has been stronger and far more active than its Shekau counterpart, conducting attacks that were more complex, deadly and frequent than those of its breakaway rival. It surged in 2018 with a persistent campaign of assaults on hardened targets, including military bases. Aside from demonstrating its growing capability, the onslaught of attacks provided the group with new materiel (seized from military bases and convoys) to augment its capabilities for future assaults. The al-Barnawi faction also carried out mass kidnappings and cross-border raids into neighboring countries such as Niger. Its operational activity remained confined to the northeast, although thwarted attacks in the capital, Abuja, indicated that it intends to conduct assaults elsewhere.

Forecast

The group will continue to gain momentum in 2019, creating more security headaches for Nigeria and neighboring countries. Nigeria's armed forces are suffering from internal strife and low morale (including reported mutinies), and the al-Barnawi faction will continue to exploit these vulnerabilities. Likewise, the upcoming 2019 presidential election will prompt the group to attempt more spectacular attacks, which could include strikes on population centers outside its northeast area of operations, such as Abuja. The group will also resort to more kidnappings, including large-scale abductions. 

Shekau Faction

Status

The Shekau faction was vicious but largely static during 2018. It conducted frequent assaults and suicide bombings on soft targets, as well as attacks and kidnappings targeting refugee camps. Nevertheless, the group failed to overpower hardened targets or extend its reach beyond the northeast.

Forecast

Shekau and his followers will remain behind the al-Barnawi faction in terms of capability and reach, but they will still pose a significant threat in Nigeria's northeast. Additional suicide bombings and armed assaults against soft targets such as markets and mosques, as well as kidnappings, are likely to continue. While the Shekau faction will continue to play second fiddle to the al-Barnawi group, it will benefit from the military's increased focus on the bigger organization, as well as the deteriorating cohesion and morale of the security forces.

Islamic State-Wilayat Sinai

Status

Massive counterterrorism operations by Egyptian security forces curbed large-scale attacks in the Sinai and most attacks in the Delta region by Wilayat Sinai in 2018. Despite these setbacks, the group persisted as a force on the peninsula and in the Nile Delta. The group showed continued operational capacity, carrying out a steady stream of roadside bomb and ambush attacks against security forces in the Sinai. The group also killed seven Copts in Minya in November 2018, while security forces thwarted several other attempted attacks on the mainland.

Forecast

Wilayat Sinai will attempt to rebound after its setback in 2018. It retains operational capacity and large amounts of explosives, firearms and other equipment. Cairo's heavy-handed approach to counterinsurgency has failed to win over the local population, but Wilayat Sinai has also alienated many Bedouin tribes on the peninsula – and that animosity will hamper its efforts to bounce back. Nevertheless, we expect to see continued attacks in the Sinai as well as attempted assaults in the Nile Delta. 

A timeline of key developments in the Islamic State's history.

Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K)

Status

The Khorasan chapter of the Islamic State proved formidable in 2018, staging a series of large, deadly attacks in eastern Afghanistan, especially in Kabul, in which it targeted security forces and minority groups. It also conducted attacks in northern Afghanistan and Pakistan, and for the first time, it claimed an attack in Iran in Ahvaz under the banner of the Khorasan Province. It reinforced ties with local groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and the Pakistani Taliban, maintained its funding networks and clashed directly with the Afghan Taliban and coalition forces. The group also drew in foreign fighters, including some from the West. The high level of suicide attacks indicates that the militant group has personnel to spare.

Forecast

The group will continue to pose a significant security threat in the region, but it will lag behind the more powerful Taliban in Afghanistan. Khorasan Province's terrorism will continue to manifest itself through large-scale attacks in Kabul, kidnappings, and hostilities against minorities and foreigners. The eventual withdrawal of some U.S. forces will give the group some breathing room, and local security forces will be unable to quell its activity. Moreover, its chief militant rival – the Taliban – will be focused primarily on making gains against the government in Kabul. The Khorasan Province's operations in Afghanistan will be largely contained to the east and the capital, although it could engage in activity in various areas of Pakistan and Iran. Operatives may attempt to coordinate activity with smaller Islamic State networks in the region, including those in India and the disputed Kashmir territory. 

Islamic State-Yemen Province

Status

The Islamic State in Yemen was largely static throughout 2018. It made no significant advances or large-scale attacks, although it also faced no setbacks that would have threatened its existence. The group did focus more directly on combating al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), its local al Qaeda rival, in order to boost its visibility and demonstrate its fighting capacity in a bid to draw recruits and tribal support away from its competitor. 

Forecast

The group will be hard-pressed to make any significant advances in 2019, although it will attempt to exploit the chaos of the Yemen civil war. The group will face pressure from U.S. drone strikes, local (and Emirati) security forces, as well as AQAP, which is stronger, more deeply entrenched among local tribes and better financed.

North African Branches

Status

In Libya, the Islamic State remains just one of many militant groups competing for people and resources. During 2018, the group focused on rebuilding its manpower, funding and capabilities using criminal activity. It carried out sporadic attacks, including several large assaults against election compounds, the Foreign Ministry and the National Oil Corp. In Tunisia, the group maintained a steady pace of low-scale attacks in mountainous and rural areas, and it had contact with the grassroots militant who carried out an October 2018 suicide attack in Tunis. In Morocco, the group maintained a presence and local support, but security forces thwarted all attempted attacks. 

Forecast

The Islamic State's North African groups will attempt to create and exploit fissures within state structures and militias, specifically in Libya. It is likely to continue perpetrating sporadic attacks, as well as engaging in larger-scale violence in places like Benghazi and Tripoli. If there is a dramatic shift in the balance of power or the emergence of a power vacuum, the Islamic State is well-positioned to take advantage of it. Its activity in rural regions and its grassroots support mean that attacks in Tunisia are also a possibility, especially if the country experiences political upheaval. While it will continue to pose a low-level, persistent threat to Morocco, aggressive security forces – including a huge recent crackdown after the killing of two European tourists – mean that an attack directed by the group is unlikely. 

Islamic State-Somalia

Status

The Islamic State's Wilayat Somalia ramped up its rate and scope of attacks in 2018, carrying out more assassinations in Mogadishu and making efforts to compete directly with al Shabaab for resources and funding. It expanded operational capacity to the southernmost part of the country, and it even attempted to direct an overseas attack in Italy. Nevertheless, the group remains far behind al Shabaab in terms of funding, fighters, resources and tradecraft. 

Forecast

The group will continue its assassinations and ambushes, especially in Mogadishu, all while continuing to challenge al Shabaab for militant supremacy. However, it will face significant opposition in the form of U.S. airstrikes, attention from local security forces and direct competition from al Shabaab. 

The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS)

Status

ISGS's operational tempo increased significantly — from about 10 incidents in 2017 to over 100 in 2018. The group conducted insurgent attacks (ambushes, assassinations, kidnappings and roadside bombings) in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. But ISGS has struggled to carry out attacks causing mass casualties or complex operations against hardened targets, and it still lags behind its rival JNIM in capability. Still, the group does hold several Western hostages it is hoping to exchange for a sizable ransom.

Forecast

The group will continue to exploit deteriorating security and could come into more direct conflict with JNIM. ISGS will likely attempt to boost its international profile and credibility, possibly by attempting a spectacular attack. That could include an assault on a population center or against a Western target (such as the 2017 ambush of U.S. troops in Niger).

Philippines

Status

Groups directed by, and linked to, the Islamic State in the Philippines continued to decline in 2018, down from the high-water mark of the Marawi City siege in 2017. The remnants of the Abu Sayyaf group also resumed sporadic attacks in the middle of the year after several months of silence, staging an assault with a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device outside Lamitan City in July 2018. At the same time, it also engaged in some maritime kidnapping operations. Meanwhile, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, who largely sat out the Marawi City siege, continued their operations in the lowlands of south-central Mindanao Island.

Militants will aim to resume their maritime kidnapping activities in the Sulu and Celebes seas in 2019 after a quiet 2018 – something that will again threaten shipping between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Forecast

With the passage of the Bangsamoro Organic Law in July 2018, there is now a clear political process in place to give power to local authorities and to address the grievances that have fueled jihadist conflict in the Philippines for decades. Some groups will attempt to undermine the new political arrangement with attacks against soft, civilian targets, but their capability will remain weak compared to 2017. At the same time, militants will aim to resume their maritime kidnapping activities in the Sulu and Celebes seas in 2019 after a quiet 2018 – something that will again threaten shipping between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Still, joint naval patrols will prevent such piracy from completely shutting down trade as occurred in 2016. 

India-Kashmir

Status

The Islamic State was able to maintain a low operational presence within Kashmir itself, although it failed to conduct any spectacular attacks, particularly in India. Authorities thwarted numerous attacks in India by cells either directed by, or supporting, the group in Kashmir, including an August plot in New Delhi.

Forecast

Violence is likely to increase in Kashmir in the run-up to India's 2019 elections, which the Islamic State will seek to exploit. The Islamic State could benefit by attracting more recruits and carrying out more attacks within Kashmir itself. These militants are also likely to attempt additional attacks in India itself, given the incentive presented by the elections and the publicity that such attacks would garner.

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