Islamic State and COVID-19: An opportunity for Re-birth?

This briefing is provided by a friend of RZIM.


Key Facts

  • ‘Islamic State’ (IS) was the name taken by ‘al-Dawlah al-Islamiyah fi al-Iraq wa al-Shams (DAISH)/Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)’ when they proclaimed a Caliphate in 2014.
  • ISIS was originally ‘al-Qa’ida in Iraq’ (AQI).
  • ‘The Caliph’ was the title given to the successors to Muhammad.
    • It is a title that pre-dates Islam in Arab tribal culture: ‘The Caliph’ was the deputy for the Tribal Chief and would often represent him in meetings or lead the tribe when the Chief was away for any reason.
  • The Sunni-Shi’a split came about initially because of different views on who, or what type of person should become Caliph: the Sunnis believed it should be the ‘most pious and respected Muslim’ whereas the Shi’as believed that it should be a person who was related to Muhammad.
  • The Caliphs ruled the Islamic Empire continuously from the death of Muhammad (traditionally dated to 632 AD) to the capture of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258.
  • From the capture of Baghdad up until the final abolition of the post in 1924 by the Turkish reformist leader Mustafa Kemal, the Caliphate was claimed by multiple dynasties, sometimes at the same time, until the domination of the Turkoman Ottomans brought some form of unity to the Sunni Muslim world after their capture of Constantinople/Istanbul in 1453.
    • ‘The Caliphate’ therefore represents in the minds of Sunni Muslims the embodiment of Islamic power and prestige in contrast to its ‘humiliation’ by western powers from the European colonial period onwards.
  • The revival of the Caliphate is an aspiration for Muslims who desire to see Islam politically and religiously hegemonic once again.
  • Its revival is closely linked to Salafi and Jihadi ideologies in the modern world through the writings of Rida, ‘Abduh, Maududi, Qutb and al-Faraj.
  • The Muslim Brotherhood seeks to use specifically non-violent methods (at least theoretically) to establish a global Caliphate.
  • Al-Qa’ida and IS have both actively sought the re-establishment of a Caliphate, with other state specific actors such as the Taliban, Boko Haram and Hamas having similar aspirations, but at a national or regional, rather than global, level.
  • A 2014 poll by Pew of Muslim-majority states found that acknowledged support for al-Qa’ida varied between 5% (Turkey) to 25% (Palestinian Territory), with most support around the 15% mark.
    • However, sometimes up to 30% of respondents said they ‘didn’t know’ or refused to answer, indicating that the actual level of support was at least double the acknowledged support. (Schmid, 2017)
  • An informal poll of Saudi citizens in 2014 found that 92% agreed with the statement that IS “conforms to the values of Islam and Islamic law”. (Schmid, 2017)
  • Support for IS, even at the height of their territorial power remained very low amongst US Muslims. Out of the 178 people convicted of terrorist planning or assistance in US courts, 86 were born in the US. (Jenkins, 2017)
    • However a 2017 Pew survey found that 47% of US Muslims felt that there was some support for ‘extremism’ amongst American Muslims. (Mohamed and Smith, 2017)
  • Approximately 4,000 foreign fighters joined IS from EU member states (van Ginkel and Entenmann, 2016)
    • The Highest number of foreign fighters came from France - approximately 900.
    • Approximately 30% of Foreign Fighters have returned to the West
    • 17% of foreign fighters were female.
  • President Trump declared the war against IS won in 2019.

In March 2019, Fawaz Gerges, the highly regarded foreign policy and extremism expert wrote in the New York Times about the declaration of victory over ISIS that President Trump had made a few days before. (Gerges, 2019) In his analysis Gerges offered three reasons why he believed that IS was not ‘defeated’, even though they had lost all their territory. Firstly, the crisis of governance which exists in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region which means that local and national governments have little control or authority. Secondly, the Saudi Arabia – Iran confrontation in which IS has managed to position itself as the ‘defender of Sunnis’. Thirdly, back in 2016, as IS began to lose territory, it slipped its fighters and commanders into Europe (and further afield) with the refugees fleeing the region. It expected to lose territory and assumed at some stage it would.

Evidence for the truth of Gerges’ assessment is plentiful. Before he was killed in a drone strike in 2016, the IS Second-in-Command, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani made clear that he was developing ‘sleeper-cells’ (Schmid, 2017) It is therefore very reasonable to assume that ‘sleeper-cells’ of fighters have been resident around the MENA region and in the West for some time. What is more, as highlighted in the polling data above, Muslims in the West are generally not in favour of the actions of al-Qa’ida or IS, but when the questions move away from questions about ‘extremism’ and towards aspirations such as ‘The Caliphate’, or a desire for the use of shari’a, it is clear that there is far more sympathy in Western, including US, Muslim communities. In the UK, the report into ‘Integration’ commissioned by the British government in the wake of revelations around the Islamisation of schools in Birmingham and the Grooming Scandal (the extent of which become greater and greater), showed that there is a strong desire for ‘separatism’ amongst a number of Muslims communities. (Casey, 2016) This ‘separatism’ is easily transferable to a desire for some form of Muslim territory (even a Caliphate) or hegemony. It is therefore reasonable to assume that IS sleeper – cells will find more communities willing to tacitly assist them than might have otherwise been assumed.

However, it is not simply to guerrilla or jihadi warfare in the region or in the West that IS is looking.

It has not lost its desire to take and hold territory and it is in that connection that the COVID-19 crisis has become an immense opportunity for it. The period of ‘Lockdown’ in Iraq and Syria has seen IS increasing the frequency and severity of its attacks. (Anon, 2020) It has recently killed 32 Syrian soldiers and attacked (successfully) two oil fields. Intelligence experts in the region are also expecting IS to start attacking Baghdad itself in the near future, especially with the recent election of a pro-American party in Iraq. US forces had recently started to withdraw from the region so forces to counter their actions are much reduced.

Away from the MENA region IS have signed ‘franchise agreements’ with groups such as Boko Haram in West Africa and in the Sahel region. It is also looking to develop its international reach further. Indeed, recent reports from Southeast Asia suggest that the COVID-19 insecurity is offering opportunities to develop relationships and operations with jihadists in Indonesia. (McBeth, 2020) IS has also been actively recruiting in Central Asia. The German press reported in January 2020 that four Tajiki Muslims had been arrested in Germany for planning attacks against US military bases.

Islamic State had also been assisted by the fact that Turkey had been freeing IS prisoners from Syrian jails since before the COVID-19 crisis began. (Seligman, 2019) For example, it is known that Turkish President Erdogan has been moving in an increasingly Salafi direction for sometime (he has stated that he wishes to re-create the Ottoman Caliphate). It maybe therefore that Erdogan sees IS as a potential proxy militia for his own aims in the region.

The assessment above suggests therefore that whilst the COVID-19 crisis is an important opportunity for IS, it should also be remembered that, even before the COVID-19 crisis began, it is clear that IS were developing and expanding their influence and operations. It seems likely therefore that further attacks will be seen and that, perhaps, old territory will be recovered, or new territory in South or Southeast Asia will be established. In the West, the aspiration for Islamic power amongst some Muslim communities means that the IS ‘sleeper-cells’ will probably have the facility to launch further attacks in the future.

Anon, (2020) ‘IS takes advantage of coronavirus to ramp up attacks in Iraq, Syria’ 4th May.

Casey, Louise (2016) The Casey Review: A Review into Opportunity and Integration London: HMSO.

Gerges, Fawaz (2019) ‘The Islamic State has not been defeated’ The New York Times. 23rd March.

Jenkins, Brian M. (2017) The Origins of America’s Jihadists Santa Monica (CA): RAND.

McBeth, John (2020) ‘ISIS eyes COVID-19 weakness in Indonesia’ 6th May

Mohamed, Basheer and Gregory Smith (2017) US Muslims Concerned about their place in society but continue to believe in the American Dream Washington DC: Pew Research Center.

Schmid, Alex (2017) Public Opinion Survey Data to Measure Sympathy and Support for Islamist Terrorism: A Look at Muslim Opinions on Al-Qaeda and IS The Hague: International Centre for Counter Terrorism.

Seligman, Lara (2019) ‘Turkish-backed forces are freeing Islamic State Prisoners’ 14th October.

Van Ginkel, Bibi and Eva Entenmann, (2016) eds. Foreign Fighters
Phenomenon in the European Union The Hague: International Centre
for Counter-Terrorism.