A Year After al-Baghdadi's Death, ISIS Is Alive -- and Growing

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivering a sermon
This file image made from video posted on a militant website Saturday, July 5, 2014, purports to show the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq during his first public appearance. (Militant video via AP)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

Roughly a year ago, U.S. special operators located and killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder and leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

A few months earlier, in March 2019, the United States and its allies took control of the last vestiges of the ISIS caliphate in eastern Syria. These two events, the death of al-Baghdadi and the defeat of Islamic State forces, closed the chapter on the short-lived ISIS caliphate.

It did not, however, mean the end of the Islamic State organization. Indeed, a year after the end of the caliphate, it appears that the Islamic State, or IS, continues to be well-funded, and is not only maintaining, but even expanding, the scope of its worldwide operations.

Over the course of 2020, there has been a significant escalation in the number of attacks carried out by IS militants worldwide, especially in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, the three regions in which they are most active.

In Iraq and Syria alone, attacks by IS militants have been averaging between 100 and 200 a month. Between mid-July and mid-August, more than 500 people were killed or injured in over 130 separate attacks.

The Islamic State's Global Reach

Globally, attacks by IS-organized, affiliated or inspired militants averaged another 100 to 200 incidents per month. It's a difficult number to pin down, because the nature of the Islamic State's influence and organization has become increasingly diffuse.

IS manifests itself around the world in three principal forms: branches which are organized as provinces or "wilayahs;" affiliated jihadist groups; and what the U.S. Department of Homeland Security calls Homegrown Violent Extremists (HVEs). The latter are jihadists who are inspired by Islamic State ideology, but operate without any direct support or instructions from IS.

As of October 2020, there are approximately two dozen official Islamic State provinces. These provinces do not necessarily correspond to existing countries. To be a formal province of the Islamic State, the local branch must appoint a Wali (governor) who declares his allegiance to the head of Islamic State (currently Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi) and a Shura Council (a board of religious leaders to adjudicate religious disputes), and submit a plan to establish control of a particular territory and implement Sharia law as defined by the Islamic State.

Currently, IS branches have varying degrees of territorial control in Afghanistan, Nigeria, Somalia, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Branches in Libya, Egypt (Sinai), the Philippines and Yemen may also control some territory, but the degree of control is more diffuse.

In all these places, the territories controlled are predominantly rural and, in many cases, desert areas with little population. At best, they contain a handful of villages or hamlets.

Moreover, the concept of control varies from a sort of proto-state accompanied by some semblance of infrastructure and civil services (Nigeria, Afghanistan, Mozambique and Somalia) to a more fluid control revolving around the ability of IS militants to project or withdraw power in a region depending on the forces arrayed against them.

Examples of this kind of fluid control include setting up temporary roadblocks along major roads to shake down travelers, extorting money or valuables from inhabitants of an area, or punishing people for violations of Sharia law.

Currently, there are no major urban areas or any significant populations under the direct control of any branches of Islamic State. Worldwide, IS controls less than 2,000 square km/772 square miles of territory, down from more than 100,000 square km/38,610 square miles in 2017. Islamic State propagandists claimed that, at its peak, IS controlled over 282,000 square kilometers/109,000 square miles of territory.

Elsewhere, IS branches in the wilayahs consist of little more than insurgent cells carrying out attacks against local and national government officials and engaging in criminal activities like kidnapping, smuggling and robbery to finance their operations. This is the current state of IS operations in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, India, Tunisia, Algeria, the Caucasus, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Gaza.

The situation remains very fluid, however. Insurgent groups can shift back and forth between holding a specific geography to being stateless, as has happened in Libya on several occasions.

A second group of Islamic State supporters are affiliates that are aligned with the Islamic State but stop short of meeting the requirements for being assigned a wilayah. This phenomenon is particularly common in areas that have small Muslim populations or have historically not been part of the Islamic cultural sphere. National Thowheeth Jama'ath (NTJ), the group responsible for attacking Christian churches in Sri Lanka on April 21, 2019, for example, is a group that is affiliated but not formally a part of the Islamic State.

In some cases, like Boko Haram in Nigeria or al-Shabaab in Somalia, the groups were originally affiliated with IS, but some militants eventually fell out, leading to a split in both organizations. One faction became an IS branch and was assigned a wilayah, while the opposing faction retained its independence. This pattern of affiliates evolving into branches and eventually wilayahs may be what will happen to various IS-linked insurgent groups in the Sahel and West Africa.

IS in Europe

Likewise, there are still dozens of jihadist-like groups operating in Europe. Some are IS cells or cells of other, larger established jihadist organizations; others are more informal groupings of would-be jihadists or jihadist sympathizers. These groups are often nominally affiliated with either IS or al-Qaida, although they may switch patrons opportunistically.

These groups largely operate independently but can sometimes procure weapons and get training from larger jihadist organizations. They also serve as a reservoir of manpower that can be drawn upon as needed for operations being organized by IS or other militant groups.

In addition, it's believed that there may be between 2,000 and 5,000 Islamic State militants from Europe who have been able to return home. A further 5,000 or so European jihadists are still trapped in Syria. About half of those were being held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, although that number has likely gone down significantly in the last six months.

Some of the returning jihadists are probably done with militant activity, but a significant number are not and will be a fertile area for recruitment.

Moreover, European prisons have become hotbeds of jihadist radicalization and recruitment. In France alone, Europol estimates that there are between 1,000 and 2,000 inmates who are jihadist militants, and that roughly half were radicalized as a result of their incarceration.

Finally, it's estimated that between one-third and two-thirds of the 50,000 or so jihadists who fought for Islamic State are still alive. This group represents a core of trained, battle-hardened militants. Many have nowhere to go. A portion have been organized into militia groups by the Turkish government and have been deployed as mercenaries in Libya and Azerbaijan. Others have joined Turkish-backed and -armed militia groups operating in Syria.

According to a recent intelligence estimate on the scope of Islamic State's worldwide activities, in addition to the roughly two dozen official wilayahs that have IS branches, there are IS-linked jihadi groups in approximately 50 countries around the world, although in some places these groups may exist in little more than name only.

Geographically, Islamic State is well represented across the Middle East and extending into northeast Asia and southeast Asia -- roughly a region from the Mediterranean and the Red Sea to Xinjiang and south to Sri Lanka in the west to the Philippines and Indonesia in the east.

In Africa, the other center of its operations besides Asia and the Middle East, there are IS affiliates across north and Sub-Saharan Africa, including east Africa from Egypt to Mozambique and throughout the Sahel and West African region.

Even in the Western Hemispheres, IS has an affiliate in Trinidad and Tobago, and it is believed to also have connections to groups in Paraguay and Argentina. South America is becoming an important strategic area to Islamic State, as it affords the opportunity to trade armaments for drugs with a variety of narcotics-linked cartels.

Finally, the appeal of the Islamic State's ideology still resonates among many disaffected Muslims. So-called lone wolves, or HVEs, are still a significant source of terrorist activity in Europe and North America. Europe had 21 acts of attempted jihadi terrorist attacks in 2019. Three were carried out successfully, four failed and 14 were foiled.

The U.S. has had roughly six acts of attempted terrorism by HVEs in 2020, and Europe has had a similar number, most recently in Nice,France.

Funding the Islamic State

At its peak, the Islamic State was believed to have income of between $1 billion and $2 billion. IS remains a well-financed organization. Although it has lost access to lucrative oil fields in Syria and Iraq and other cash-generating activity, it still has rich coffers and has been finding new sources of revenue.

U.S. intelligence agencies believe that IS was able to launder approximately $400 million via various Turkish entities. In addition, it's estimated that another $250 million was laundered in Iraq through investments in legitimate Iraqi businesses.

The smuggling of stolen antiquities was a lucrative activity for the Islamic State. It was believed to contribute between $10 million and $20 million yearly, although it's hard to authenticate those estimates. That activity still goes on in Iraq and Syria, and has now been expanded across North Africa and parts of Asia. Today, the Islamic State is probably the single biggest dealer in stolen antiquities in the world.

More importantly, IS has moved into narcotics-smuggling and distribution in a major way. It has been expanding its role in the Afghan heroin trade, and has also become active in the distribution of cocaine from South America. In both cases, those activities bring it into conflict with al-Qaida which, along with the Taliban, has been involved with the worldwide distribution of Afghan heroin, as well as with the European distribution of Colombian cocaine.

IS has also emerged as a major player in the distribution of hashish in Europe, and in the last year has also emerged as a significant producer and distributor of methamphetamines. Italian authorities, for example, recently intercepted a IS shipment of methamphetamines valued at several million dollars.

In addition, IS still carries out kidnappings and robberies in Iraq and Syria, and still exhorts money from individuals and private businesses in areas where it operates, although the scale of such activities is far less than in the past.

It's hard to get a concrete number for the revenues being generated by the Islamic State's illicit activities, but several U.S. and European intelligence analysts believe it is probably somewhere between $200 million and $500 million.

The picture that emerges of the state of Islamic State as we near the end of 2020, is that of an organization that is still very viable, one with access to considerable financial resources and that is parlaying its expertise to construct a significant criminal empire. Moreover, its ideology still resonates with many would-be jihadists around the world, and it can still draw support from a sizable number, although not all, of its former members.

By losing its territorial caliphate, and as a result of fewer Islamic State organized attacks in Europe, IS has largely disappeared off the radar of Western media. Unfortunately, elsewhere in the world, it remains a potent force. Its funding sources are expanding rapidly again as, like its predecessors al-Qaida and the Taliban, it transforms itself into both a political and criminal enterprise.

The Islamic State is becoming just the latest organization to join the ranks of the narco-terrorists. Its growing footprint in the Western Hemisphere should be a source of concern to Washington, especially its efforts to develop alliances with some of the Mexican drug cartels.

In retrospect, the Islamic State caliphate was simply one chapter in what will be the long and complicated history of Islamic State. We certainly have not heard the end of the Islamic State, and we ignore its activities around the world at our peril.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. Find more information on how to submit your own commentary.

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