• Print
  • TWEET

ISIS: Resilient, Adaptable, Decentralized

Carlos Barria/Reuters
President Donald Trump showing a map of Syria and Iraq depicting the size of the “ISIS physical caliphate,” Lima, Ohio, March 20, 2019

Like many sinister plots, this one started within a family. Tarek Khayat, an Australian originally from Lebanon, had been living in Raqqa as a dutiful soldier of ISIS before he texted his brother Khaled back in Sydney with an urgent request. It was April 2017. Mosul, the de facto capital of ISIS’s three-year-old “caliphate,” which had been inaugurated in that city, was falling to a hodgepodge consortium of Iraqi forces and Kurdish forces variously backed by the United States or Iran. Tarek’s message to his brother had heightened urgency. Khaled should wage an attack against their adoptive country, a member-state of the broad coalition committed to the caliphate’s annihilation.

The forty-nine-year-old Khaled was a butcher living in Lakemba, a predominantly Muslim suburb of Sydney; he allegedly enlisted his other brother, Mahmoud, thirty-two, in the attack. It would be unlike any other ISIS had ever perpetrated abroad. Not like those in France or Belgium, where a network of jihadists headquartered in the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek had first gone to Syria, then repatriated as sleeper agents tasked with autonomously planning and executing a series of grisly bombings or shootings, with only logistical support from ISIS’s center of operations. Not like the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida, committed by an American citizen who had never set foot in the territory of the caliphate but was nonetheless “inspired” by its global call to arms. This would be different because the military-grade explosive needed for the attack, along with ancillary components, would be mailed as air cargo from Turkey to Sydney, along with instructions for how to assemble the device.

The architect of the attack—Khaled’s “controller,” a Syria-based foreign operative of ISIS—would never leave the Middle East or meet his agents in the flesh, and he communicated with them only via encrypted messaging platforms. And the bomber would be a fourth Khayat brother, Amer, who may or may not have been aware of what his siblings had planned for him.

On July 15, 2017, Khaled walked with Amer up to the Etihad Airways counter at Sydney’s International Airport. Amer was flying to Abu Dhabi and Khaled had intended to put the now assembled and fully functional explosive devices, which he’d concealed inside a meat-grinder and a Barbie doll, into his brother’s luggage. The bomb was set to go off twenty minutes into the almost fifteen-hour flight, killing all 400 passengers on board, Amer included—likely among them, many pious Muslims en route to Mecca for the hajj.

But there was a problem. Amer’s baggage was too heavy to check. He boarded the plane without it and the terrorist plot was cancelled. Khaled left the airport with his bomb and, once home, proceeded to disassemble it. Khaled and Mahmoud spent more than a week flitting around the Sydney suburbs, still intent on making good on their promise of an attack to Tarek.

Time was not on their side. According to a former Western intelligence officer familiar with the subsequent investigation, Israel had learned of the Khayats’ identities and their plans and tipped off the Australian authorities. According to The Australian newspaper, the information passed on was “so specific police were able to create a mock-up of the device” the Khayats had put together and even test this dummy bomb by trying to smuggle it aboard airliners themselves. Reassuringly, at every attempt the fake bomb was intercepted by airport security staff before it could reach the plane, Australian Federal Police Deputy Commissioner Mike Phelan said.

The Khayats are believed to have spent the remainder of July trying to implement a new set of instructions from their controller. Australian authorities say the two men were building a chemical weapon, a hydrogen sulfide bomb, to detonate in “crowded closed space, such as public transport.” The brothers had allegedly obtained chemical precursors and various components but hadn’t come anywhere close to their prior success in completing this device. Nor would they—following the Israeli intelligence, the New South Wales Joint Counter-Terrorism team had placed them under twenty-four-hour surveillance and tapped their phones. Three days later, Khaled and Mahmoud were picked up in simultaneous raids on five homes across greater Sydney. Within days, forensic searches located parts of the original bomb in Khaled’s garage. “Two weeks after the bomb was uncovered, police found bomb parts in Khaled Khayat’s Sydney garage.” Tarek was captured in Iraq in 2018 and sentenced to die by hanging by a Baghdad court, not for his orchestration at a distance of the airline plot, but simply for his admission that he had been a financial officer of ISIS.

No one in the Australian government had known that Khaled was communicating with a senior ISIS agent in Syria, nor that the two suspects had come perilously close to perpetrating the worst terrorist attack in Australian history. But how did two brothers of a third man known to have traveled to Syria to fight for the world’s most notorious terror organization get this far in the first place?

Khaled had been questioned by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, the country’s FBI, owing to his brother’s departure for Syria; thereafter he was not monitored. If all it took to nearly bring off the attack was encrypted chats with an anonymous mastermind several time zones away, and a parcel shipped from a NATO country, what did that say about ISIS’s resilience, adaptability, and global reach in the face of its impending military defeat in Syria?

On May 1, Khaled Khayat was convicted of conspiring to plan a terror attack in Australia. He could now face life in prison. The fate of his alleged accomplice, his younger brother Mahmoud, is undecided; a jury was unable to reach a verdict and has been dismissed.

*

By unfortunate coincidence, on April 29, two days before Khaled’s guilty verdict, a man many had believed, or wished, dead appeared in a video, immediately and widely disseminated, looking notably more grizzled than when he was last seen striding up to the minbar, or Islamic pulpit, of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, Iraq, to herald the dawn of a new period in Islamic history. On that hot July day in 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—dressed head-to-toe in black, save for the metallic glint of an expensive timepiece on his wrist—declared himself Caliph Ibrahim from the same mosque where Saladin is said to have rallied the faithful.

The mosque itself is gone now, blown to pieces by Baghdadi’s own foot soldiers as they fled the warplanes and tanks of their enemies. Gone, too, is the luxury watch, which Baghdadi appears to have traded for an assault rifle and flak jacket. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s brutal predecessor, appeared in much the same manner when he turned up in cameos lecturing his lieutenants in the mid-2000s. Osama bin Laden, too, frequently struck this Che-like attitude in the caves of Waziristan before fleeing to his last hideout in Abbottabad.

Little is known of Baghdadi’s activity in the intervening period, save for two events that may speak to his motive in issuing proof of life and relevance after five years of silence. First, he survived an airstrike in November 2015 when a US warplane bombed a location in the al-Baaj, a district of Nineveh, Iraq. The Americans had not targeted Baghdadi; the strike that nearly killed him was fortuitous. According to The Guardian, “Baghdadi’s wounds were at first life-threatening, but he has since made a slow recovery.” He temporarily lost day-to-day command of ISIS when that happened, and even now he may not be completely physically rehabilitated—The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood noticed that his right ear looked gnarled with scar tissue. Diplomats from several coalition countries I’ve spoken with since the initial news of his injuries four years ago have confirmed them. “We even know the doctors who treated him,” one told me.

The second notable event in Baghdadi’s recent past was his attempted ouster, which was led by Abu Muath al-Jazairi, said to be a foreign fighter for ISIS. Al-Jazairi blamed Baghdadi for wielding too heavy a hand in his administration of the caliphate—the kind of internecine complaint that seemingly bedevils all jihadist movements. The coup attempt took place near Baghouz, ISIS’s last redoubt in Syria, last September, again according to The Guardian. A firefight between al-Jazairi’s followers and Baghdadi’s bodyguards lasted two days before the latter prevailed, whereupon they executed their opponents— al-Jazairi escaped, though he now has a bounty on his head.

Baghdadi himself fled first to Baghouz and then into the badlands of southeast Syria, which has for years been a refuge for ISIS, amid terrain they find as easy to navigate as their enemies find it difficult. Baghouz matters because it was the last sliver of territory held by ISIS until late March, when the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces liberated it. This suggests that Baghdadi was hidden but not stuck in one place; he made a point of reviewing his troops and touring the front lines of what was left of his crumbling state. In the video, he also cited the defeat of ISIS in Baghouz as the reason for the most catastrophic terrorist attack ever carried out in his group’s name.

“You brothers in Sri Lanka have pleased the monotheists by their commando operations that unsettled the Crusaders in their Easter celebration to avenge their brothers in Baghouz,” Baghdadi intoned over images from that Easter atrocity, in his communiqé. “The number of casualties from among the Crusaders has reached or exceeded 1,000 between dead and wounded.”

Islamic State Group/Al Furqan Media Network/Reuters TV via Reuters
A still showing Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from a video released on April 29, 2019

The number of dead was 253, to be exact, the toll from a series of suicide bombings across six locations in three cities, using homemade devices filled with ball bearings and TATP explosive—classic signatures of Islamic State bomb-making—and outfitted with washing-machine timers. A year in the making, these attacks cannot have been conceived as retaliation for Baghouz, which was still firmly in ISIS hands in early 2018, although their final timing may have been determined by events in Syria. But they were, like the Sydney cell, born of a fraternal network—in this case, two sets of brothers. Inshaf and Ilham Ibrahim, the heirs of a spice-trading empire, are thought to have bankrolled the entire operation themselves. The suspected ringleader, Zaharan Hashim, had been identified in a dossier presented by local Muslims to Sri Lankan police as the leader of ISIS’s team in Sri Lanka. Hashim’s brother, Rilwan, was the bomb-maker who had traveled to Turkey and may have received training there. (Hasim blew himself up in the attack; Rilwan later died, along with his father and another brother, in a gun battle with the Sri Lankan military.)

There is currently a debate among counterterrorism experts as to whether or not ISIS “directed” the Sri Lanka attack, as it did the failed Sydney one, or simply “inspired” a thoroughly homegrown operation for which it was only too happy to claim credit. The Wall Street Journal, drawing on the word of Sri Lankan investigators, reported that the bombings were carried out “without direct guidance” from the organization. However, The New York Times, citing a “senior official” involved in the same investigation, suggested that ISIS played a “more active role… than just inspiration from afar.”

The authorities in Colombo may well be trying to downplay any hint of a direct connection between Sri Lankan individuals and ISIS sleeper cells in Syria in an effort to calm nerves after sharp criticism that the Sri Lankan government, warned in advance by Indian intelligence of a jihadist plot to destroy churches, failed to act to protect so many of its citizens. However, as Amarnath Amarasingam, a colleague of mine at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue and a specialist on South Asian terrorism, told me: “All Islamic State media channels discussed Sri Lanka. There was constant communication between someone in ISIS’s central media and the attackers. Just from that fact, we can conclude the attack was very much coordinated by ISIS.”

ISIS’s Diwan of Central Media—its ministry of propaganda—is still believed to be operating in southeastern Syria, even if it has to hide from drones and US F-16s, and its former director, a man known only by his nom de guerre Abu Abdullah al-Australi (meaning he came from Australia), was killed in an airstrike on Hajin, Syria, in December of last year, according to Western diplomats. Baghdadi eulogized his fallen comrade in the April 29 video, as he did other “media knights” who rank second only to walis, or governors, of ISIS.

This encomium was not incidental. Amarasingam argues that ISIS’s breathtaking reach into other parts of the world—including distant corners few experts imagined it was capable of penetrating—is now so pronounced that it’s possible to imagine a day when the ISIS media apparatus could be based outside the Middle East entirely. Equally, the organization may separate into various satellites in multiple countries, the way international newspapers establish foreign bureaus. If that happens, ISIS will become a virtually borderless phenomenon and the difference between “inspired” and “directed” will lose all meaning.

“As the territory ISIS controls in Syria and Iraq has shrunk,” Laith Alkhouri, a senior director at Flashpoint, a New York-based business risk company, told me, “new factions have sprung up in the Philippines, Afghanistan, the Sahara, Central Africa. All of them are capable of orchestrating attacks by themselves, whether against rival groups such as al-Qaeda, or against civilians and soft targets.” What is to stop these factions from cooking up foreign operations of their own, either dispatching sleeper agents to other countries, along the lines of the Bataclan and Stade de France attackers, or connecting with sympathizers abroad via WhatsApp or Signal, then sending them on their grim way to martyrdom?

Baghdadi once ruled an estimated 15 million people, fanned out across Syria and Iraq, in an expanse of territory roughly the size of Great Britain, but, as Alkhouri puts it, “that operational territory was actually smaller than where they are today globally.” In lieu of a physical “state,” ISIS conscripts only require a belief that there is indeed still a leader in charge of an international franchise, someone to pledge allegiance to. This is yet another reason Baghdadi popped up when his fortunes seemed at a nadir. “It’s a bit like Elvis getting back into his leathers in 1968,” Sir John Jenkins, the former British ambassador to Syria and Iraq, wrote to me in an email about the video. “The movies were just a distraction—performing live and dangerously was what he was best at. [ISIS is] already hitting targets regularly in Syria and particularly Iraq. It’s just like the old days.”

There are advantages to running an insurgency and not a state. The billions of dollars ISIS once had at its disposal went not only to jihad abroad but to keeping the lights on in Mosul and Raqqa; the bakeries full of bread; the morality police who ensured sharia law was being followed to the letter. Now all of these expenditures have come to dust along with a dystopian project in the desert. And while ISIS’s budget has contracted accordingly, it is still believed to be between $50 million and $300 million, according to a recent study by the UN, which notes that much of that money derives from “legitimate” investments in regional economies. Cash is being washed clean through car dealerships or currency exchanges in Baghdad, or in commerce with compromised counterinsurgents in Raqqa, then diverted toward terrorism.

In a way, Baghdadi’s reinvention as a fugitive warlord follows what has already become an established fact in Iraq, where ISIS’s recrudescence has been underway for months. It boasts far more manpower and resources in Iraq today than al-Qaeda did in 2010, when, thanks to the Sunni Awakening and the American surge, it was strategically routed and more or less bankrupt. The UN reckons ISIS still has between “14,000 and 18,000 dedicated militants, including up to 3,000 foreign terrorist fighters in Syria and Iraq.” These figures, I’m given to understand, may be grossly understated.

In February, for the NYR Daily, Aziz Ahmad, an assistant to the Chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, laid out the evidence as to how Baghdadi’s jihadists were staging a comeback in “Kirkuk, Diyala, Salahaddin, and parts of Anbar—territory they know well.” If anything, Ahmad thinks he may have been too optimistic.

“The coalition is worried about Hawija,” Ahmad told me from Erbil this week, referring to a once restive district in Kirkuk. Some of the villages surround Hawija, he added, are controlled by ISIS at night in a kind of moonlight occupation. When the sun comes up, the fighters disperse.

One reason for the resurgence, Ahmad believes, is that ISIS didn’t always put up much resistance when faced with overwhelming odds. “ISIS put down their guns, shaved their beards and laced into the local communities when Iraq cleared several areas in 2017,” he said. “These are the same men we see re-emerging now.” Ahmad noted that the battle to retake Hawija was over within three days with “almost no firefight.” Two major border towns in Iraq, Tal Afar in the north and Qaim in the south, were essentially relinquished by ISIS rather than defended.

Everything old is new again. Jihadists dressed in Iraqi military uniforms are raiding the homes of local leaders of anti-ISIS militias in Iraq, interrogating them on camera, executing them in barbaric fashion, then using the information they obtain to go onto their next target. Another problem is how those perceived to be connected to ISIS, usually through family ties, are being treated. Elizabeth Tsurkov, the development and research manager at the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, who recently toured Iraqi refugee camps and was horrified at the living conditions, told me, “Women are getting raped or prostituted. Children who lack documentation because their IDs were issued by ISIS or they lost them or Shia militias or the Iraqi Security Forces confiscated them cannot access any basic services including education.” Now the Iraqi Interior Ministry wants to permanently intern at least 280,000 people, most of these women and children, in specially built camps. Such a policy would not only violate international law but, as a form of collective punishment aimed at Iraq’s Sunni minority population, undoubtedly speed the recruitment of ISIS’s next generation of willing executioners.

In eastern Syria, meanwhile, there are now daily protests against a US-supported gendarmerie commanded by veterans of a marxisant Kurdish guerrilla movement, whose cadres are largely foreign to the terrain they occupy, inhabited by religiously conservative Arab tribesmen whose cities, towns, and villages lie in rubble after years of siege and bombardment. Here, too, tribal leaders who have cooperated with anti-ISIS elements are regularly being assassinated and their assassins are no doubt buoyed by the prospect that American forces will eventually quit this arena, perhaps sooner than expected.

“The conventional wisdom is that Baghdadi wanted to prove he’s still alive because he’s desperate,” one regional intelligence official told me, lamenting the triumphalism that has attended so much of Western media coverage about ISIS’s supposed demise. “I don’t see it that way at all. He’s just introducing the next phase of this miserable war. It’s a painful fact for many to swallow—it sure is for me—but you can’t get rid of ISIS, no matter how much firepower you throw at it.”

And yet, in lieu of such cold realism, triumphalism out of Baghdad, Raqqa, and Washington. ISIS has shown a remarkable resilience, adaptability, and capacity for metastasis across multiple time zones. Rather than categorical defeat, long-term management of this terrorist threat is best-case outcome. Perhaps the first thing we ought to manage, then, is our expectations.