Gayle Tzemach Lemmon ISIS is using coronavirus to rebuild its terrorism network in Iraq and Syria

The fight may feel far away to Americans, but the resurgence of ISIS will have far-reaching consequences both abroad and nearer to home.
Image: Iraq conflict
An Iraqi fighter with the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces) inspects the site of the ISIS attack, a day earlier, on a unit of the paramilitary force in Mukaishefah, about 180 km (110 miles) north of the capital, on May 3, 2020.Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP - Getty Images file
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By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author

COVID-19 has cut a wide swath of pain and loss across a world which has struggled to keep pace with a deadly virus that has moved swiftly across borders. But for one group, the global pandemic has translated into regional opportunity. The Islamic State militant group has sought to expand upon the rebuilding effort it began last fall and use the coronavirus to spread its own, more violent flavor of destruction and terror.

The Islamic State militant group has sought to expand upon the rebuilding effort it began last fall.

"What you are witnessing these days are only signs of big changes in the region that’ll offer greater opportunities than we had previously in the past decade” read an online message on Thursday from new ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi, translated by Hassan Hassan, director of the Non-State Actors in Fragile Environments Program at the Center for Global Policy and a co-author of "ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror."

The message comes as those who have been fighting ISIS for more than a half-decade have spoken publicly and in plain terms about the group‘s increasing strength.

“The Islamic State group has been moving the fighting from Syria to Iraq ... (and) is strengthening, both financially and militarily,” said Lt. Col. Stein Grongstad, head of Norway’s forces in Iraq, there to advise and assist the Iraqi military. He called it a “paradox” that just as COVID-19 was weakening nations, ISIS was regaining strength.

As Iraqi military officials put it to The Associated Press, ISIS is evolving from local intimidation to more complex attacks. The group is also carrying out more improvised explosive device (IED) attacks, shootings and ambushes.

It is now up to Iraqi leaders and their forces, the U.S. political and military leaders who assist and train these forces, and the international coalition that assembled to stop ISIS in 2014, to keep the pressure on these fighters and stop them from enjoying a resurgence. This includes the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, who serve as the ground force for the United States, even while the focus is now on Iraq. The SDF has launched counter-ISIS raids in Deir ez Zor with the U.S. in the last few weeks.

ISIS moved swiftly a half-decade ago, taking town after town in a stunning sweep which seized the world’s attention. Allowing it any opening at all defies the interests of U.S. stability and security, for ISIS ambitions have not shrunk, even while its resources have as a result of the pressure applied by local counter-ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq in the past several years.The terror group’s opening did not begin with COVID-19. A series of problems have created this opportunity, including the October 2019 Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria, which displaced roughly 200,000 and forced the Syrian Democratic Forces to split attention between surviving Turkey’s offensive and fighting ISIS, political protests and governmental gridlock in Iraq and tensions between Iraq and Iran. But COVID-19, which forced Iraqi forces to turn their attention to battling a virus and imposing curfews, is a potential gamechanger.

Recent violence shows the extent to which the group has used the COVID-19 distraction to seize attention and advantage. The Middle East Institute’s Charles Lister noted that ISIS had increased attacks in the area of Kirkuk by as much as 200 percent and was launching nearly daily attacks in Diyala. Lister wrote, “ISIS is now seen to be embracing more sophisticated nighttime tactics, suicide bombings, and multipronged coordinated assaults — a marked change from its previous drive-by shootings, kidnappings and stand-off mortar attacks.”

In other words, without the constant opposition of local forces, the group will grow ever more capable of launching attacks, just as it was in 2013.

“If left without that continuous pressure, ISIS can come back and start to intimidate people, and these things can happen very quickly when the time is right,” Hassan told me. “They can reach a tipping point where they, as a threat, become irreversible.”

As of this moment, that critical tipping point has not yet been reached. And it is up to the coalition that fought back this scourge in the first place to make certain it won’t be.

As of this moment, that critical tipping point has not yet been reached. And it is up to the coalition that fought back this scourge in the first place to make certain it won’t be when its members meet next week to discuss ISIS and “the challenges the coalition” fighting it now confronts given COVID-19.

In Iraq, I have met boys scared to speak to anyone after watching ISIS torture and maim those who failed to follow its precepts. In Syria, I have met mothers whose husbands were jailed and tortured by ISIS for the “crime” of selling cigarettes to support their family, leaving permanent psychological scars. In both countries, I have met teenage girls who talk of the chilling experience of having their education stolen by terrorists who shuttered schools for girls and sold women and girls on the streets they controlled.

This is not a group whose return we want to see. The fight may feel far away to Americans, but the resurgence of ISIS will have far-reaching consequences both abroad and nearer to home. A spreading pandemic should not provide an opportunity to spread terror.