While the world has been understandably consumed by the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19), as it continues to devastate entire countries and regions, numerous terrorist and insurgent groups have exploited the uncertainty for their own gain. The coronavirus has provided a boost to ISIS propaganda efforts, which frame the disease as Allah’s revenge for everything from the killing of the group’s former leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to China’s draconian treatment of its Uighur Muslim population.
Few have been more successful in taking advantage of the pandemic than the Islamic State, which has ramped up attacks across Iraq, targeting security forces with impunity. In the month of April alone, there were 110 incidents across Iraq, the most since December 2019. These attacks include an assault against Iraqi militia members in Samarra, which left ten dead, as well as attacks in Kirkuk. It is believed that ISIS maintains a force of as many as 3,000 fighters, perhaps more, in Iraq alone.
Across the border in Syria, ISIS has organized small cells of fighters to conduct operations east of the Euphrates River while intimidating locals that the group believes might cooperate with Kurdish troops, the Assad regime, or any entities related to what remains of the U.S.-led coalition. In early May, ISIS militants staged riots at Hassakeh prison in northeast Syria, temporarily taking over the detention center and prompting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to call for more assistance from the United States and its allies. ISIS has also managed to carve out sanctuary in the Badia, a central desert region West of the Euphrates nominally under the control of the Assad regime.
ISIS has been slowly rebuilding its networks in Iraq and Syria over time, and even without the coronavirus, it could have been capable of the recent surge in violence. In a yearlong span between March 2019, when ISIS lost its last remaining stronghold in Baghouz, and March 2020, the group has claimed more than 2,000 total attacks in Iraq and Syria.
The group’s history demonstrates that its leadership is calculating and opportunistic, so the last few weeks have provided an opening for its attacks to be even more destabilizing than they would have been otherwise. Its flurry of attacks over the past several weeks have generated significant media attention, one of their primary goals. Another objective, at least in Iraq, is to demonstrate that the security forces are incapable of protecting Iraqis. If ISIS can use the confusion and disarray caused by the coronavirus to encroach on Baghdad, it would be a major morale boost for the group.
By increasing attacks in April and May, ISIS is keeping true to its previous history of escalating violence over Ramadan, but it also seems to be attempting to prove that, unlike most other terrorist and insurgent groups worldwide, it retains the capability to launch coordinated attacks in spite of all the limitations on movement imposed by the coronavirus. In a sense, ISIS recognized the opportunity for bragging rights and the chance to showcase its capabilities, proving it can operate in both austere terrain and urban areas as a direct challenge to the Iraqi security forces.
But it is not just in the Levant that ISIS has been striking. The group has gone on the offensive in Africa and Southeast Asia, and nearly engineered an attack in Europe that has links to the group’s core leadership in the Middle East.
In early April, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) claimed responsibility for a rocket attack against Bagram airfield in Afghanistan, although there were no casualties involved. In mid-April, ISIS claimed its first attack in the island nation of the Maldives, located in the Indian Ocean southwest of India and Sri Lanka. Although the attack only involved the destruction of five government boats, it is important symbolically, with ISIS further demonstrating its ability to spread to new countries.
In the Philippines, ISIS fighters killed 11 Filipino soldiers that were on a mission to hunt for Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, the leader of the ISIS-linked Abu Sayyaf Group faction, who succeeded the notorious Isnilon Hapilon.
Perhaps, the most troubling attack of all was one that was prevented by German authorities, who rolled up a cell of four ISIS members, all Tajik nationals, in mid-April. The cell was allegedly plotting attacks on U.S. military facilities and personnel in Germany and had been in communication with ISIS leadership in Syria, meaning the attack, if it went forward, would have been directed and not merely inspired.
It is still not possible to comprehend the full impact of the coronavirus, but it seems likely that the United States will have fewer resources to devote to counterterrorism. Moreover, the Department of Defense has already begun drawing down forces in parts of West Africa and South Asia due to heightened concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.
And while all of ISIS’s recent gains cannot be attributed to COVID-19—especially in Syria and Iraq where political and military developments have contributed to increasing instability irrespective of the virus—the pandemic will continue to create new opportunities for ISIS to wreak havoc.
And if the group has proven anything across its multiple iterations, it is that it rarely misses a chance to capitalize upon an emerging security vacuum.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.