ISIS, Its Affiliates, and U.S. Counterterrorism Strategies Against Syria

ISIS and affiliate groups have had immense influence on security situations globally. Syria's situation in particular, exacerbated the current and ongoing conflict, and its presence poses a direct danger to stability, implying potential assaults on US interests overseas.

ISIS and affiliate groups have had immense influence on security situations globally. Syria’s situation in particular, exacerbated the current and ongoing conflict, and its presence poses a direct danger to stability, implying potential assaults on US interests overseas. Destabilization in Syria allows for extremist organizations like ISIS to grow, and hence has increased the possibilities of growing terrorism. 

Situations regarding acts of terrorism allow for new threats to emerge. The group continues to conduct military operations and counter-attacks, which are countered by security campaigns from Coalition forces and their partner, the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), in areas under SDF control. The efforts to curb conflict situations have been dubious, as seen by Afghanistan’s difficult peace talks involving several terrorist organizations. The US has struggled to address the roots of this extremism, which is why there is a persistent feeling of instability, especially in regards to national and international security. Sources suggest that, while ISIS has been mildly contained, it still remains a threat to us, and state terrorism from regimes such as Assad’s or even Iran’s authoritarian government is ever-increasing. The quarterly Operation Inherent Resolve report discusses the threat presented by the growth of the Islamic State (IS), as its growth has caused a divide in the jihadist movement, with both factions fighting for power. While Al Qaeda targets the United States and its allies, IS prioritizes creating an Islamic state in the Middle East. 

The varying tactics have separated the threat profiles: Al Qaeda targets the United States, whereas IS primarily targets regional regimes it considers apostate. Both use their own techniques to achieve their objectives; Al Qaeda prefers large-scale operations and IS emphasizes territory control. Yet, both share a commonality to up their influence by gaining support from worldwide affiliates.

Figure 1: ISIS attack claims by year: Total vs Outside iraq and syria

It is imperative to tackle the fundamental causes of ISIS’s resurgence, including issues with governance, economic opportunities, and sectarian strife, in order to prevent its resurgence and potential growth. The current report in Syria says that ISIS remains still, is an active danger, despite its drop in attempts in attacks. The efforts mostly target pro-regime soldiers in specific areas to work in small groups and launch asymmetrical strikes. And although ISIS rises a threat in Sunni Arab territory, its capacity to attack the larger Sunni tribes have decreased, having a fear of retaliation.

In 2011, members of the Islamic State of Iraq formed the Nusra Front, a new Al Qaeda offshoot in Syria. In 2013, ISI commander Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declared the merging of ISI with the Nusra Front to become ISIS/ISIL (United States Intelligence Community, 2022). Since then, ISIS launched an insurgency in both Syria and Iraq, and affiliates have extended to other areas, resulting in substantial casualties. The US established the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) in 2014 to help lead coalition efforts against ISIS. Now, ISIS has branches in many African countries, including Nigeria, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, the Sahel, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Somalia. 

ISIS-affiliated groups employ greater violence than their al-Qaeda counterparts. Contrary to al-Qaeda, ISIS has superior leadership and operational capabilities. It’s because of the leadership paradigm that helped to enable leadership changes, as demonstrated by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s successor upon his death in 2019. In that same year, ISIS-affiliated forces murdered more people than al-Qaeda affiliates, with ISIS-West Africa and ISIS-K being responsible for significant casualties. 

In 2022, ISIS and its affiliates capitalized global developments such as the Taliban’s rebirth, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the withdrawal of Western soldiers from jihadist areas. And despite the previous advances in territory control and fighter recruitment, ISIS experienced hurdles when it came to leadership losses and geographical defeats as a result of the aggressiveness of US counterterrorism actions. The organization’s capacity was then considerably reduced, as seen by the decreasing number of ISIS-claimed assaults over time, which fell by more than 100 percent between 2018 and 2022. 

Figure 2: ISIS’s Reduced Operating Areas (April 2015)

In 2022, ISIS-Core remained active in both Syria and Iraq, most notably in Deir Ez-Zohr. And according to SOHR sources, ISIS launched 21 attacks during April of 2024, killing 78 regime soldiers and militias supported by Russia and the regime. The regional distribution included Deir Ezzor desert, Homs desert, Al-Raqqah desert, Hama desert. The organization stepped up operations in areas under the jurisdiction of the autonomous government after conducting a security operation in Hawl Camp. Meanwhile, ISIS’s regional branches, like ISIS-K in Afghanistan and affiliates in Africa that were previously mentioned, are going through their own conflicts. 

A committee meeting that was presided over by Senator Corker, was called to discuss this conflict with Syria, and wanted to emphasize elucidating US strategy in relation to key objectives such as countering ISIS, providing humanitarian aid, and advancing a viable political resolution. Senators, particularly Senator Cardin, expressed concerns about the clarity and efficacy of the existing strategy, requesting thorough information on the trajectory of the United States’ participation in Syria. His past policy wanted to strengthen the role of diplomatic initiatives in facilitating a stable political transition in Syria and was contingent on the eventual removal of President Assad’s regime. The United States’ aim is to aggressively try to remove Iranian-backed forces from Syria, accomplished by assistance from regional alliances. While military force is still a possibility, the present strategy relies on non-military ways to attain this goal. 

The emergence of ISIS and its affiliates has had a major effect on the security landscape, especially in Syria and Iraq, with ramifications for the whole world, including the US. Terrorist organizations like ISIS continue to be considered a danger in spite of military operations because they may regroup and adjust to changing conditions. To stop organizations like ISIS from resurfacing, it is imperative to address the fundamental catalysts of extremism, especially in accordance with government and sectarian conflicts.  The United States and its allies must continue to modify and adjust its strategies in order to effectively counter the danger presented by ISIS and other extremist groups. They must also seek diplomatic solutions to address the region’s fundamental concerns.

Nardine El-Dalil
Nardine El-Dalil
Undergraduate student at George Mason University, majoring in Government and International Politics with a minor in Criminology, Law, and Society. Passionate about navigating current political landscapes, with particular interest in the Americas and MENA regions.