Wednesday, December 19, 2018

ISIS Threat Update - December 2018

By Brandon Wallace with Jennifer Cafarella

The U.S. and its allies have not defeated ISIS in Iraq or Syria. ISIS has fixed the attention of the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition on the last remaining territorial pocket of its caliphate even as it regroups in other parts of Syria. ISIS is also reconstituting in its traditional strongholds in Iraq. Current conditions on the ground do not warrant the withdrawal of the U.S. from Syria.

See the previous version of this assessment published in October 2018 here.

ISIS in Syria:
  • The U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition has not yet destroyed the final physical stronghold of ISIS along the Middle Euphrates River Valley in Eastern Syria. ISIS retains control over roughly twenty kilometers of terrain that it uses as a staging ground for counterattacks on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF reportedly seized the majority of the town of Hajin on December 14. The urban center remains contested and partner forces were only able to progress after an intense and sustained air campaign by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition.[1]
  • ISIS is intensifying its campaign to destabilize Ar-Raqqa City – its de facto former capital and the nucleus for reconstruction efforts by the U.S.Anti-ISIS Coalition in Northern Syria. ISIS detonated a Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) in Ar-Raqqa City on November 4. The blast marked the first such attack in Ar-Raqqa City since its seizure by the SDF and U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in October 2017. ISIS has expanded the support zones where it enjoys freedom of movement in rural Ar-Raqqa Province.
  • ISIS still retains a support zone in the rural desert of Central Syria. ISIS scattered its fighters into Eastern Homs Province after the conclusion of a pro-regime offensive on the Al-Safa Region on the Syrian-Jordanian Border on November 17. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) claimed to defeat ISIS in Al-Safa while activists reported that ISIS had evacuated under a deal brokered by Russia.[2] ISIS likely maintains access to the Syrian-Jordanian and Syrian-Iraqi Borders as well as the key crossroads town of Palmyra in Central Syria.
  • ISIS has also expanded its support zone in the rural desert near Abu Kamal in Southern Deir ez-Zour Province. ISIS has relied upon a dense network of caves and tunnels as well as the transfer of reinforcements from the Al-Safa Region of Southern Syria in November 2018. ISIS has thus far conducted only limited operations near Abu Kamal but it could threaten key oil infrastructure such as the T2 and T3 Pumping Stations in Central Syria.

ISIS in Iraq:
  • ISIS has built upon its support and attack zones near Mosul in Northern Iraq. ISIS detonated a VBIED in Mosul on November 8. The blast marked the first such attack in Mosul since its seizure by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in July 2017. ISIS had previously demonstrated its regenerating capabilities with additional VBIEDs in Southern Ninewa Province on October 23, Kirkuk City on October 13, and Northern Salah ad-Din Province on September 12. ISIS has also sustained its assassination campaign targeting Sunni tribal leaders near Mosul. The cell responsible for this campaign is likely based in a support zone in the Adayah Foothills southwest of Mosul.
  • ISIS is consolidating its durable support zone in Northern Diyala Province. ISIS expanded its attack zone northeast of Lake Hamrin near Khanaqin on the Iraqi-Iranian Border. ISIS has also raided villages around the triangle formed by Qara Tapah, Jalula, and Khanaqin. The ISF remains largely fixed in a static military base in Sadiyah south of Jalula.[3] The ISF failed to secure this area during celebrations of Arbaeen by Iraqi Shi’a in October 2018.[4]
  • ISIS is resurging in the Western Baghdad Belts. ISIS has sustained an assassination campaign targeting Sunni tribal leaders west of Baghdad despite clearing operations by the ISF and Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). ISIS also detonated a VBIED in Fallujah on October 6. The blast marked the first such attack in Fallujah since its seizure by the ISF and U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in June 2016.

[1] “Continuous Clashes Between SDF and ISIS in Areas Within the Last Enclave East of Euphrates,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, November 19, 2018, http://www(.)
[2]  “After the Deal of Handing Over the Kidnapped People, Hundreds of ISIS Members Vanish from Tlul al-Safa After 116 Days of the Deadliest Attack Ever in Al-Suwaida,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, November 17, 2018, http://www(.)
[3] [“Leader in the Popular Mobilization Forces Killed During a Security Operation in Diyala,”] Al-Ghad Press, November 18, 2018, https://www(.)
[4] Karzan Sulaivany, “Iraqi Police Arrest Suspect Who Tried to Plant Bomb at Security Members Home,” Kurdistan24, October 30, 2018, http://www(.)