Wednesday, May 1, 2019

ISIS Reasserts Global Reach for Ramadan 2019

By Brandon Wallace with Jennifer Cafarella

Key Takeaway: ISIS has orchestrated an annual campaign of intensified attacks around the Islamic holy month of Ramadan since 2012, first in Iraq and then globally. It has sustained this recurring surge in its global operations every year despite its concurrent territorial losses in Iraq and Syria. ISIS’s latest Ramadan campaign began in late April 2019, two weeks before the start of Ramadan on May 5. ISIS has thus far declared a new province in Central Africa, conducted a devastating attack in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, and launched rare attacks in Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh. ISIS Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi also released his first video statement since his declaration of the Caliphate in 2014, emphasizing his survival, foreshadowing upcoming campaigns, and shaping the future trajectory of ISIS. ISIS is likely to continue demonstrating its global reach by conducting additional major attacks during this upcoming Ramadan in order to offset its loss of core terrain and maintain its image as the world’s deadliest terror organization.

ISIS demonstrated its continued global reach with a complex attack against Christians and Westerners in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday 2019. The attack was neither an isolated success nor a last gasp of desperation. Rather, ISIS supported the attack as part of a regular annual surge in its worldwide activity around the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. ISIS has continued to wage a coordinated global campaign despite the loss of its Caliphate in Iraq and Syria as ISW warned in 2017. Sri Lanka foreshadows what will likely be a deadly campaign by ISIS during Ramadan 2019. 

This report examines ISIS’s historic pattern of operations in the weeks before and during Ramadan. It also analyzes recent attacks that likely comprise the start of ISIS’s 2019 Ramadan campaign. 

ISIS’s Ramadan Campaigns

ISIS (and its predecessor Al-Qaeda in Iraq) has conducted a coordinated campaign for Ramadan every year since 2012. The scope, scale, and focus of these campaigns vary by year but generally involve a major escalation in attacks in the weeks leading up to and throughout Ramadan. They also are often used to announce major strategic inflections for the organization. Al-Qaeda in Iraq announced its annual campaigns during Ramadan. ISIS Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the Caliphate on the first day of Ramadan 2014. ISIS expanded to a global attack pattern during Ramadan 2015. ISIS now typically uses the month to conduct major spectacular attacks targeting foreign countries and declare the creation of new “provinces” (or wilayats) in its Caliphate. ISIS has deliberately cultivated this global footprint in order to diversify its holdings and mitigate against its territorial losses in Iraq and Syria. ISIS tailors its campaigns across this footprint to support its wider operational and strategic objectives, highlighting its continued employment of professional military design at a grand strategic level. 

ISIS has continued to expand its operations each year around Ramadan despite its setbacks in Iraq and Syria, proving that its loss of core terrain has not significantly disrupted its ability to design and execute global campaigns. The U.S-Led Anti-ISIS Coalition had successfully recaptured Eastern Mosul and isolated Ar-Raqqa City by February 2017, contesting ISIS’s core urban centers in Iraq and Syria. Yet ISIS’s 2017 Ramadan campaign remained incredibly active with major bombings and offensive operations in Britain, Iran, and the Philippines in May - June 2017. Its 2018 Ramadan campaign was more limited but included a coordinated suicide bombings targeting churches and law enforcement in Indonesia two days before Ramadan. ISIS likely made a strategic decision to deprioritize its global operations for Ramadan 2018 in order to focus on two superseding objectives: (1) shifting back into an insurgency in Iraq and Syria, and (2) setting conditions in its provinces abroad for escalation in 2019. 

ISIS’s 2019 Ramadan Campaign Begins 

ISIS launched its latest global campaign in late April 2019, slightly more than two weeks before the official start of Ramadan. The campaign has thus far included the devastating attack on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka, the creation of a new province in Central Africa, significant attacks in Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh, and a rare video statement by Baghdadi. This section details these events in chronological order and assesses their strategic significance for ISIS in 2019. 

Congo. ISIS announced the creation of a new wilayat (province) called Wilayat Central Africa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on April 18. ISIS Wilayat Central Africa claimed responsibility for a raid targeting a barracks in Bovata near the Congolese-Ugandan Border. ISIS subsequently featured Wilayat Central Africa in Issue 179 of its digital Al-Naba Magazine, claiming three additional attacks against the Congolese Army in Butembo on April 20. Local media and non-governmental organizations confirmed the attacks. The claims originated from both local and centralized media organs that ISW has assessed as responsive to the senior leadership of ISIS. They thus effectively constituted a formal declaration of Wilayat Central Africa. 

ISIS will likely focus on further expansion in Africa during Ramadan 2019. Wilayat Central Africa demonstrates to supporters the continued global expansion of ISIS. It could directly support the resurgence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria given that external affiliates have previously contributed financial and military resources to ISIS in Syria. It could also serve as a training ground for disaffected African Muslims who seek to join ISIS. ISIS set conditions to expand into the Democratic Republic of the Congo as part of a wider surge in Africa that began in 2018. 

ISIS will likely conduct one or more major attacks in Africa during Ramadan 2019. It could aid its local affiliates to shift their tactics to align more closely with those used by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, or otherwise direct them to target interests of the West during Ramadan. It may also declare additional formal provinces in Africa. Pro-ISIS media channels recirculated a photo allegedly depicting “soldiers of the caliphate” in Mozambique on May 30. Pro-ISIS media released a similar video in the Congo in October 2017, previewing the establishment of Wilayat Central Africa. 

Sri Lanka. ISIS conducted a devastating coordinated attack against Christians and Westerners in Sri Lanka on April 21, Easter Sunday. A cell of fighters detonated seven suicide vests (SVESTs) at three churches and three luxury hotels in three separate cities, killing over 250 civilians. The blasts marked the first attack by ISIS in Sri Lanka. ISIS formally claimed the attack on April 23 and later released a posthumous video of eight attackers pledging allegiance to Baghdadi. Sri Lanka investigators had identified eight of nine suicide bombers as of April 25. 

Sri Lanka has since uncovered a robust militant network actively planning additional operations. Officials quickly identified multiple additional bombs at several sites. The wife of one of the bombers detonated an SVEST as police attempted to detain her at a private residence on April 21. Sri Lankan Police performed a controlled detonation of a van parked containing three IEDs on April 22 and the Sri Lankan Air Force defused an additional IED found near Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport. Raids on multiple safe houses uncovered additional SVESTs and bomb components. Three militants detonated SVESTs after clashing with security forces unit at their safe house on April 27. ISIS formally claimed the latter incident and released a posthumous photo of two of the militants, suggesting that the cell planned further attacks. It is possible that more individuals linked to the cell remain at large. 

ISIS’s cells in Sri Lanka demonstrate its continued commitment to generating global attack networks. ISW assesses that ISIS tasked external elements to enable the cells, which drew upon preexisting local militant groups in Sri Lanka. One of the attackers reportedly travelled to Syria to train under ISIS before returning to Sri Lanka and as many as four others may have travelled to Turkey, Iraq, or Syria. ISW assesses that ISIS has also built a support network in India, which may have enabled the attack network in Sri Lanka. The alleged cell leader previously travelled to preach to supporters in Kerala Province in Southern India. Foreign fighters from Kerala Province previously travelled to join ISIS in Afghanistan in 2016. 

ISIS will likely attempt to conduct additional external attacks against Christians during Ramadan 2019. Russia thwarted at least two attempted attacks in late April 2019 that could be attributable to ISIS as part of its planned surge for Ramadan.[1] These attacks are consistent with ISIS’s longstanding campaign to inflict losses on civilian populations, instill fear, and otherwise destabilize countries outside the bounds of its Caliphate. ISIS intends to provoke backlash against vulnerable populations of Muslims to divide society, fuel radicalization, and enable recruitment. 

Saudi Arabia. ISIS conducted a new attack in Saudi Arabia, where it has only conducted infrequent operations since declaring the Caliphate in 2014. Four Saudi-born militants rammed a car into a gate outside a security building in the town of Zulfi north of Riyadh on April 21. Security guards killed three of the attackers in a firefight while the fourth died while attempting to detonate an SVEST. The attack marked ISIS’s first operation in Saudi Arabia since July 2018, when three militants attacked a checkpoint in Buraidah in Northern Saudi Arabia. ISIS released a posthumous video of the four attackers pledging allegiance to Baghdadi and asserting their intent to “avenge our brethren … in Iraq and Syria and everywhere.” The scale of the attack and the release of an official video both mark an inflection for ISIS in Saudi Arabia. 

ISIS views Saudi Arabia as a key challenger to the religious legitimacy of its Caliphate and seeks to coordinate and inspire attacks against the kingdom to punish it for its support to counter-terrorism operations in Iraq and Syria. The attackers in their video accused Saudi Arabia of “[enabling] the enemies of Allah, from the Jews and the Christians and the [Shi’a] and the pagans, and [making] them the masters and the pioneers in the country of the two sacred mosques” and vowed to “avenge our religion and … return the slap.” The video did not reference any of ISIS’s three formal provinces in Saudi Arabia: Wilayat Najd, Wilayat Hejaz, and Wilayat Bahrain. ISIS may have deprioritized these affiliates to focus on generating attack cells on the Arabian Peninsula. 

Bangladesh. ISIS also resumed its attacks in Bangladesh. ISIS claimed responsibility for the detonation of an IED targeting police officers in Dhaka on April 29.[2] ISIS had not conducted an attack in the country since March 2017, when militants detonated two IEDs during a raid on safe house in Northern Bangladesh. ISIS’s first major operation in Bangladesh was a deadly attack on cafes frequented by Westerners in Dhaka during Ramadan 2016. 

ISIS could declare a formal province in Bangladesh during Ramadan. Bangladeshi militants first pledged allegiance to ISIS in August 2014 but ISIS never established a wilayat in Bangladesh. ISW previously forecast that ISIS could act on this pledge during Ramadan 2016. It may now choose to take this step during Ramadan 2019 in order to offset its territorial losses in Iraq and Syria despite the smaller footprint and decreased capabilities of its cell in Bangladesh. ISIS has suffered from numerous raids against its cells in Bangladesh since its attack in Dhaka in 2016. ISIS could alternatively create a wider province that incorporates India or the Indian Subcontinent. 

Baghdadi Video Release. ISIS Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released a rare video statement on April 29, marking his first public appearance since declaring of the Caliphate at Al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul in June 2014. Baghdadi used his statement to highlight ISIS’s expanding global campaign and dismiss its losses in Iraq and Syria. He asserted that ISIS is fighting a “war of attrition” that its opponents will inevitably lose and spent most of the video praising actions by affiliates of ISIS outside of Iraq and Syria. He accepted pledges of allegiance from militants in Burkina Faso and Mali, indicating a strategic priority to expand further into Africa. He praised the recent attacks (detailed above) in Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia. He also received a number of physical reports referencing a previously unannounced wilayat in Turkey. ISIS likely released the video to preview upcoming operations and inspire new attacks by its supporters during Ramadan. 

ISIS’s latest global campaign is still unfolding and could continue until the end of Ramadan on June 4. ISW will continue to monitor this campaign and publish updates as needed.

The authors thank James Barnett of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute for his valuable contribution to this analysis.

[1] [“FSB of Russia Together with the Police Detained Members of Banned in the Russian Federation MTO "Islamic State", Had Planned to Commit an Act of Terrorism,”] Russian Federal Security Service, April 26, 2019, http://www.fsb(.)ru/fsb/press/message/single.htm!id=10438366@fsbMessage.html; [“Counterterrorism Operation Began in Tyumen,”] Interfax, April 12, 2019, https://www.interfax(.)ru/russia/658081.
[2] “Crude Bomb Hurled at Police in Dhaka,” Dhaka Tribune, April 30, 2019, https://www.dhakatribune(.)com/bangladesh/dhaka/2019/04/30/crude-bomb-hurled-at-police-in-dhaka.