TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State in 2017
January 5, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• The new year began with several significant terror attacks claimed by the Islamic State.
• Attacks over New Year’s weekend in Baghdad and Istanbul demonstrated the persistence of the group’s local and international capabilities, despite facing sustained pressure throughout 2016.
• As it continues to be downgraded militarily, the Islamic State will likely increase its reliance on terror attacks—both inside and outside of Syria and Iraq.
• 2017 will likely bring further large-scale attacks—carried out by both lone attackers as well as small groups—in the name of the Islamic State.
As 2016 came to a close, the so-called Islamic State found itself in a weaker position than it began the year both in terms of territorial control and military strength. Nonetheless, the group enters 2017 as a categorical threat to both Iraq and Syria, as well as a persistent and increasing threat abroad. The gains that have been made against the Islamic State—which have come at a tremendous cost, particularly for Iraqi forces—are crucial for any hope of stability in Iraq and Syria in years to come. However, territorial gains against the Islamic State will do little to negate the more traditional terror threat posed by the group. The coming year will likely see more attacks along the lines of those in Iraq and Turkey over New Year’s weekend.
Just after 2017 began, a gunman entered the Reina nightclub in Istanbul and killed at least 39 people, firing more than 120 bullets into the crowded club. The Islamic State claimed the attack, signaling its intention to wage a new and more deadly campaign in Turkey. It is unknown if the gunman—who is still at large—had accomplices; the gunman’s level of communication or direct coordination with the Islamic State is also unclear. Unconfirmed media reports indicate the attacker may have trained in Syria prior to the attack. Whatever the gunman’s true level of association with the Islamic State may be, the circumstances surrounding the attack indicate he likely did not act entirely on his own.
The attack in Istanbul, as well as the December 19 truck attack in Berlin, provide further illustration as to how much carnage an individual attacker can inflict with just a measure of instruction and exhortation. The unconfirmed reports of the Istanbul attacker’s prior training in Syria highlight the long-term and widespread threat posed by persistent conflicts throughout the world, which provide extremist groups with ideal training grounds. Highly-publicized attacks throughout 2016 clearly demonstrated that the Islamic State has no shortage of people willing to kill in its name; the group also has a large candidate pool of potential attackers with direct combat experience.
The external threat posed by the Islamic State will not ebb proportionately with the military setbacks the group experiences in Iraq and Syria. While there is no public estimate of the number of operatives the Islamic State has in Western Europe, the group has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to strike in the EU—even in locations with heightened security postures. The new year will likely see more attacks along the lines of those seen in Berlin and Istanbul, and far more complex attacks such as the November 2015 Paris attacks and March 2016 Brussels attacks remain a distinct possibility. Indeed, 2017 will bring continued and increasing efforts by security and intelligence services to detect and disrupt their respective local threats, which combine to form a global menace.
In Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State will continue its asymmetric slide from a proto-state to powerful terror group. Multiple suicide bombings in Baghdad on New Year’s Eve killed 28 people, and were followed by a series of bombings in Baghdad on January 2 that left more than 40 people dead. No longer able to take cities with tanks and armored vehicles as it did in 2014, the Islamic State is still more than capable of waging a campaign of bombings in the Iraqi capital and surrounding areas, and will maintain that capability for the foreseeable future.
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