Security gaps caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have led to a rise in ISIS attacks in Syria and Iraq, according to a report submitted to the UN Security Council late last month.
The report, written by the United Nations’ monitoring team that tracks the jihadi terror threat, said the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on terrorism has varied between conflict and non-conflict zones, but ISIS operations have increased in the “core conflict zone” of Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic.
“The number of [ISIS] attacks in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic increased significantly in early 2020 as compared with the same period in 2019,” the report stated. “Tensions between some of the key international partners in the fight against [ISIS] grew, complicating the counter-terrorism challenge and increasing [ISIS] self-belief.”
Recently, Iraq has seen an increase in COVID-19 cases, with the total number of cases topping 100,000 late last week. While Syria has far fewer cases, leaders of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces say ISIS is taking advantage of the pandemic, forcing the SDF to limit its movement in the region.
Despite security improvements in Syria, the area saw a surge in terrorist activity between March and May of this year. According to the report, the pandemic highlighted the vulnerability of holding facilities and camps, and “the overall situation remains precarious.”
In March, a riot that began from fears of the virus spreading throughout the prison lead to a prison break attempt by ISIS prisoners. Reportedly, a “steady stream” of ISIS-affiliated women have escaped a camp with the help of corrupt guards and smugglers.
Since March of this year, the COVID-19 pandemic has also impacted ISIS propaganda and fundraising activities, with the impact varying in different regions. The group’s propaganda has focused on four areas: attack their enemies while they are weakened and distracted, promote the idea that the pandemic is a punishment for the West and is therefore a cause for celebration, recognize that the virus could be weaponized, and, in an effort to protect its members, embrace social distancing and advise against European travel.
ISIS has more than 10,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria and approximately $100 million in financial reserves.
“Groups are using the outbreak to advance propaganda and fundraising and, in some regions, are seeking to take advantage of perceptions that the attention of security forces is diverted elsewhere,” the report stated. “Should the pandemic lead to a severe global recession, the international community may be faced with further headwinds in countering terrorism and extremist narratives.”