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1.4. Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)

Last update: November 2021

[Main COI references: Actors, 6; Security 2021, 1.4.6; Targeting, 6.2]

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as ISIS, IS and Daesh, was originally created by the wing of Al Qaeda in Iraq and smaller Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups. It is a UN- and EU-designated terrorist organisation aiming to establish a global, Islamic caliphate and fostering violent conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims. After ISIL’s territorial control in Syria was reduced to a small area located in the eastern part of the country with the capturing of Baghouz in March 2019, ISIL’s territorial control and governance in Syria ceased to exist completely. However, ISIL is reported to be forming cells across Syria and evolving into a covert network.

The Kurdish-controlled areas in northeast Syria comprise of most of the territory that was previously under ISIL’s control in Syria. These areas are viewed as ‘the main theatre for [ISIL]’s insurgency’. In Raqqa and Hasaka governorates, ISIL is thought to operate sophisticated clandestine networks, capable of carrying out more complex attacks.

ISIL reportedly operates in a decentralised manner, allowing decision-making to each independent cell. Most ISIL attacks were carried out by small cells using small-arms fire and IEDs for attacks on security forces and civilians.

It is reported that ISIL has greatly increased its capabilities in central Syria during 2020, expanding its area of operations from the heart of the Syrian Badia - where it controls several small swaths of territory north to central Aleppo governorate, west to Salamiyah, Hama and southwest to Qaryatayn of Homs. In the first half of 2020, ISIL concentrated its insurgent activity in Deir ez-Zor and Homs governorates. In the second half of 2020, an increase of ISIL attacks and seizures of villages were reported in east Hama governorate. In January 2021, ISIL launched more than 100 attacks in north-east Syria, mainly in Deir ez-Zor governorate. ISIL also operated in areas of Aleppo, Raqqa and Hasaka, and in Idlib, albeit in a more limited scale. There was also ISIL activity reported in Homs, Quneitra, and Dar’a governorates. While security operations against ISIL cells were carried out during the reference period, observers have deemed them insufficient to neutralise ISIL presence.

Estimations of ISIL’s strength vary, putting the number of ISIL members in Iraq and Syria between 8 000 and 16 000. Detained ISIL fighters and their families in northeast Syria number more than 100 000, including around 11 000 ISIL fighters, a significant number of whom are foreign fighters.

Since the establishment of its so called ‘caliphate’ in Syria and Iraq, ISIL has killed hundreds of civilians, carrying out public executions, beheadings and crucifixions. Religious minorities in Syria, such as Shias, Ismailis, Alawites and Christians, as well as Sunni Muslims who did not adhere to the group’s religious laws, were specifically targeted. For example, in July 2018, an ISIL attack on the Druze community in Sweida governorate reportedly led to the bombing, shooting, and stabbing of more than 300 Druze to death and to the abduction of 20 Druze women and 16 children.

In addition, ISIL has conducted targeted assassinations against GoS forces, attacks on tribal leaders in Deir ez-Zor, intimidation and extortion of local merchants and farmers, as well as a large-scale kidnapping of civilians in Hama governorate.

ISIL targeted SDF, Syrian government forces and affiliated armed groups, local governance officials, village elders, people perceived as informants against ISIL, as well as US-led coalition forces, and civilians. The attacks include roadside bombs, drive-by shootings and assassinations, as well as larger scale attacks. ISIL’s tactics have also included assassinations and burning of crops fields in northern Syria. In the Idlib area, ISIL has targeted armed groups with bombings and assassinations. ISIL sleeper cells and suicide bombers were reportedly active in the Kurdish-controlled areas, attempting to liberate former ISIL fighters or their family members from prisons or displacement camps.

   For further information on human rights violations committed by various anti-government armed groups and their relevance as potential exclusion grounds, see 6. Exclusion.