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

Common analysis
Last updated: September 2020

[Main COI references: Actors, 6; Security 2020, 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 [Actors, 6.2]. Deir Ez-Zor governorate, parts of Raqqa governorate, and Homs governorate near Palmyra were identified as the areas where ISIL displayed the strongest insurgent capabilities. ISIL activity was also reported in southern Syria (Dar’a) and in the Idlib area. According to some sources, ISIL also maintained a presence in Badia desert in central Syria.

Estimations of ISIL’s strength vary, putting the number of ISIL members in Iraq and Syria between 14 000 and 18 000. Detained ISIL fighters and their families in northeast Syria number more than 100 000, including around 2 000 foreign ISIL 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.   

As ISIL lost its territorial control it began to shift its strategy ‘from open, semi-conventional combat to guerrilla warfare’, conducting asymmetric campaigns against security forces of actors considered to be its enemies. 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 ISIL and their relevance as potential exclusion grounds, see Exclusion.