Geopolitics

One Year After Al-Baghdadi Death, An ISIS 'Regeneration'

The U.S. killed the ruthless leader last October in Syria at a low point for ISIS. But under his successor, the group is beginning to strike back, in Africa, the Middle East and beyond.

Propaganda image of ISIS flags floating in Raqqa, Syria
Mourad Kamel

The grisly killing 10 days ago of a French school teacher had many of the hallmarks of past attacks carried out by the bloody Islamist terror outfit ISIS. A well-defined symbolic target in the West: Samuel Paty, a respected history and geography teacher who'd been criticized by a Muslim parent and Islamist agitator for showing satirical cartoons of the prophet Muhammad as part of his annual lesson on free speech; the brazen brutality of the act: a swift stabbing and beheading with a butcher knife on a street near the school north of Paris; online exchanges discovered later between the perpetrator, a Russian-born French resident of Chechen origin, and an operative in Idlib, Syria.

And yet according to French daily Le Parisien, investigators say that the killer's contacts were with a different Islamist terror group in Syria (Haya't Tahrir El Sham, HTS) — and that the attack by the 18-year-old (later killed in a standoff with police) was neither inspired nor orchestrated by ISIS.

This comes almost exactly one year after a low moment for the group dubbed the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS), when its ruthless leader, Abou Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed on Oct. 26, 2019 in a U.S. Special Forces raid. But security analysts and intelligence experts now report that there are signs that ISIS is coming back to life — led by al-Baghdadi's successor, who has his own reputation as a ruthless killer.

Flash news: Al Jazeera reports that ISIS claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack Saturday that killed at least 24 civilians in a Kabul educational center, including schoolchildren.

Background check: Though it was founded in 1999, it was only in 2014 that ISIS grabbed the world's attention, succeeding al-Qaeda as the main force of Islamic terror after the death of its founder Osama bin Laden. ISIS's strategy was somewhat different than bin Laden's, with ambitions to establish a "caliphate" or Islamic state, by conquering vast territory in the Middle East, while simultaneously spreading terror across the world with attacks like the one in November 2015 at the Bataclan concert hall and cafés in Paris that killed 130, as well as multiple smaller attacks elsewhere in the West.

Former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — Photo: Al Furqaan Media/TNS/ZUMA

New leader: Faced against its enemies in the region, most notably Iran-backed Shia forces, as well as Western-led advances, ISIS had been at an apparent low point when al-Baghdadi was killed. But only three weeks later, his successor was chosen: Amir Muhammad Said al-Mawla.

• Also known under the name of Abu Omar al-Turkmani, or "the destroyer," al-Mawla has enabled the group to "reaffirm its presence in Syria and Iraq, planning more and more daring attacks' according to a UN report published in January.

• Al-Mawla was born in 1976 in the Iraqi town of Tal Afar, 70 kilometers west of Mosul. His hometown is a Turkmen enclave, which has created confusion about his ethnic origins, particularly because it was seen as very important for ISIS followers that their leader be of Arab descent.

• He holds a degree in Sharia law from the University of Mosul, just like his predecessor, and was also a former officer in Saddam Hussein's army, like many of his colleagues.

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, he joined the Sunni insurgency, which has killed scores of Iraqis and aimed at weakening the invasion. He was later detained for five years by US forces in the prison of Bucca, where he met al-Baghdadi.

Blood on his hands: There is no doubt on the ruthlessness of the new leader: Emirati daily Akhbar Al An has reported how al-Mawla issued rulings to exterminate the Yazidi minority in Iraq and has mobilized his men to kill and rape Yazidi men, women and children in a clear strategy of ethnic cleansing, as well as the Christian minority in Iraq.

New mission: With the loss of territory and global attention leading up to al-Baghdadi's death, the new leader took on the task of regenerating ISIS through a crucial period in the organization's history. Experts say the Islamic State operates like the mythical Hydra — you can cut off one of its heads, but another will grow back soon after.

Amir Muhammad Said al-Mawla, a.k.a. Abu Omar al-Turkmani — Photo: U.S. DOS

Regeneration: Iraqi researcher and specialist of the Islamic State, Hisham al-Hashimi, explained to the French daily Ouest-France in an interview last year that ISIS has the capacity to rebuild. "This regeneration strategy has three stages: Firstly the formation and gathering of resources (soldiers and weapons). Secondly, the starting up and preparation of the terrorist system and thirdly, taking control of the territory on which the group will be able to impose its policy and create a kind of economy that will be able to support it."

• It is notable that al-Hashimi himself was killed near his house in Baghdad by two unidentified gunmen on July 6, likely targeted because of his focus on the Islamic State.

New bastions: While ISIS-inspired attacks in the West have been rare, the group appears to be strengthening its presence in Africa and the Middle East. These latest developments come despite recent claims by U.S. President Donald Trump that ISIS is "100 percent" defeated.

Anadolu, the Turkish news agency, reports that the Islamic State is exploiting a security vacuum in the vast Anbar desert separating Syria and Iraq to set up sleeper cells, until the group can regain new territory, made up of fighters who slipped away after the retreat that began in 2017.

• According to the January report by the UN Security Council, after the loss of its territories, ISIS began to reassert its presence in Syria and Iraq, fomenting more and more daring attacks. The report states that Islamic State still has $100 million, which partly explains its resilience.

New attention, new attacks: The West has gradually been reawakened to the threat. In June, the U.S. doubled its bounty of the new ISIS leader to $10 million. Two months later, six French humanitarians were killed in Niger in an ambush of ISIS fighters on motorbikes. But the pace of overall attacks has been slowly rising elsewhere.

• Cairo authorities blame ISIS for repeated attacks on Egyptian troops in the Sinai.

• In early August, militants carrying the black flag of ISIS launched an assault on the strategic port city of Mocimboa da Praia in northern Mozambique and captured the entire town in less than a week and declared it as their new capital.

• Saturday's attack in Kabul targeted a neighborhood that is home to many from the minority Shia community in the Afghan capital, part of a longstanding ISIS strategy of targeting non-Sunni Muslims.

What's next: One year ago, some analysts believed al-Baghdadi's death was a sign that both the operations and ideology of ISIS could be living its final days. The group was also being forced to contend with rival Sunni groups, including the HTS militants who may have had a role in the killing of the French teacher. Yet the ambitions of the Islamic State are ultimately its greatest weapon, offering radicalized Sunni followers everywhere a vision of new caliphate to reign over the Muslim world. Meanwhile, its new leader al-Mawla must live up to more than his nickname "the destroyer," to also see what he can rebuild.

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Thousands of migrants in Del Rio, Texas, on the border between Mexico and the U.S.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

👋 Сайн уу*

Welcome to Friday, where the new U.S.-UK-Australia security pact is under fire, Italy becomes the first country to make COVID-19 "green pass" mandatory for all workers, and Prince Philip's will is to be kept secret for 90 years. From Russia, we also look at the government censorship faced by brands that recently tried to promote multiculturalism and inclusiveness in their ads.

[*Sain uu - Mongolian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• U.S. facing multiple waves of migrants, refugees: The temporary camp, located between Mexico's Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio in Texas, is housing some 10,000 people, largely from Haiti. With few resources, they are forced to wait in squalid conditions and scorching temperatures amidst a surge of migrants attempting to cross into the U.S. Meanwhile, thousands of recently evacuated Afghan refugees wait in limbo at U.S. military bases, both domestic and abroad.

• COVID update: Italy is now the first European country to require vaccination for all public and private sector workers from Oct. 15. The Netherlands will also implement a "corona pass" in the following weeks for restaurants, bars and cultural spaces. When he gives an opening speech at the United Nations General Assembly next week, unvaccinated Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro will defy New York City authorities, who are requiring jabs for all leaders and diplomats.

• U.S. and UK face global backlash over Australian deal: The U.S. is attempting to diffuse the backlash over the new security pact signed with Australia and the UK, which excludes the European Union. The move has angered France, prompting diplomats to cancel a gala to celebrate ties between the country and the U.S.

• Russian elections: Half of the 450 seats in Duma are will be determined in today's parliamentary race. Despite persistent protests led by imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny, many international monitors and Western governments fear rigged voting will result in President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party maintaining its large majority.

• Somali president halts prime minister's authority: The decision by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed marks the latest escalation in tensions with Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble concerning a murder investigation. The move comes as the Horn of Africa country has fallen into a political crisis driven by militant violence and clashes between clans.

• Astronauts return to Earth after China's longest space mission: Three astronauts spent 90 days at the Tianhe module and arrived safely in the Gobi desert in Inner Mongolia. The Shenzhou-12 mission is the first of crewed missions China has planned for 2021-2022 as it completes its first permanent space station.

• Prince Philip's will to be kept secret for 90 years: A British court has ruled that the will of Prince Philip, the late husband of Britain's Queen Elizabeth who passed away in April at 99 years old, will remain private for at least 90 years to preserve the monarch's "dignity and standing."

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

With a memorable front-page photo, Argentine daily La Voz reports on the open fight between the country's president Alberto Fernández and vice-president Cristina Kirchner which is paralyzing the government. Kirchner published a letter criticizing the president's administration after several ministers resigned and the government suffered a major defeat in last week's midterm primary election.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

€150

An Italian investigation uncovered a series of offers on encrypted "dark web" websites offering to sell fake EU COVID vaccine travel documents. Italy's financial police say its units have seized control of 10 channels on the messaging service Telegram linked to anonymous accounts that were offering the vaccine certificates for up to €150. "Through the internet and through these channels, you can sell things everywhere in the world," finance police officer Gianluca Berruti told Euronews.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

In Russia, brands advertising diversity are under attack

Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

❌ "On behalf of the entire company, we want to apologize for offending the public with our photos..." reads a recent statement by Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi after publishing an advertisement that included a photograph of a Black man. Shortly after, the company's co-founder, Konstantin Zimen, said people on social media were accusing Yobidoyobi of promoting multiculturalism. Another recent case involved grocery store chain VkusVill, which released advertising material featuring a lesbian couple. The company soon began to receive threats and quickly apologized and removed the text and apologized.

🏳️🌈 For the real life family featured in the ad, they have taken refuge in Spain, after their emails and cell phone numbers were leaked. "We were happy to express ourselves as a family because LGBTQ people are often alone and abandoned by their families in Russia," Mila, one of the daughters in the ad, explained in a recent interview with El Pais.

🇷🇺 It is already common in Russia to talk about "spiritual bonds," a common designation for the spiritual foundations that unite modern Russian society, harkening back to the Old Empire as the last Orthodox frontier. The expression has been mocked as an internet meme and is widely used in public rhetoric. For opponents, this meme is a reason for irony and ridicule. Patriots take spiritual bonds very seriously: The government has decided to focus on strengthening these links and the mission has become more important than protecting basic human rights.Russian sushi delivery Yobidoyobi removed an advertisement with a Black man and apologized for offending the Russian nation, while a grocery chain was attacked for featuring an LGBTQ couple, reports Moscow-based daily Kommersant.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"Ask the rich countries: Where are Africa's vaccines?"

— During an online conference, Dr. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, of the African Vaccine Delivery Alliance, implored the international community to do more to inoculate people against COVID-19 in Africa and other developing regions. The World Health Organization estimates that only 3.6% of people living in Africa have been fully vaccinated. The continent is home to 17% of the world population, but only 2% of the nearly six billion shots administered so far have been given in Africa, according to the W.H.O.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

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