Although it has lost all of its territorial strongholds in its former Iraqi and Syrian heartland, Islamic State (IS) still maintains cells and continues its activities in this area. Jonathan Spyer notes that there has even been “a sharp uptick” in the jihadist group’s attacks in recent weeks, perhaps as it seeks to take advantage of the general distraction caused by the coronavirus:
[T]he increase in IS activity is taking place across a broad but contiguous majority-Sunni Arab area of territory. The pattern of events confirms the continued existence of Islamic State’s networks of supply and support, through which the movement’s members can safely pass. This is the “ghost caliphate” in the territory that the movement once administered. Now it exists in clandestine form, striking at the successor authorities when opportunity presents.
The ongoing, slow-burning Islamic State insurgency in this area is proof that the “victories” in the wars in Syria and Iraq have resolved little. Neither the Assad regime’s crushing of the Sunni Arab uprising against it, nor the U.S.-led coalition’s destruction of the IS caliphate has settled the underlying issue that led to the emergence of both. This is the fact that both Baghdad and Damascus are dominated by non-Sunni ruling authorities with little interest in, or ability to integrate, the large Sunni Arab populations living under their rule.
For so long as this remains the case, Sunni Arab insurgency, latent or open, is likely to persist in the remote, poor and sparsely governed areas of both countries. The coronavirus offers a window for IS to increase the tempo of its activities. But with or without the pandemic, the “ghost caliphate” is here to stay.