Examining the Islamic State Resurgence in Iraq and Syria

Abstract: The Islamic State has gradually ramped up its attacks in Syria and Iraq since the mid-2020. This brief examines the group’s recent activities in both nations to interrogate if the group is undergoing a phase of resurgence in the region. Accordingly, it maps out the different factors that are aiding the group and provides some policy implications for governments in the region.


The self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or IS) garnered global attention in June 2014 when it drove out the Iraqi army from Mosul and Tikrit and announced that it had established a caliphate. Between 2014 and 2019, the group carried out hundreds of attacks primarily in Iraq and Syria, and then in various other parts of the world. It also churned out propaganda on the internet at a rate hitherto unseen by law enforcement agencies who struggled to keep up with and counter the content.[i] All of this helped it gain fame and inspired many attacks by individuals not formally trained by them, yet inspired by their ideology and cause. The group simultaneously absorbed many local groups in nations such as Nigeria, Afghanistan, and the Philippines, creating provinces in these nations as well. [ii]

Over time, its various extra-judicial killings of civilians and political opponents within Iraq and Syria, ability to draw in foreign fighters and contribution to instability in these two countries were cited as justifications to attack its locations by western nations such as the United States, as well as many other regional countries, leading to further cycles of destruction in the two nations.[iii] By 2017, it lost more than 90% of its territory across both Syria and Iraq and by March 2019 it had lost every shred of territory it once held.[iv] Moreover, its leaders were eliminated by different security forces, a trend that culminated in the death of Abu Bakr Baghdadi, the self-declared head of the group and caliph.[v]

While most governments and casual observers celebrated these announcements, terrorism signs from 2018 demonstrated that the group would revert back to its original form as a guerrilla group.[vi] This prediction turned out to be largely true with the group’s formidable finances and ideology sustaining its fighters across the world. While most of these fighters laid low and carried out only occasional attacks, the frequency of attack soon began to increase. As such, various governments and observers have noted in the first quarter of 2021 that the group is now witnessing a resurgence.[vii]

This brief, therefore, tries to understand to what extent the group is resurging. It measures this by looking at different factors such as attacks, fighters, finances, and other parameters. It then lists out reasons for the surge in its activities using counter insurgency literature to explain some of them. Finally, it maps out the policy implications of this increase in activities and provides possible steps for policy makers to engage in to combat this resurgence.