ISIS threat in 2023

The ISIS Threat in 2023

Despite the end of its territorial caliphate in 2019 and the death of several of its leaders since, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has demonstrated considerable resilience. It continues to operate as a highly active insurgency, particularly in rural Iraq and Syria. Attacks in these areas increased in 2020, accelerated by the drawdown of US forces in Iraq and the onset of Covid-19. Syria By August 2020, 126 attacks were reported in and an average of 110 attacks per month were recorded in Iraq.[i] In 2021, the UN stated that ISIS represented an “entrenched insurgency” and that the group maintained nearly 10,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria.[ii] A 2023 UN Security Council report reiterated the threat posed by ISIS, noting that the terrorist organisation continues to deploy new technologies and that their use has “become more sophisticated and prolific.”[iii]

2022 revealed that ISIS was far from defeated. On 20 January, ISIS militants launched an attack against the al-Sina‘a prison in Syria, leading to a ten-day battle between ISIS and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in which nearly 500 people were killed.[iv] In response to this major attack and the broader ISIS threat, the US conducted 313 unilateral counter-terrorism operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria over the remainder of 2022.[v] Many of these operations specifically targeted ISIS leadership. On 3 February, for example, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi, ISIS’ second caliph, was killed in a US Special Operations raid.[vi] Following Abu Ibrahim’s death, at least six other senior ISIS officials were reportedly killed or detained, including his successor, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi.[vii] In November, ISIS spokesman Abu Omar Al-Muhajir announced that ISIS’ fourth caliph would be Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurayshi. ISIS has attempted to conceal Abu al-Hussein’s identity to prevent US and coalition forces from targeting him. That secrecy, however, has not impeded Abu al-Hussein’s ability to marshal allegiance from ISIS cells in Libya,[viii] Sinai,[ix] Tajikistan,[x] Mozambique,[xi] and West Africa.[xii]

The Ongoing ISIS Threat in Syria and Iraq

Prison breakouts by militants and ISIS reconstitution pose a distinct threat to regional security.

In 2022, the US Department of Defence (DOD) assessed that ISIS could seek to recover its lost territory by exploiting security gaps and attempting to rebuild its combat capabilities.
[xiii] These warnings are particularly pertinent following the attack on al-Sina‘a prison in 2022, which housed thousands of ISIS prisoners. As United States Central Command’s (CENTCOM) 2022 annual review assessed, “There is a literal ‘ISIS army’ in detention in Iraq and Syria. There are, today, more than 10,000 ISIS leaders and fighters in detention facilities throughout Syria and more than 20,000 ISIS leaders and fighters in detention facilities in Iraq.”[xiv] To address this vulnerability, the DOD requested an additional $41 million in April 2022 to strengthen its partner forces and maintain security in territories where ISIS was prevalent.[xv] However, more will need to be done. In December of 2022, ISIS fighters launched an attack on a prison complex in Raqqa, attempting to free hundreds of militants detained there, before they were repulsed.[xvi] Then, following the earthquake that devastated Syria and southern Turkey in February 2023, at least 20 ISIS fighters escaped a prison in northwest Syria during a mutiny.[xvii] Prison breakouts by militants and ISIS reconstitution pose a distinct threat to regional security in 2023.

Exploiting Local Tensions

Rising tensions between US local partner forces and civilians may also create security gaps that ISIS could exploit in 2023. Locals in SDF territory have protested against SDF control over the past few years, with unrest continuing into 2023. Following the SDF’s defeat of the last ISIS stronghold in 2019, Arab tribesmen in Syria’s Arab-majority Deir el-Zour province protested to demand better services, jobs and access to local decision-makers.[xviii] In 2020, these protests escalated as a result of continued lack of services and reports of arbitrary arrests of civilians. Locals further complained that the SDF was operating a system of patronage that ensured the best jobs went to those associated with the militia.

Anti-SDF protests spread across North-Eastern Syria in 2021 over compulsory conscription and accusations of discrimination.[xix] At least eight protesters were reportedly killed in the city of Manbij. Protests began again in March and April 2022 in Deir el-Zour, with protesters demanding improved living conditions. Similar protests erupted in October following an SDF ban on students wearing the niqab.[xx]

Unrest has continued into 2023 because the SDF has remained uncooperative in addressing local issues. On 22 January, residents in Raqqa gathered and demanded “retribution” for the death of a woman and her child after an SDF member admitted to murdering them.[xxi] These protests came days before the SDF launched “Operation Retaliation for Raqqa Martyrs” to destroy remaining ISIS cells in the city. One demonstrator told reporters that “The demands of the people of Raqqa do not stop at punishing a criminal only, but also to ease the [SDF] security grip, deal with rampant corruption in the administration, and to stop the marginalisation of locals.”[xxii] According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, SDF authorities in Al-Hasakah Province have enforced power rationing which has further infuriated civilians. Some have speculated that the policy is a deliberate punishment as other regions have not been subjected to such rationing.[xxiii]

The ability of the SDF to remain a reliable partner in combatting an increased ISIS threat in 2023 will greatly depend on how it addresses local grievances.

The SDF has been a crucial partner to American counter-ISIS efforts in the region. In January 2023 the SDF initiated Operation Al-Jazeera Thunderbolt, which resulted in the capture of over 100 ISIS operatives.[xxiv] However, the ability of the SDF to remain a reliable partner in combatting an increased ISIS threat in 2023 will greatly depend on how it addresses local grievances. As the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence warned in its annual threat assessment, “In Iraq and Syria, ISIS probably will prioritize attacks on local military and civilian targets to erode its opponents’ will to fight, maintain relevance among members and supporters, and stoke religious and ethnosectarian tensions.”[xxv] Should relations between the SDF and locals continue to deteriorate, such security gaps could be seized upon by ISIS militants to rebuild their forces and offensive capabilities.

A Turkish Invasion?

The threat of a Turkish invasion of Kurdish territories in Syria presents a serious risk in terms of the possible escalation of ISIS activities in the region. In 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan authorised an incursion into Kurdish-held territory in Syria, displacing an estimated 300,000 Kurds and destroying critical civilian infrastructure.[xxvi] Looking towards 2023, Erdogan has stated his intention of a ground invasion of Syria following Turkey’s barrage of strikes against targets in Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq.[xxvii] The strikes nearly hit a prison in the Syrian city of Qamishli, which contains around 500 ISIS inmates, while another hit close to the al-Hol camp which houses an estimated 60,000 ISIS family members among its large refugee population.[xxviii] Erdogan told Turkish lawmakers last November that the strikes were “just the beginning.”[xxix]

An invasion in 2023 would overwhelm Kurdish defences, forcing the SDF to divert its attention away from anti-ISIS operations and towards fighting Turkish forces. In a November 2022 interview, SDF commander Gen. Mazloum Abdi stated that “We can say that our work against [the Islamic State] with the international coalition has stopped, because we are preoccupied with the Turkish attacks.” He added that although security forces control the Al-Hol camp, “that could change if these attacks continued, and the detainees could disperse in the area.”[xxx]

If a Turkish invasion does occur in 2023, it will provide ISIS with an opportunity to rebuild its strength.

A chorus of US officials has also noted the danger posed by Turkish military action in Syria. Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder warned in November 2022 that “Immediate de-escalation is necessary in order to maintain focus on the defeat-ISIS mission and ensure the safety and security of personnel on the ground committed to the defeat-ISIS mission.”[xxxi] US CENTCOM Spokesperson Col. Joe Buccino stated that Turkish “actions threaten our shared goals, including the continued fight against ISIS to ensure the group can never resurge and threaten the region.”[xxxii] In a press briefing on 18 January, US Department of State Spokesperson Ned Price similarly warned that any Turkish military action has “the potential to set back the tremendous progress that the international community has achieved in the effort to counter ISIS.”[xxxiii] Already, locals in the northern province of Al-Hasakah have fled border towns in anticipation of a new Turkish offensive.[xxxiv] If a Turkish invasion does occur in 2023, it will provide ISIS with an opportunity to rebuild its strength by staging further prison breaks and taking advantage of the geopolitical chaos to conduct attacks in the region.

Lack of Coordination in Iraq

ISIS also continues to demonstrate its willingness to carry out attacks in Iraq, especially against the country’s minority populations. In the disputed governorates of Saladin and Diyala, a region controlled by Iraqi forces, Peshmerga forces announced the discovery of a smuggling corridor,[xxxv] which ISIS fighters were using to turn Iraq’s western Nineveh Province into a “logistical theatre” for staging operations.[xxxvi] Despite the presence of the Iraqi Army, Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Yazidi Sinjar Resistance Units and Peshmerga across these territories, their competition for influence and lack of coordination impedes their ability to effectively focus on the ISIS threat. Noting the security situation, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mohammed al-Sudani expressed his support for the continued presence of American forces in the country, stating that the “Elimination of ISIS needs some more time.”[xxxvii]

Kirkuk presents a significant security challenge in Iraq: control over the region is disputed between the Iraqi Federal Government and Kurdish Regional Government.

In 2022, Iraqi Joint Operations Command deployed additional forces in Kirkuk Province as attacks and fears of sectarian conflict increased. Kirkuk presents a significant security challenge in Iraq: control over the region is disputed between the Iraqi Federal Government and Kurdish Regional Government and is the primary “operational theatre” for ISIS.[xxxviii] ISIS sleeper cells remain active in this region, carrying out attacks against Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens. Tensions between Arabs and ethnic minorities have declined since ISIS was defeated in Iraq in 2017, however, they continue to take advantage of the distrust between ethnic groups. For example, in 2017 a group of Yazidi fighters kidnapped and killed 52 members of an Arab tribe who the fighters believed to be ISIS sympathisers.[xxxix] Such negative sentiments remain, with some Yazidis believing 90% of local Arabs to be ISIS members or supporters.[xl] The risk of inflaming sectarian tensions was stressed in 2022 by the mayor of a southern Kirkuk town who stated that “some people wanted to take advantage of [ISIS attacks] to accuse the Arabs of being behind the targeting of Turkmen, which is a false accusation and to provoke sectarian conflict.”[xli] Kirkuk Province has already witnessed several attacks in 2023, with police forces targeted and killed throughout January.[xlii] The ongoing ISIS threat to minorities was highlighted on 25 January 2023, when Iraqi Federal Police disrupted a suicide bombing plot in Nineveh Province.[xliii]

An ISIS Resurgence?

While Covid-19 lockdown restrictions in Iraq and Syria led to a decrease in attacks during 2022,[xliv] ISIS is now poised to launch increasingly complex attacks throughout Iraq and Syria. Despite continued offensives by SDF and Iraqi forces, the number of ISIS attacks increased in the first months of 2023, as ISIS took advantage of security gaps and began to rebuild lost combat capacity. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, ISIS had already carried out 14 operations in SDF territory by mid-January.[xlv] Kurdish police Brigadier General Ali Hassan stated that ISIS has “switched up its strategy, moving away from individual attacks to launch collective assaults,” particularly on prison facilities.[xlvi] The warnings from US Defence Department officials of a resurgence of ISIS in 2023 come amid analysts’ warnings that the situation in Syria and Iraq is being strategically neglected. The ability for ISIS to further grow in the region will significantly depend upon the coalition’s approach. In January 2023, the US and Turkey announced sanctions disrupting ISIS financial networks.[xlvii] Though this will help, tactical victories and counter-ISIS operations will only succeed by addressing deeper political issues such as easing tensions between partner forces, rooting out corruption, and strengthening local governing capacity.

[i] Elizabeth Dent, “US Policy and the Resurgence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria”, Middle East Institute, 12 October 2020,
[ii] “Twenty-eighth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations Security Council, 21 July 2021,
[iii] “Sixteenth report of the Secretary-General on the threat posed by ISIL (Da’esh) to international peace and security and the range of United Nations efforts in support of Member States in countering the threat”, United Nations Security Council, 1 February 2023,
[iv] Louisa Loveluck, “How the Islamic State used bullying and bribes to rebuild in Syria,” 24 February 2022,
[v] “CENTCOM – YEAR IN REVIEW 2022: THE FIGHT AGAINST ISIS,” U.S. Central Command, 29 December 2022,
[vi] “ISIS Leader Killed in U.S. Raid in Syria,” Wilson Center, 4 February 2022,
[vii] Cole Bunzel, “Explainer: The Jihadi Threat in 2022,” Wilson Center, 24 December 2022,
[viii] Oded Berkowitz (@Oded121351), Twitter, 20 December 2022,
[ix] Oded Berkowitz (@Oded121351), Twitter, 19 January 2023,
[x] Mona Thakkar (@meliniya34_), Twitter, 16 December 2022,
[xi] Deniele Garofalo (@G88Daniele), Twitter, 6 December 2022,
[xii] Mobilisingnigerians™ (@mobilisingniger), Twitter, 1 December 2022.
[xiii] Office of the Secretary of Defense, “COUNTER-ISLAMIC STATE OF IRAQ AND SYRIA (ISIS) TRAIN AND EQUIP FUND (CTEF),” Department of Defense, April 2022.
[xiv] “CENTCOM – YEAR IN REVIEW 2022: THE FIGHT AGAINST ISIS,” U.S. Central Command, 29 December 2022,
[xv] Office of the Secretary of Defense, “COUNTER-ISLAMIC STATE OF IRAQ AND SYRIA (ISIS) TRAIN AND EQUIP FUND (CTEF),” Department of Defense, April 2022,
[xvi] “ISIS continues attacks on Kurdish-held prisons in Syria,” i24 News, 2 February 2023,
[xvii] “At Least 20 Escape ISIS Prison Following Syria Earthquake,” The National News, 7 February 2023,[xviii] Bassem Mroue, “Anti-Kurdish protests in east Syria could endanger US plans,” Associated Press, 9 May 2019,
[xix] Suleiman al-Khalidi, “Eight killed in protests against Kurdish-led forces in northern Syrian city,” Reuters, 1 June 2021,
[xx] “Renewed protests in SDF-held areas | Protestors call for improving living conditions west of Deir Ezzor,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 24 April 2022,
[xxi] Al-Mayadeen, “تظاهرات ضد “قسد” في الرقة بعد مقتل إمرأة حامل وطفلتها على يد عصابة,” (Demonstrations against the “SDF” in Raqqa, after a pregnant woman and her baby were killed by a gang) 23 February 2023,تظاهراتضدقسدفيالرقةبعدمقتلإمرأةحاملوطفلتهاعلىيدع.[xxii] Amin Al-Asi, “غضبة شعبية في الرقة السورية ضد قوات “قسد,” (Popular anger in the Syrian city of Raqqa against the SDF forces) al-Araby, January 23 2023,غضبةشعبيةفيالرقةالسوريةضدقواتقسد.
[xxiii] “Escalating crisis in SDF-held areas | Power rationing badly affects many aspects and deepens civilians suffering in Al-Hasakah,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 27 January 2023,
[xxiv] Wladimir van Wilgenburg, “SDF arrests 154 ISIS terrorists during an eight day campaign,” Kurdistan 24, 17 January 2023,
[xxv] “Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community,” Office of the Directorate of National Intelligence, February 2022,
[xxvi] “Turkey assault in NE Syria displaced 300,000: monitor,” France24, 17 October 2019,
[xxvii] Hogir al-Abdo and Abby Sewell, “Erdogan vows ground invasion of Syria, Kurds prepare response”, PBS, 23 November 2022,
[xxviii] Lara Seligman, “Commander of Syrian Kurds calls on Biden to prevent Turkish invasion,” Politico, 23 November 2022,
[xxix] “Turkey’s Erdogan says Syrian airstrikes just ‘the beginning’”, DW, 23 November 2022,
[xxx] Al-Abdo and Sewell, “Erdogan vows ground invasion.”
[xxxi] Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, “DOD Statement on Escalating Actions in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey,” US Department of Defense, 23 November 2022,
[xxxii] Seligman, Commander of Syrian Kurds calls on Biden.
[xxxiii] Ned Price, “Department Press Briefing – January 18, 2023”, US Department of State, 18 January 2023,
[xxxiv] “New Wave of Displacement in Hassakeh After Turkish Occupation Escalated Threats,” The Syrian Observer, 13 July 2022.
[xxxv] “Peshmerga finds a “dangerous” corridor used by ISIS between two Iraqi governorates,” Shafaq News, 30 January 2023,
[xxxvi] Sixteenth report of the Secretary-General on the threat posed by ISIL. United Nations Security Council.
[xxxvii] David Cloud, “Iraqi Prime Minister Supports Indefinite U.S. Troop Presence,” The Wall Street Journal, 15 January 2023,
[xxxviii] Sixteenth report of the Secretary-General on the threat posed by ISIL. United Nations Security Council.
[xxxix] “Iraqi Yazidis Accused of Abducting, Killing Civilians,” Al-Jazeera, 28 December 2017,
[xl] Rania Abouzeid, “When the Weapons Fall Silent: Reconciliation in Sinjar after ISIS,” 30 October 2018, ECFR,
[xli] Yousif Ali, “Concerns of sectarian conflict post ISIS offensives,” KirkukNow, 26 May 2022,
[xlii] “Spotlight on Global Jihad (January 19-25, 2023),” Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, 26 January 2023,
[xliii] “Iraq’s federal intelligence agency thwarts an ISIS plot targeting a court in Nineveh,” Shafaq News, 25 January 2023,
[xliv] Mike Cummings, “Terror under lockdown: Pandemic restrictions reduce ISIS violence,” Yale News, 30 January 2023,
[xlv] “ISIS attacks since early 2023 | 25 people, mostly combatants, killed and injured in over 14 operations in SDF-held areas,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 15 January 2023.
[xlvi] “Syrians fear IS resurgence as Kurdish-led forces sweep Raqa,” Kurdistan24, 1 February 2023,
[xlvii] Ned Price, “The United States and Türkiye Take Joint Action to Disrupt ISIS Financing,” US Department of State, 5 January 2023,

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