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ISIS terrorist operations in 2020 are likely to continue at a similar pace and with similar effectiveness despite the loss of leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a 26 October US raid. The group probably will transition to its new leader relatively smoothly because Abdullah Qardash—who three months ago began running day-to-day ISIS operations to allow al-Baghdadi to focus on building religious fervor in the organization, according to an August statement from the ISIS press agency Amaq—almost certainly will continue managing ISIS operations.

A mugshot of deceased ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi from 2004 when he was detained in Iraq by US armed forces.
(Source: US Armed Forces)

  • Qardash worked closely with al-Baghdadi, was al-Baghdadi’s chief policy maker, and is popular with the ISIS rank-and-file, according to the Daily Mail. Qardash is a former officer in Saddam Huessein’s military and is nicknamed the “The Destroyer” because of his cruel reputation.
  • Former leader Baghdadi before his death was only a figurehead who said yes or no, but he was not involved in operations or day-to-day activities, according to a regional intelligence officer cited in Newsweek.
  • Al Qaeda re-activated operations approximately 4 months after Osama Bin Laden’s death in 2011, according to Baghdad-based specialist on extremist movements.

ISIS in 2020 is likely to face a more permissive operational environment in Syria. As US troops withdraw from Syria, private security contractors like STAM will be needed to fill the void. Governments will need to carefully select military contractors, however, because contractors have a reputation of being strong during kinetic fighting operations but weaker on peacekeeping and hearts-and-minds missions, according to analysis of multiple reports by the Brookings Institute and the New York Times.

  • ISIS as of late June was resurging in Syria after the US decision to withdraw about half of its troops from Syria, according to a US Pentagon inspector general report.
  • The commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, the top western ally against ISIS in Syria, in early September warned that ISIS was resurging in Syria as a result of the US withdrawal and asked for increased support, according to a CNN report.
  • ISIS as of late June maintained eight official branches and more than 24 networks regularly conducting terrorist and insurgent operations across Africa, Asia, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, according to the US National Strategy for Counterterrorism.

ISIS terrorist operations probably will continue until the hearts and minds of people are won. STAM is the only major private military contractor that combines the operational efficiency of the US/UK approach with the uniquely Italian method of connecting with locals on-the-ground to gain their support. Such an approach will be vital to significantly reduce ISIS’s ability to conduct terrorist attacks.

  • Most ISIS provinces build on pre-existing conflicts in an area with sectarian, ethnic, and religious differences, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, Ansar Bayt al Maqdis in the Sinai, and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, according to former FBI counterterrorism specialist Ali Soufan cited in The New Yorker.
  • Military forces can achieve the most meaningful success against insurgents by gaining public support, often in operations that do not involve killing insurgents, according to the US Army Counterinsurgency Manual. Gaining public support isolates insurgents and eliminates the save havens needed to plan and conduct insurgent operations.

Scott Schlimmer is a former CIA officer who received a National Intelligence Award for his work on counter-terrorism, and is currently Partner and Director of Intelligence at STAM Strategic & Partners Group.

Video footage of the raid: NBC News on Youtube