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Where is ISIS today?


When a huge suicide bombing killed dozens of people in Pakistan last weekend, a terrorist group that seemed to have been defeated said it was responsible for the attack - the Islamic State, also known as IS or ISIS. That got us wondering, how serious a threat is the Islamic State today? We're going to put that question to Mina Al-Lami. She's a specialist in jihadist media with BBC Monitoring. Mina, welcome to the program.


PFEIFFER: Mina, as recently as a few years ago, the Islamic State controlled a lot of territory in Iraq and Syria. It was considered defeated in 2019, but that doesn't mean it's disappeared. In what form does the Islamic State exist today?

AL-LAMI: Absolutely. I mean, IS attacks and activity around the world have significantly dropped. It is definitely a shadow of its former self. But the group has never gone away, and even though it doesn't make headlines, we know that ISIS still active in the Middle East and Africa and Afghanistan and Pakistan. The attacks that it carries out don't, again, always make headlines because they are limited, but it is always there. The militants - its fighters are always there carrying out small attacks, trying to infiltrate certain communities. And, you know, the numbers are down, and some of its leaders are dead, but the group is still a threat.

PFEIFFER: You mentioned that there's a presence in various countries - countries in Africa, Afghanistan, Pakistan. How strong is the communication and coordination among the different Islamic State groups around the world?

AL-LAMI: Well, IS claims to be a global caliphate, you know, despite losing its territories and everything. But it likes to project this idea that it has these global branches far-flung in various parts of the world - in Nigeria, in DR Congo, in Mozambique, in the Sahel - as well as in Afghanistan and all these countries. It usually concentrates its activity on - in rural areas where it knows that there is perhaps weaker government authority in some of these countries. And it's not like, of course, IS just went there, took the banner and set up a new group in Nigeria or in DRC. What it has been doing is simply co-opting existing Islamist insurgencies and then getting them to rebrand as IS or ISIS. And it's a win-win for both groups. On the one hand, these local insurgencies get to have that reputation of being part of IS or a global caliphate. With - for IS, even if this group is small, it gives them that ability to say we have a global caliphate that extends from east to west, north to south. So it's been this partnership where both groups are benefiting.

PFEIFFER: Just this week IS announced a new leader after its former leader was killed by rival militants in Syria. What does that indicate to you, if anything?

AL-LAMI: Indeed. I mean, this was the big story yesterday, and there had been rumors already that the IS leader was killed. The group clearly has been hiding it. We've had this kind of churning of IS leaders. And the other thing is, of course, you know, since the - its founding so-called caliph Baghdadi, IS has not been revealing the true identity of these leaders. So it's now even a bit of a mockery within jihadist circles, really, because the group simply announces the alias of a leader. Some are even saying, well, do they even exist? Is it just a name? It is really a big blow to the morale of its followers who, it seems, every few months have to come out and pledge allegiance to a new utterly anonymous leader. It seems even their followers don't know who this person or who their leaders are. So it does impact the credibility of the group, at least in the eyes of their supporters.

PFEIFFER: So there is obviously a continuing threat of Islamic State. How adequately do you think governments and countries worldwide are treating that threat?

AL-LAMI: I think the danger is sometimes - I mean, the assumption is that - OK, so IS has lost its bases in Iraq and Syria, lost its so-called caliphate. That threat is if not completely, you know, over, then it has been diminished to large extent. And I think the danger in that is that these jihadist groups take advantage of what they see as, you know, the West's preoccupation with other matters. There are, you know, lots of concerns around the world. There's Russia, China, Iran, Ukraine. So while the West is looking away, jihadis are really rubbing their hands and looking at this as an opportunity.

PFEIFFER: They see a distracted world as an opportunity.

AL-LAMI: Exactly. And they look at, for example, the French withdrawal from Mali, and they see that as an opportunity as well. Of course, they take advantage of the Russian Wagner personnel being there and all the negative reports in the media. And they say to Muslims there, see; we are here to protect you against these mercenaries. So, of course, they're really trying to build up their strength in the Sahel and other countries where the West is seen as, you know, withdrawing.

PFEIFFER: That's Mina Al-Lami. She is a specialist in jihadist media with BBC Monitoring. Thanks, Mina.

AL-LAMI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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