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Will the Ukraine war benefit the IS group?

May 17, 2022

The terrorist group has said it will take advantage of the fact that the West is distracted by war in Ukraine. But any advantage it will get from the war likely has less to do with terrorism, and more with economics.

An Afghan civil society activist lights candles to pray for the victims of the 13 November Paris attacks
The IS group carried out the 2015 attack on Paris' Bataclan theater, killing 90 and wounding hundredsImage: Jawad Jalali/dpa/picture alliance

In the middle of last month, the extremist group known as the "Islamic State" issued a threat. The group announced "a blessed campaign to take revenge" after their leader was killed in a US military raid in Syria in February.

At the same time, the extremist group, which controlled around a third of Syria and Iraq at the height of its powers, also called on supporters to take advantage of opportunities presented by the war in Ukraine. While "infidel" Western nations were preoccupied, "Islamic State" supporters could attack, the message suggested.

Meanwhile, a magazine openly supporting al-Qaeda — another similar extremist organization that the IS group distanced itself from in 2013 — proposed that its supporters somehow get hold of weapons being handed out to civilians in Ukraine, then use them against Europeans.

As yet the idea of launching terrorist attacks while the West is distracted by Ukraine does not appear to have caught on in Europe. The IS group has around a dozen affiliate groups in different regions, from Africa to Asia, and most of the violence attributable to it is currently being perpetuated in Africa.

But there is another way that war in Ukraine might benefit IS, al-Qaeda and potentially even other extremist organizations, experts have said.

Exploiting social unrest

Extremists will try to exploit "a new wave of social unrest resulting from the high cost of living in societies severely affected by the [COVID-19] pandemic and then the repercussions of the crisis in Ukraine," Ezzat Ibrahim Youssef, editor-in-chief of Egyptian weekly, Al Ahram, warned recently in a report for the Abu Dhabi think tank, Trends Research.

During this month's Morocco meeting of the international coalition to combat the IS group, the head of the 22-nation Arab League issued a similar alert. The consequences of the war and climate change could be exploited by groups like IS, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, a veteran Egyptian diplomat, cautioned.

Basically, the repercussions of the war in Europe are adding another layer of difficulty in countries with preexisting crises. Grain shortages, rising petrol and food prices, inflation and the fact that some aid organizations are now more focused on Ukraine are among the extra problems that countries like Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen must deal with.

Lebanese depositors hold placards as they march during a protest, in downtown Beirut, Lebanon
Lebanon is experiencing one of the world's worst financial crisesImage: Hussein Malla/AP Photo/picture alliance

It is quite possible that, as the Ukraine war goes on, things will only get worse in countries already grappling with instability. This is where the so-called "Islamic State" group may benefit. Economic problems and political turmoil could mean that more locals in those countries see joining an extremist group like IS as a viable option.

No job, no social standing

Back in 2015, Tunisians already made up the highest number of foreign fighters joining IS, then at the peak of its powers and attracting people from all around the world to join it.

According to global security consultancy Soufan Group, there were 6,000 Tunisians in the IS that year, compared with 2,500 Russians, 2,400 Saudi Arabians, 1,700 French and 760 Germans, among many other nationalities.

There are a wide range of reasons why so many foreigners joined the "Islamic State" back then. For instance, for many coming to Iraq and Syria from Europe, the marginalization of Muslims back home made the idea of an actual Islamic state attractive. But later, interviews with captured fighters from nearby countries suggested that money was also a significant factor.

Demonstrators gather during a protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied in Tunis, Tunisia
Tunisia is dealing with a political and economic crisis caused by the pandemic and the Ukraine war Image: Hassene Dridi/AP Photo/picture alliance

"The issues in Tunisia that led so many young men to join IS were economic in nature," explained Anne Speckhard, director of the US-based International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, or ICSVE, who has interviewed former IS fighters.

Many of the young Tunisian men had no money or jobs and were unable to marry or leave the family home while "the IS group was offering paid jobs, free housing and wives to marry as well as sex slaves," Speckhard told DW. 

Anger and hopelessness

There's already some indications that the IS is exploiting current economic issues in the Middle East in a similar way today. Recent reports from the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli discussed how over 40 young men had "disappeared" earlier this year.

Families only found out where they were when they heard that some of the men had been killed at IS training camps in the Iraqi desert. Lebanon is dealing with a crippling economic crisis, and local officials told journalists the IS group offered pay of over $500 (around €480) a month.

Similar stories have come from the IS group's anti-Taliban offshoot in Afghanistan, known as ISIS-Khorasan, which is reported to be offering unemployed locals in low-income border districts between $270 (€260) and $450 (€430) a month to join.

Aerial picture of the attack on Kabul airport
The Afghan wing of IS said it attacked Kabul airport last year, killing over 180 people Image: Department of Defense/AP Photo/picture alliance

"The IS group is still giving vulnerable people financial incentives to join," ICSVE director Speckhard argued. "While the terrorist call may not resonate with deeply impoverished people struggling for basic daily survival, those who have higher education, or food but not jobs, can be angered into joining terrorist groups that they come to believe will govern more justly."

Speckhard referred to the recent mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, where an American teenager killed 10 shoppers in a supermarket. "While white supremacists are not offering jobs, they are offering someone to blame for failures in life, including failures to make it economically," said the psychiatry professor. The IS group uses similar tactics and in both situations, Speckhard said, "economic stressors can fuel recruitment."

Issues like unemployment and rising prices, alongside political issues and pandemic isolation, all "play into a feeling of despair and anger and wish to shift blame to some clear cause," said Speckhard.

Funeral ceremony held for Soleman Ali Soleman who was among the soldiers killed in a militant attack on a water pumping station east of the Suez Canal.
Egyptians mourned soldiers killed in an IS attack earlier this monthImage: Mohamed Abdel Hamid/AA/picture alliance

A long-term strategy

Political instability and power vacuums, which often arise thanks to economic problems, have also been exploited by the IS group in the past.

It will take some time to know whether extremists will benefit from the Ukraine war, added Charlie Winter, an expert on the IS group and research director at ExTrac in the United Kingdom, which uses artificial intelligence for security analysis.

"There may be some second- or third-order impacts further down the line because of the Ukraine war," he told DW. "But it's difficult to draw a direct link between that and the IS group's capabilities, or its ability to mobilize new supporters."

 An Iraqi police man stands at the remains of the Al-Nuri mosque, where the Islamic State caliphate was proclaimed, in the old city of Mosul, Iraq
In Iraq, the northern city of Mosul was heavily damaged as troops tried to drive the IS group outImage: Oliver Weiken/dpa/picture alliance

Winter, also an associate fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism based in the Netherlands, said when the COVID-19 health crisis began, the IS group made very similar comments, saying the pandemic would drain adversaries' resources, divert security spending and provide opportunities for extremists. But they saw this as a long-term plan, the expert explained.

"Things getting worse socially and economically or in terms of general security in places where the IS group already has established networks could serve its purposes," Winter cautioned.

But a number of things would prevent things going much beyond that. For one thing, the IS group is far smaller now, has fewer resources and fighters. For another, it doesn't have a territorial "caliphate" (a major draw in the past) anymore, and ground it does hold in Africa is far harder to get to, Winter said.

Additionally, the IS group "has shown its true un-Islamic and corrupt nature to many who would no longer be fooled," Speckhard noted.

"Worst case scenario is that this [the Ukraine war] possibly makes a few more people more inclined to become adherents," Winter concluded. "But I think we'd be very, very unlikely to see a mobilization on anything like the scale that we saw in bygone years."

Week of deadly violence in Afghanistan

Edited by: Andreas Illmer

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