Summary of ISIS Activity around the Globe in 2021

Summary of ISIS Activity around the Globe in 2021
  • The summary of ISIS activity in 2021, based on its claims of responsibility, shows that in 2021 the scope of ISIS terrorist activity around the globe continued in a format similar to that of 2020. In 2021, ISIS operatives carried out 2,705 terrorist acts around the globe, compared to 2,718 in 2020. The height of the attacks was in April-May 2021, during the month of Ramadan. As in 2020, in 2021 ISIS’s Iraq Province was the leader in terms of the number of terrorist acts that it carried out. At the same time, the relative share of the Khorasan Province (Afghanistan) out of all the attacks increased significantly, in the wake of the US pullout. This year as well, there were no significant ISIS-inspired attacks in the West (a phenomenon that has continued for several years) and the counterterrorism activity has taken a toll on ISIS in virtually every arena, and in the Sinai Peninsula in particular. Concurrently with a slight decrease in the number of attacks, in 2021 there was a decrease in the number of casualties, which continues to be high. In 2021, a total of 8,147 people were killed or wounded in ISIS attacks, compared to 9,068 people in 2020. The greatest number of casualties were in the provinces of Afghanistan (Khorasan, according to ISIS), Iraq and West Africa. The suicide bombing attacks in Afghanistan in August and October 2021 significantly increased the number of casualties.
  • The Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC) has gathered information about ISIS activity around the globe over the past year, based on its claims of responsibility published in its media, and in Al-Naba’ weekly in particular. Some of the incidents have been verified with reports from local sources. It is possible that the actual number of terrorist acts carried out by ISIS is higher, because it did not issue a claim of responsibility for some of the attacks or because communication problems prevented the information about them from reaching its main media center, which is responsible for the reports. The figures for 2020 on which the ITIC relied are based on data published by ISIS during the year as compiled by Tore Hamming (a social and political researcher at the European University Institute in Venice)[1].
Attacks for which ISIS claimed responsibility in 2021 by week
Attacks for which ISIS claimed responsibility in 2021 by week
Number of casualties by week
Number of casualties by week
  • Some salient features of ISIS terrorist activity in 2021:
  • Rise in the importance of the Khorasan Province (Afghanistan): In 2021, the Khorasan Province became one of ISIS’s most dominant and active provinces. During the year, the Khorasan Province carried out 365 terrorist attacks resulting in 2,210 casualties (compared to 2020, when the province carried out 82 attacks resulting in 835 casualties). The increase in ISIS activity in Afghanistan (especially in the second half of the year) came in the wake of the pullout of US forces from the country, the disintegration of the old regime and the takeover of the country by the Taliban movement.
  • Change in the areas of activity: Although there was no significant change in the number of terrorist attacks, there were changes in ISIS’s areas of activity during 2021. In some provinces, there was a significant decrease in activity compared to the previous year (for example, Iraq, Syria, the Sinai Peninsula and East Asia) while in others there was an increase in activity. For example, the Khorasan Province and ISIS’s provinces in Africa, where most of the activity is carried out by semi-autonomous local organizations that have pledged allegiance to ISIS and operate on its behalf.
  • Spillover of activity to additional regions: Although ISIS did not report the creation of any new provinces in 2021 and no significant groups pledged allegiance to its leader, this year ISIS’s attempt to expand its activity to additional regions bordering the provinces where it operates is clearly evident. For example, during the year, the Khorasan Province expanded its activity to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. This does not appear to have been coordinated with ISIS’s Pakistan Province, which is active mainly in the Kashmir region. Such a spillover was also detected in Africa, with the first terrorist attacks carried out in Uganda.
  • Characteristics of the terrorist activity: In Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, most of ISIS’s terrorist activity took the form of targeted killings and the activation of IEDs by small squads equipped with small and medium-sized weapons. In a significant number of terrorist attacks, ISIS operatives demonstrated relatively high operational capability, carrying out more complex operations, which also included attacking aid forces that arrived at the scenes of the attack, by firing at them or by planting IEDs ahead of time and activating them upon the arrival of the aid forces. In Afghanistan and Iraq (mainly in the capital Baghdad), there was a decrease of about 40% in the number of suicide bombing attacks during the year. A total of 23 attacks were carried out, compared to 36 in 2020[2]. The suicide bombing attacks claimed many lives. However, they were not as frequent as in the past. Terrorist acts in Africa were characterized by most of the attacks being on a larger scale compared to the other provinces, and often involving many dozens of operatives. The targets of the attacks were mainly army camps and posts of local militias supporting the local armies. Another characteristic target of ISIS’s attacks in Africa were villages and towns inhabited by Christians.
  • Terrorist activity as part of the economic war: During 2021, ISIS intensified what it calls the economic war, which was designed to harm both the economic infrastructure of the various countries and the morale of the residents, by highlighting the helplessness of the local governments. ISIS’s economic war is concentrated mainly in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Nigeria, with one recent incident in the Philippines. The economic war includes attacks on communications lines, high-voltage pylons, oil wells and gas infrastructure. The economic war also included setting fire to agricultural crops and public or private property belonging to government officials, apparatuses and supporters. The economic war harms the country’s economic infrastructure and sometimes showcases the government’s helplessness. Therefore, it appears that ISIS’s economic war will continue.
  • ISIS activity in the West: In 2021, just two ISIS-inspired attacks were carried out in the West. Both were small-scale relative to the past. This could indicate a continuation and even an improvement in the countermeasures of the security forces in Western countries, as is reflected in an ongoing drop in the number of attacks by ISIS since 2015-2016, the peak years in which ISIS and ISIS-inspired elements managed to carry out deadly showcase attacks in the West. There may also be a decrease in ISIS’s recruitment ability and also a decrease in the motivation to respond to its calls to carry out attacks. However, it should be borne in mind that the potential for terrorist attacks in the West is still high.
  • ISIS’s recruitment system in 2021: There is little information about the organization’s recruitment system, but in light of many arrests of operatives around the world, especially in Turkey, East Asia and the West, its recruitment activity appears to have continued steadily in 2021 as well. However, it is unclear whether this activity was as successful as in previous years, since ISIS is apparently having more difficulty recruiting operatives than in the past. This is reflected in the fact that ISIS did not establish any new branches this year and suffered defeats in some of its existing branches.
  • ISIS’s media network continued to operate in 2021, but there were signs of attrition. The network continued to produce and distribute ISIS’s Al-Naba’ magazine on a weekly basis. Both the Amaq media arm and the Al-Furqan Media Foundation, the video and audio production arm of ISIS’s senior officials, continued to operate, albeit in a more limited format than in the past. The distribution of materials by ISIS’s media system on social media continues as before, especially on Telegram. Nevertheless, during the year it was apparent that there were problems in conveying information between the provinces and ISIS’s main media network, which is apparently based in Syria or Iraq. This was reflected in delays in publishing announcements (mainly on incidents in East Asia) or failing to publish information on some of the attacks carried out by ISIS (for example, in the Syrian desert region). The fact that ISIS’s main media network did not launch any new publications and seldom released videos could also indicate that it is in difficulties.

It can be estimated that Afghanistan and African countries will continue to be the epicenter of ISIS’s activity in the near future. ISIS will apparently continue to attempt to take advantage of the relative weakness of local governments in these countries, in order to expand and deepen its presence. Its operatives may also attempt to expand their activity (if possible) to other countries in Africa, and to Pakistan and India. In Syria and Iraq, there have been signs of ISIS’s erosion this year, in light of intensive activity by local regimes and international actors, but ISIS appears to be maintaining significant capability to operate in these countries. Moreover, the declining US military presence there makes it easier for ISIS to continue operating.

[1] ↑
[2] 2020 data according to INSS researchers Yoram Schweitzer and Aviad Mandelbaum.